Movies: The Tragic Vixen

February 21, 2008


A close cousin to the Femme Fatale, the Tragic Vixen isn’t motivated by the murderous pursuit of money, but travails after doomed love. Vixen’s, because they use their sexual prowess to attract their love interest, but tragic in that they rarely get what they’re hoping to achieve, often leaving themselves completely screwed, abandoned, or outright dead.

The Tragic Vixen shouldn’t be confused with the scorned woman turned psycho killer, like Evlyn (Jessica Walter in “Play Misty for Me”) or Alex Forest (Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction”). The Tragic Vixen may want revenge, but it doesn’t come in the form of murder, it comes in the form of psychological warfare.

Self-esteem and the Tragic Vixen simply don’t mix. They’re alcoholics, drug addicts, suicidal, and sexually deviant. But most of all they’re dreamers. They romanticize they’re eventual doom. They’re on a collision course with an ugly fate and they know it, even embrace it at times, gladly trading death with a shot at love, even if for a single night.

So here’s Grumpy Guy’s Cinematic Tragic Vixens Hall of Fame

Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie)
Dir. Robert Rossen
Starring: Paul Newman – Piper Laurie – George C. Scott – Jackie Gleason


“Perverted, twisted, crippled” That’s a harsh way for a girl to think of herself, but that’s exactly what Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) writes on a mirror after had having sex with Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) the villain of “The Hustler”. On one hand, Sarah is simply doing what Sarah does, getting drunk and getting laid. But her betrayal of her man Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) can also be described as a sacrifice. If she can take Bert down with her, then she can save Eddie, the man she loves, from becoming like Bert, an empty, corrupt, vessel — or become like her, as Bert so mercilessly puts it:

…you’re a wreck on a railroad track. You’re a horse that finished last.

Despite the great pool being shot, the skill, the gamesmanship, “The Hustler” is really about Sarah, as Fast Eddie makes clear to Bert in the films final showdown.

We really stuck the knife in her, didn’t we, Bert?

If it didn’t happen in Louisville, it’d happened someplace else. If it didn’t happen now, it’d happen six months from now. That’s the kinda dame she was.

And we twisted it, didn’t we, Bert?

Laurie’s performance is incredibly touching. Her Sarah aspires towards the arts, but has no real talent. She’s smart, but she drinks and has been partially disabled by polio. She goes to school, has her own place. She’s independent, but in constant danger of falling into a very dangerous and dark place. It’s a very thin line that separates Sarah from the safe, domestic ritual of the independent working woman, from the hustlers, pushers and pimps. She always only one drink away from them.

Sarah’s “sacrifice” forces Eddie to look in the mirror, just as she had to, and make a choice. He’s either going to continue to be the prostitute to Bert’s pimp, or he’s going to become a free human being, and in the process, set Sarah free as well.

Martha (Elizabeth Taylor)
Dir. Mike Nichols
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor – Richard Burton – George Segal – Sandy Dennis


Call her vulgar, call her a lush, call her a tramp, but don’t call Martha a victim. Step into Martha’s world and she owns your ass. The only person that can challenge her in any way is her seemingly squeamish husband George (Richard Burton). Martha and George are caught in a purgatory battle of psychological and emotional abuse so destructive it has the potential to kill.

So how is it that Martha (a 34 year old Elizabeth Taylor) a woman on her last legs, a smoker, an alcoholic, a cheater, a liar, overly plump, foul mouthed – can come off as one of the sexiest characters to grace the American screen? To be frank, I think it’s her body. Elizabeth Taylor knew how to use her body to great effect. Like Marilyn Monroe, she was beautiful, but she had a body that would not quit. Elizabeth Taylor understood Martha. They’re both at the age when things are starting to expand and hang a little. The lines are getting darker. Things are a bit frayed around the edges. And yet. There’s still a hell of a lot of mileage left on that engine.

Like Mrs. Robinson, Martha is angry and resentful at the hand life has dealt her, and she is bent on revenge. But unlike Mrs. Robinson, her chance at transformation has passed, she is stuck with George, the “cluck”, and can only make the best of it. This is done by ridicule and humiliation, sometimes at his expense, sometimes at hers, but nobody ever wins this grotesque, psychological war.

Martha is a force of nature. The mother earth. She will not be denied. It is a performance that I would never have thought Taylor capable of from watching her previous films. But it was “Taylor” made.

Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine)
Dir. Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon – Shirley MacLaine – Fred MacMurray


A close cousin to Piper Laurie’s “Sarah Packard” character in “The Hustler”, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) suffers from a serious bout of low self-esteem, which makes her an easy target of the player, the hustler, or the pimp. In this case, Mr. Sheldrake played to perfection by Fred MacMurray.

As cute as Shirley MacLaine is as Ms. Kublik, she’s one severely screwed up character. She’s got daddy issues, dating a married man twice her age, that plays her like a ho, handing her a one hundred dollar bill for a Christmas present after he fucks her. She tries to kill herself over the guy, in a desperate attempt for his attention. And her affair with Mr. Sheldrake doesn’t appear to be her first, as suggested by her brother in-law, who finds her hiding out with Baxter after her suicide attempt.

It’s none of my business what you do, Fran — you’re over twenty- one — but your sister happens to think you’re a lady.

People are often fooled by this classic. The performances and overall atmosphere can be construed as lighthearted, but “The Apartment” is a dark film. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) lends his apartment out for a place his superiors at the office can take their mistresses to. In return they move Baxter to the top of their promotion list. It’s all working out great until Baxter finds out that the woman he’s in love with, Fran Kubelik, an elevator girl, is having an affair with the boss Mr. Sheldrake, and they’re using Baxter’s apartment for their affair.

What we’re talking about here are pimps and hos in the corporate world. In that analogy we know what category Billy Wilder has put Fran Kubelik in. What Baxter slowly begins to realize is that he’s something of a Madam running a brothel, and as sick as the idea of Ms. Kublick screwing Mr. Sheldrake makes him, it’s really his participation in their twisted ritual that’s fucking him up.

But none of that matters, because Shirley MacLaine as Ms. Kubelik is too fucking adorable not to try to rescue from mean Mr. Sheldrake. Even if it’s her own god damn stupidity that got her in that fucked up situation to begin with.

Mrs. Robinson (Ann Bancroft)
Dir. Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman – Ann Bancroft – Katherine Ross


Mrs. Robinson has a lot in common with Martha from “Woolf”. Heading into middle age, Mrs. Robinson’s seems bent on revenge. For what and at whom is somewhat of a mystery.

Mrs. Robinson’s (Ann Bancroft) famous seduction of Ben (Dustin Hoffman) is a marvel to behold. Like a cat with a mouse, she toys with Ben, easily manipulating him, fucking him with her mind before they ever get into bed. Like a dominatrix, she tests his will, demanding that he come up to her bedroom, and when he does, completely exposes herself to him, knowing full well that his virgin curiosity will eventually get the better of him.

Ben seems to be a target of Mrs. Robinson from the beginning, seemingly for a sexual conquest, but later as a tool for transformation. Mrs. Robinson isn’t out to destroy Ben’s life, but to sabotage her own, going to that place where there is no returning to, where the only way she can survive is to start over somehow. What better way than to psychologically kill yourself and your entire family in the process, to be reborn from the burned ashes.

What’s amazing about Bancroft’s performance is that I never really saw her play anything like it again. As a matter fact, everything else I’ve seen her in has been very hammy. Maybe because she married Mel Brooks. But here, the sadness, the anger, the regret, are all just underneath the surface of a, humorous, frightening, seductive dance.

Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert)
Dir. Michael Haneke
Starring: Isabelle Huppert – Annie Girardot – Benoît Magimel


At the point the viewer catches Erika Kohut in her life, she hasn’t become a serial killer yet, but she’s seems well on her way. This is one of the most intense character studies ever depicted on film. Grim, haunting, frightening, and yes, sexy, is Isabelle Hubbert, the aging piano teacher, who does not distinguish between physical torture and love.

She’s gone beyond the Sarah Packard’s, the Martha’s and the Mrs. Robinson’s of the cinematic world. Erika is a psychotic, with a black hole in her so massive, no amount of sex, perversions, or mutilations, that she seems to practice at every opportunity, can heal it. Where does her sociopathic behavior materialize from? It could be from her strange relationship with her demanding mother, who Erika shares a bed with, or perhaps some unknown abuse as a child.

Hubbert’s performance is remarkable. Her Erika is constantly searching for an emotional fix, like a junkie, unable to reach that same high they got the first time. Her methods in obtaining that fix are perverse, embarrassing and dangerous and always fascinating. The last shot is unforgettable, the pain on Hubbert’s face, self inflicted and earned, captures the intensity of the entire film and character in one agonizing moment. A mere 24 frames expressing a lifetime of anguish.

Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda)
KLUTE (1971)
Dir. Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Jane Fonda – Donald Sutherland – Roy Scheider


Fonda won an Oscar for her portrayal of Bree Daniels, a prostitute that’s targeted by a serial killer. But I don’t think Fonda’s performance has aged that well, but some of it isn’t her fault, and comes from the script itself.

Is it the shakedown hon? You picked a loser, I just don’t have it.

Who talks like that, even for New York ’71? What’s interesting is the parallel universe that the film explores when it comes to acting/modeling and prostitution. Bree is often humiliated while auditioning for an acting role or modeling gig. But when it comes to playing the part of prostitute, she’s got it down as she shares with her analyst:

I arrive at their hotel or their apartment… and they’re usually nervous, which is fine, because I’m not. I know what I’m doing. For an hour…I’m the best actress in the world.

It was only in the TV transcript that I found some of the dialogue between Bree and her analyst, it wasn’t in the original script, which leads me to believe that in order to make Bree a stronger character, the extra scenes with the analyst were added or improvised. But it doesn’t change the fact that Bree is basically a damsel in distress, like Fran Kubelik in “The Apartment”, with the knight in shining armor, Klute (Donald Sutherland) attempting to rescue her from the forces of evil.

Bree languishes between the world of the Femme Fatale and the Tragic Vixen. She makes money off her sexuality, but doesn’t seem to be looking for the big score. At the same time she entertains men, she doesn’t have one of her own, nor seems to need one or want one, despite the fact that one wants her. Her thing is heroin not men, her dream is acting, and at the end of the film Bree gives the impression that despite Klute’s knight in shining armor routine, little in her world is going to change.

Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton)
Dir. Richard Brooks
Starring: Diane Keaton – Richard Gere – Tuesday Weld – Tom Berenger

A la recherche de Mister Goodbar

It’s been too long since I’ve seen this one to review Keaton’s performance, and it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD, but I’m including it anyway on the suggestion of a friend. What I remember is being completely depressed at the ending. This character may not fit the Tragic Vixen prototype, but by what I remember and what I can read on the Interwebs, she comes damn close.

Some analysis by Kathryn Schleich from her book “Hollywood and Catholic Women: Virgins, Whores, Mothers, and Other Images” describes Theresa as a woman who:

“– refuses to be dominated by the patriarchal present in both society and Roman Catholic church — Theresa fights back, wanting responsibility for her own autonomous life.”

“Throughout the film, each of the men in Theresa’s life try to dominate her. And when that fails, their hostility towards women breaks through.”

One of these men in the film is her father, who when he finds out Theresa has refused to marry the man he thinks she should marry, becomes violently hostile. Theresa has a revengeful streak, mostly towards her father, who she re-imagines in the men she picks up, quickly discarding them, humiliating them in the process, while remaining in complete control.

Theresa has a little Sarah Packard, Mrs. Robinson, Ms. Kubelik, Martha and Bree Daniels running through her blood. Like Ms. Kubelik, she appears to be the girl next door, but isn’t. Like Mrs. Robinson, she’s attempting a transformation, but like Martha is unable to complete it. Like Bree Daniels the transformation is attempted through many sexual partners, but like Sarah Packard, her journey leads to a tragic end.

I’m sure there are plenty other examples, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind when it comes to the Tragic Vixen.


ROY SCHEIDER: 1932-2008

February 13, 2008


Roy Scheider had a memorable face, a throwback movie stars face, like Bogart or Cagney. His features weren’t handsome, but they were tough, sharp and angled. Never a major star, somehow Scheider landed roles in some of the most memorable films of the 70’s, two of which are the best of all time, “Jaws” and “The French Connection”. The decades following the 70’s weren’t particularly kind to Scheider, but from a fans perspective it doesn’t matter, he made his mark, and his performances will continue to delight.

KLUTE (1971) three
Dir. Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Jane Fonda – Donald Sutherland – Roy Scheider


Fonda, in an Oscar winning role, plays upscale prostitute/junkie Bree, who happens to be the target of a mad killer. Sutherland is Klute, whose investigation about a missing friend has led him to Bree. Scheider, in his sleaziest role, plays Bree’s pimp Frank. The screen time was minimal, but Scheider, with his leathering skin and wirey frame, cuts a menacing figure.

Dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Gene Hackman – Roy Scheider – Fernando Rey


Scheider plays Buddy Russo, partner to Gene Hackman’s academy award winning portrayal of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, whose ugly investigation techniques have a tendency to get his fellow officers killed. Together they stumble upon what turns out to be a major drug smuggling operation, run by Alain Charnier played by Fernando Rey. If done right, the bust will set Doyle and Russo up for a promotion. But Doyle’s mojo is bad, and he finds himself making the same mistakes he’s made in the past, leading to tragic results. Scheider plays the loyal sidekick with integrity, intelligence and tough charm, neither stepping on Hackman’s toes nor taking a back seat. With both “Klute” and “Connection” released in ’71, it’s somewhat surprising that Scheider wasn’t in another memorable role until four years later.

JAWS (1975) Classic
Dir. Stephen Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider – Robert Shaw – Richard Dreyfus


Scheider is Chief Martin Brody. He’s recently moved his family from NY to the small peaceful town of Amenity, hoping to escape the hazards and dangers of the big city. All too soon, Brody discovers it doesn’t matter where you run to, the monsters that endanger a family in the big city are just as prevalent in the small towns of America, in this case it takes the form of a great white shark.

What stands out most in Scheider’s performance is the humor and comic timing he brings to the role. Brody isn’t completely comfortable in his uniform, or with his authority, with the locals or with the water around the island. Scheider is able to use his carved face to it’s most potential when it comes to merely reacting to the environment around him.

The moment when the shark first appears is a classic moment, where Brody, trying desperately not to show how scared he is, pulls off the greatest cinematic double take of all time, followed by one of the greatest lines. “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

“Jaws” is a great monster movie and rousing adventure. And besides “Duel” is the only Spielberg movie that Grumpy Guy breaks out again and again to watch, and it’s always a pleasure to anticipate the many great scenes that Scheider made so memorable.

MARATHON MAN (1976) three
Dir. John Schlesinger
Starring: Dustin Hoffman – Laurence Olivier – Roy Scheider – William Devane


Coming off his star making role in “Jaws”, Scheider may have been given more screen time than his character warranted, but none of it is wasted, as he turns out a charming and heartbreaking performance as Dustin Hoffman’s mysterious brother Henry “Doc” Levy, an international thief/spy, whose dealing with Dr. Christian Szell, an ex Nazi on the run, leads to horrifying results.

“Marathon Man” is a solid entertainment in the genre of the 70’s paranoid thriller, like “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View”. Scheider is given many moments to shine, including one of the most brutal fight scenes ever to be put on film.

SORCERER (1977) three
Dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Roy Scheider – Bruno Cremer – Francisco Rabal


According to Wiki, Director William Friedkin regretted hiring Scheider for the lead role of Jackie Scanlon, and basically blamed the commercial failure of his film on his casting choice which originally was supposed to go to Steve McQueen. But Scheider is fine in the film as the leader of a crew of criminals hired to drive a pair of trucks through the back roads of South America, loaded with nitroglycerin. Every bump in the road, every dip, every shake of the engine could bring them sudden death. Not as good as the original, “Wages of Fear”, but a very suspenseful, compelling film. Later Friedkin admitted that releasing the film against “Star Wars” was a mistake. Ironically, the film that made Scheider a star, “Jaws”, also contributed to the downfall of directors like Friedkin and movies like “Sorcerer”.

ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) 3 and a half
Dir. Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider – Jessica Lange – Leland Palmer – Ann Reinking


Perhaps Scheider’s best performance and completely unexpected. Up to this point, Scheider’s roles had mostly been in action flicks. Here he plays Broadway dance choreographer and director Joe Gideon. Scheider is excellent in this Fellini-esque, semi-biographical account of Bob Fosse’s turn in directing Dustin Hoffman in “Lenny”. It’s been a while since Grumpy Guy has seen this one, but it’s sitting in my girlfriend’s VHS library as I write this. I’ll be dusting it off this weekend in honor of Roy.

R.I.P. Roy Scheider.

SEX, GUNS AND REVENGE (The Erotic Nature of “Point Blank”)

February 8, 2008

POINT BLANK (1967) Classic
Dir. John Boorman
Starring: Lee Marvin – John Vernon – Angie Dickinson – Keenan Wynn

Point Blank 001
There’s a scene in John Boorman’s “Point Blank” where Walker (Lee Marvin) is making love with his sister in-law Chris (Angie Dickenson) and while they roll over in bed, they become different people. Chris changes into her sister, Walker’s wife Lynne (Sharon Acker), then Walker changes into his once good friend Mal Reese (John Vernon), the same man that stole Walker’s wife, shot him and left for dead. It’s a somewhat clumsy cinematic moment (the film is mostly flawless) but an obvious metaphor that Boorman makes about his story and main character.

A buddy of mine wrote a hilarious post about jumper cables; how he didn’t know how to use them, and that he was afraid of being asked to. The reason being that not being able to use jumper cables exposes his shortcomings as a man. I have the same problem with parallel parking. But anyway. The traditional test of a man’s “manhood” is the ability to sexually please or dominate his lover. As tough as Lee Marvin is, in “Point Blank” he plays the chump, the cuckold, the man who was unable to sexually please his woman, and as a result, had her stolen away by another man.

When Walker tracks his wife down he doesn’t shoot her, instead he busts into her bedroom and empties his .38 into her bed, making the assumption that Reese is in it, the man that destroyed his life. But Reese isn’t there. If Reese was killed, then there’s a good chance Walker wouldn’t see a dime of his money. But to Walker, retrieving the money isn’t the important thing, killing Reese is.

Lee Marvin Shooting Bed

The scene that follows is Walker’s wife explaining how her part in the betrayal took place. She doesn’t explain exactly why she “drifted” towards Reese, only that she did. And in the end she says: “I just couldn’t make it with you Walker”. “Making it” with someone is also known as “fucking” someone. Walker didn’t get his wife off sexually the way Reese did.

Point Blank 002
In one of the films many fight scenes, Walker takes on three thugs in a nightclub, pounding one of them in the balls. For ’67, a shocking cinematic moment, but it’s the same instinct Walker had when he shot up his wife’s bed, hoping to kill Reese. Here he’s projecting what he’ll do to his old friend when he catches up to him. He wants to castrate him, with his bare hands if he has to.

Once Walker finally tracks down Reese, he finds him completely naked and exposed and at his mercy. In a strange exchange of dialogue, Walker demands to know who has his money, and Reese in his shock and fear, tells Walker to “Kill me”. He repeats this between naming names. “Fairfax. Kill me. Brewster. Kill me”. He may as well be saying “Fuck me”. In the end Walker doesn’t have to do anything, as Reese clumsily plummets off his apartment balcony.

Reese Done In

Walker continues to track down his money, to track down the “Organization”, but the true meaning of his quest has been fulfilled: the death of Reese and reclaiming his identity. Indeed, when the money actually comes his way, it has no significant to Walker anymore.

There have been many theories on the true nature of Walker’s POV in “Point Blank”; that he’s actually dead, that he’s a ghost, and that the betrayal of his wife and friend are not significant to a dead man. But the sexually charged ritual between Walker, Lynne and Reese is examined and explored by Boorman just as much as Walker’s violent quest for his money, or his existance, and seems to be as much the center of Walker’s motivation for his violent acts as any other.

Nick Schager at Slant Magazine writes a great review of “Point Blank” and gets into some of the sexual imagery that Boorman plays with. Cinebeats also has an interesting take and some historical insight into Lee Marvin’s motivation with the character. Analysis aside, “Point Blank” is a must see, a pivitol film in the noir genre.

A Sports Movie That You Don’t Know About

February 5, 2008

Soul In The Hole (1997)three
Dir. Danielle Gardner
Starring: Kenny Jones – Ronnet Jones – Ed (Booger) Smith


Super Bowl Sunday has brought out many a post about sports and sports movies. One of my favorite political blogs posted some of their favorites, including “Hoop Dreams”, which tells the compelling story of two inner city kids who are basketball phenoms. The film remarkably follows these kid’s lives through adolescence, their teenage years and finally college, trying to make it in NCAA basketball. But there’s another film about the same subject, young black men trying to survive and using sports to make it, that came out a few years later. It’s called “Soul In The Hole”. As good as “Hoop Dreams” is, “Soul in the Hole” is better.

I’m from Portland Oregon the home of the Trail Blazers. Back in the late nineties and early ‘00s they were known as the “Jail Blazers”. They had characters like J.R. Rider, Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire, young black men, who were constantly in trouble for all kinds of crap: traffic violations, drug possession, domestic violence, weapons possession and on court shenanigans. These guys became a national joke. They couldn’t keep out of trouble. I remember when J.R. Rider got busted for shooting craps on a street corner. The local papers couldn’t figure it out. How come a multi million dollar basketball player, a player with amazing talent, would stoop to something so low as to be caught gambling on the streets of NE Portland? If they took the time to watch “Soul In The Hole” many of their naïve questions about guys like Rider would be answered.

“Soul In The Hole” is a documentary about Kenny Jones and his street ball team called “Kenny’s Kings”. Kenny lives in Brooklyn New York, runs a liquor store, and is married with no kids. But he’s taken one of his players under his wing, an amazing baller, and street legend by the name of Ed “Booger” Jones. Watching Booger play ball is a thing of beauty. Like Magic Johnson, he can control the play of the game without scoring a single point. Like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, he’s fast and smooth, seemingly effortless in his ability to get to the hoop, or set up a wing man for a score. The competition in the tournaments is fierce, and at times downright dangerous. In one scene, Kenny contemplates pulling his team out in fear that someone might get shot. It’s the kind of environment the critics of guys like Booger wouldn’t last a day in.


There are only two places Booger feels truly comfortable, and that’s on the basketball court or on the streets. He desperately needs an education, but doesn’t have the discipline to concentrate on academics. He gets all the love a child could want from Kenny and his wife, but doesn’t take their guidance seriously and resents their attempts at parenting. Despite the opportunities his basketball talent can bring him, Booger cannot resist the call of the streets, the feeling he gets among the hustlers, the pushers, the bangers. The more opportunity comes his way, the more love and support Kenny lavishes on him, the more Booger pulls away.


There is a huge racial divide in professional and academic sports. All you have to do is check out the players on the basketball court or football field and the spectators in the stands. Most of the players are black, and most of the spectators are white. Many in the established media hate the players that come from Booger’s world. They don’t believe that they are a part of the hell that Booger lives in. They don’t believe they should have to think about it. They don’t believe Booger’s world should infiltrate theirs in any way. They don’t understand that they’ve created a vicious, brutal, farming system that benefits the NCAA and NBA to the tune of billions of dollars a year. They don’t understand that young men like Booger literally risk their lives playing street ball. They feel as long as the players that “make it” are getting paid millions, they should conform, behave, shut the fuck up and play ball.

“Soul In The Hole” is about Booger, but it’s also about all the young men that come from his world and try to make it in college and the NBA and find the transition from the world of the streets to the world of academia almost impossible.


February 4, 2008

HARPER (1966) three

Dir. Jack Smight
Written by: William Goldman (from the Ross Macdonald novel)
Starring: Paul Newman – Janet Leigh – Robert Wagner – Lauren Bacall – Arthur Hill – Julie Harris – Strother Martin – Shelley Winters – Pamela Tiffin – Robert Webber

Four things stick in my mind when I think of Paul Newman in “Harper. The first is Newman’s performance. Easy going and natural, he pulls it off the way Carey Grant pulled off certain roles, with style and humor. The certain ticks and mannerisms that follow Newman around his films don’t come off as annoying or distracting. Here, they fit the character and work as an asset instead of a crutch.


The second thing is the opening scene. Harper (Newman) wakes up in what appears to be his apartment. The viewer soon realizes that it’s an office space, complete with bed, television and all the makings of home. Trying to wake up, he decides to make some coffee, but realizes that he’s out. A brilliant moment by Newman comes when he realizes this and what he has to do if he wants coffee. With dread, he opens the trashcan and retrieves the old filter filled with old coffee grounds and re-uses it to make a “fresh” cup of coffee. This moment is very similar to Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (one of Grumpy Guy’s favorite movies) and precedes it by seven years. This coffee moment follows the character through the entire the film, haunting him. Harper wears a suit and tie, but there are old coffee grounds in his shoes, his socks, his soul, constantly reminding him that this is the best it’s going to get. As a result he wears his cynisism on his sleeve, constantly mocking everything around him.


The third thing is an ugly fight scene between Newman and Roy Jenson (Puddler) that takes place in a junkyard. For ’66, it’s pretty brutal, with a really fucked up moment when Harper, using a steel file as a weapon, gashes Puddler across the forehead, blinding him as blood streams down his face.

Harper_BootyCall2The fourth thing is a booty call Harper makes on his ex-wife, played by Janet Leigh. After a rough night for Harper, he decides he needs the warm loving of a woman, so he pops in on the ex. She does her best to reject him, despite the fact he’s pretty banged up. It’s clear from their rapport that things ended roughly for this pair. Eventually Harper breaks her down, seaming remorseful for his past treatment of her. The next morning she’s making breakfast, making plans for the two of them, but when she sees his face, she instantly realizes that she’s been played. Harper got what he wanted, some pussy from the ex-wife, and now it’s time to get back to work. It’s a cold blooded moment.

The character is a take on Ross Macdonald’s detective “Lew Archer”. Here, Harper is hired by a rich heirass, played by Lauren Bacall to locate her missing husband, only to find out that few people care if this man is ever found, leaving a long list of suspects for Harper to investigate in this missing person case.

Director Jack Smight cut his teeth in television before moving to film, and in the 60’s made some fun movies, including “Kaleidoscope” and “No Way To Treat A Lady”. He mostly seems to point the camera and get out of the way, and didn’t have a true vision like his TV to film contemporaries, John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet.

“Harper” is not a great movie. It’s very conventional on the surface. Its story, directing and cinematography are pedestrian. But it’s a fine character study, intriguingly realized by Newman. His Harper is a failure, a man in his forties, divorced, broke, and winding down. The only thing he has going for him, the only thing that gives him a sense of purpose, a sense of freedom, a sense of self worth, is the case (any case) he happens to be working on, where he can use his cruelty, his stubbornness and cynicism to their fullest, to see the mystery through to the end… win, lose or die.