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Harper (1966)

Harper (1966)

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.



Alfie (1966)

     I knew nothing of 1966’s Alfie going into it other than Michael Caine was the lead. I was instantly, however, drawing comparisons to 1963’s Tom Jones. Both films are about young playboys — one from current times the other during the 18th century. Both movies paint a portrait of a man whose libido and good looks result in an endless line of lovers, but the differences between the two are stark.

     I found Tom Jones to be a fun movie about a man who just loves sex and women, whereas the Alfie character absolutely disrespects women every step of the way. Caine addresses the camera/audience during sidebars throughout the film (a fun device) and refers to women as “birds” and “it.” He carries on multiple relationships at once  and refuses to settle down even after fathering a child. Alfie remains in the boy’s (and woman’s) life for a number of years until the chick decides to marry a man who has loved her for even longer. Alfie bows out and makes references several times later in the movie about “a kid he once knew” and clearly has emotional misgivings about leaving the boy but never attempts to re-enter his son’s life.

     Whereas Tom Jones has the eating-has-never-been-more-erotic scene, Alfie has a disturbing abortion incident. Upon impregnating a married woman, the duo naturally turn to an abortion performed quietly at Alfie’s apartment. Our protagonist then leaves the woman after the abortion is induced and returns later to find her frail and warning him against entering the kitchen. The man gets upset to the point of tears, and although we do not see what he has discovered, he later tells a friend he did not expect to see a “perfectly formed being.”

     If the picture was not depressing up to this point, it certainly turns downhill and almost feels like a cautionary pro-life tale. Alfie is deservedly alone at the end of the film telling the camera that although he has had a good time bedding all these women, he does not have his peace of mind. I do not find “peace of mind” to be a particularly grand moral to the story. The TCM page for this movie describes the character as “refusing to grow up until tragedy strikes.” Although Caine’s character does go looking for a particular lover to settle down with, I am not convinced the man has grown an inch. His last interaction with a female is to try to entice a woman he stood up long ago to reconsider him for a meet-up.

     Whereas I found myself thoroughly liking Albert Finney‘s Tom Jones for having such a grand time in his adventures with women, Alfie is utterly pathetic by film’s end. I am not convinced the character has learned a lesson from his exploits or has any intention of changing. He might be depressed by but I am sure he will drown his sorrows in some woman’s bed.

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