Paul Newman channels Humphrey Bogart in a 1960s version of film noir. Film noir had fallen out of fashion and wasn’t being made as movies anymore. The private eye moved to television in the 1950s and the movies got big and melodramatic. Harper is a throwback to the times of Bogart or Tyrone Power. The cinematography isn’t as dark, but the story is.
The movie opens with Harper (Paul Newman) in what appears to be a lousy little apartment. As he leaves we find out it’s his office hes been sleeping in and later we find he’s been kicked out by his wife (Janet Leigh). Harper is hired to find a drunken rich old man, Mr. Sampson. His wife (Lauren Bacall in a bit of inspired casting) doesn’t seem to care about finding him, she thinks he’s with another woman. This hiring scene is very similar to the one in The Big Sleep when Philip Marlow (Humphrey Bogart) gets hired. An invalid hires a private eye and doesn’t want to involve the police. Of course in The Big Sleep, Bacall played the daughter, not the older person.
No one really likes Mr. Sampson, but he is rich and lots of people like that. As Harper goes about trying to find Sampson, he finds lots of secrets only tangentially related to his case and plenty of ugly characters. He also gets beat up by most of those ugly characters. Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner and Shelly Winters with character actors Robert Webber and Strother Martin fill out this fantastic cast. Though Martin is almost too much of a character. Janet Leigh plays a middle-aged wife of Harper who actually looks like a beautiful middle-aged woman. How nice to see a true beauty not go into hiding when she starts to show her age.
Harper is based on the Ross MacDonald novel The Moving Target published in 1949. The 1940s publishing date explains why Harper demonstrates film noir themes so well; sadism, corruption, things not as they seem, etc. However, it is completely updated for the 1960s, especially the music and dancing. The score is great detective jazz and not dated sounding, but the dancing is that cool dated 1960s stuff.
In the novel, the detective’s name is Lew Archer, changed to Lew Harper for the film. Two theories on this change are given on the DVD. In an intro by Robert Osborn of Turner Classic Movies, the name change was for Paul Newman to keep the luck he had with “H” titled movies. The screenwriter, the mighty William Goldman, says in the commentary that he thinks they had the rights to the story, but not the character name. You may have seen a William Goldman penned movie, The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, A Bridge Too Far, or The Ghost and the Darkness. Goldman is the one who said “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything” referring to the fact that no matter how sure anyone is that a particular movie is going to be a hit, it’s always a gamble because no one can really know what the public will like.
Harper is recommended for those who love detective moves, 1960s swinging movies, or Paul Newman.