Following up on the success of his other “H” movies, Paul Newman made Harper in 1966, having requested the name be changed from “The Moving Target” to draw on the box office luck he realized with Hud and The Hustler. The story harkens back to the private eye tales of the 40s, and producers scored Lauren Bacall in a supporting role to cinch that motif.
Newman is Lew Harper, a private eye living out of his office because his wife (Janet Leigh) is in the process of divorcing him. His friend and former DA Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) recommends him for a job with Bacall’s Mrs. Sampson, who wants him to investigate the disappearance of her philandering husband. The wealthy woman has an attractive step daughter –whom Graves wants to marry– also very keen on locating her father. This Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) joins Harper and the Sampson pilot/driver Alan Taggert (Robert Wagner) in scoping out the subject’s last known whereabouts –an airport and hotel where Mr. Sampson keeps a “bungalow.”
Harper meets washed up actress and sometimes companion to Mr. Sampson, Fay Estabrook, played by Shelley Winters. He gets her drunk and searches her apartment only to be interrupted at gunpoint by Estabrook’s husband. Harper plays Texan and manages to leave without the man being wise to his real reason for being there.
Harper manages to pick up one clue or one sliver of information at each stop in his investigation that leads him to another place and another clue. The plot becomes increasingly convoluted as Harper concludes Mr. Sampson has been kidnapped and ransom sought. Julie Harris plays nightclub singer and heroin addict Betty Fraley, who has a link to another player that we won’t see coming. In fact, when all is said and done, you’ll be wishing William Powell would materialize to give us the end-of-movie run down of who did what and why.
The story at times felt like a scavenger hunt and one that could be easily recreated as a party game. Although Harper is adept at blending into his surroundings, he has perhaps too easy of a time getting information from people and it always manages to be helpful information that never leads to a dead end. How many times have we seen the matchbook in a dead guy’s pocket lead us to the nightclub where all the unsavory sorts mingle? Is that always going to be a foolproof clue into cinematic eternity? Harper is very much a tribute to the old crime movies of decades earlier, but it could perhaps have tried to mix things up.
Where the movie does distinguish itself from its predecessors is in the violence and sex appeal the 1960s could afford. Newman’s character finds himself regularly brutalized while Tiffin shakes her hips and Winters requests Harper not try anything tonight. It’s certainly a grittier drama made all the more modern by being shot in color rather than in the stark black and white we have become accustomed to in this genre.
Harper certainly isn’t Newman’s finest work, and I often get annoyed by mysteries that have too much going on to actually follow the plot. Harper is not a bad flick, though. It’s just not one I’ll likely watch again.
Filed under: Crime, Drama, Mystery | Tagged: Arthur Hill, Gasser, Jack Smight, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Lauren Bacall, Pamela Tifin, Paul Newman, Robert Wagner, Shelley Winters, William Powell | 1 Comment »