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.
The 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.