Saturday, January 22, 2011


When I watch movies from the 1940s and 50s, I usually don't notice much that seems anachronistic.  Sure, the technology is outdated, but their language and dress are pretty classic.  If I went out to dinner, dressed and acted like Humphrey Bogart or Carey Grant, I wouldn't get confused looks from strangers.  Films from the 60s, though, sometimes show their age more, thanks to their hep slang and groovy fashions.  Harper is an interesting watch, partly because it is clearly a product of the mid-60s, but also because it is just as obviously inspired by classic film noir.

Lew Harper (Paul Newman) is a private eye that's seen better days; he's been living out of his office, reusing coffee filters, and his car looks beat to hell.  Sure, it's a Porsche, but that doesn't mean it's looking good.  Harper is hired Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to find her husband, a very wealthy man with a history of being flaky.  Elaine isn't worried about her Mr. Sampson shacking up with another woman --- she is an invalid and turns a blind eye to that --- but she doesn't want her gullible husband getting suckered into giving some hussy a bunch of money.  The last time Sampson disappeared and got generous, he literally gave away a mountain to a crooked church.  Why not call the police?  Well, they'd rather handle things quietly, if possible.  Harper makes the rounds, questioning his ditzy and flirtatious daughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) and his pilot/cabana boy, Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), but they don't really give him much help.  That's not too surprising; Sampson wasn't out with a woman, he was kidnapped.  There's something fishy about the kidnapping, though.  Somehow Harper has to put the pieces together to explain how an overweight former starlet (Shelley Winters), a drug-addicted jazz singer (Julie Harris), and the crackpot church all have something to do with Sampson's disappearance.

I love movies like Harper.  You have a too cool for school lead character that loves to swagger, even when that confidence gets him nearly killed.  Like all classic noir, this story has a lead actor with a heart of stone, who is clever, tough, and willing to do whatever it takes to learn the truth.  Of course, that means that his actions aren't always legal, and he might not take legal actions to solve the big problems, either.  Basically, if you like tough guys that are charming as hell and solve mysteries, Harper is a good choice.

It never hurts to have Paul Newman playing the charming bastard in the lead role.  Newman was one of the greats, and I like him best as the guy that would fun to hang out with, but not necessarily someone you would let your sister date, if you know what I mean.  The supporting cast in this movie is pretty awesome, even if they all have relatively small parts, compared to Newman.  For starters, having Lauren Bacall in a noir is always a good choice; her appearance here is a clear allusion to The Big Sleep, where her father in that film played a rich invalid that pays a detective to find a missing man.  Bacall still was magnetic, even when reduced to sitting down in all her scenes.  Robert Wagner and Pamela Tiffin weren't particularly impressive, but they played flaky characters well enough.  Shelley Winters was sad as the past-her-prime star and Julie Harris did a good job as the tough jazz singer.  I was particularly happy with the small parts played by character actors Strother Martin and Robert Webber.  The best surprise for me, though, was the chemistry between Newman and Haper's ex-wife, played by Janet Leigh.  I'm not terribly familiar with Leigh, aside from her small part in Psycho, so it was nice to see her in a substantial role.  She played one of the best tired-of-her-man's-bullshit parts I have ever seen on film, and she managed to be tough, cranky, and sensitive all in one go.  And their dialogue...!  Here's a taste:
Leigh: What do you want from me?
Newman: Anything I can get.
Leigh: At least you're honest.
Man, that's good stuff!

You can credit the fun dialogue to William Goldman, who has a talent for memorable lines. You want more?  "The bottom is loaded with nice people. Only cream and bastards rise to the top."   Just typing that put a smile on my face. And this film has one of the better ambiguous endings I've seen. Goldman's screenplay is brought to life by director Jack Smight, who does his best to keep the tone and the pace of Harper in keeping with Bogart-esque noirs of yesteryear. I'm not a huge Smight fan, but he handles the dialogue and the action sequences well and keeps the story from being too confusing, which is very important in thrillers like this.

But this is definitely a film that has aged less gracefully than other Newman classics.  Really, any movie that shows characters dancing to rock music is going to look silly in retrospect, but this one has more dancing than any self-respecting noir should have.  I will admit that Pamela Tiffin dancing to surf music while standing on a diving board was pretty funny, but I don't think it was supposed to be that funny.  Most of the lines coming out of Robert Wagner's mouth are dated by his slang, which adds unintentional humor to a movie that isn't trying to make jokes.

Aside from the funny dancing and slang, there's not a whole lot wrong with Harper.  It is definitely an homage to noirs, so it doesn't feel terribly original, but that's not always a big deal.  The one area where this film could have been improved was in the overall feel of the movie.  The characters in this story are pretty sleazy, but the film is dazzling with its handsome cast and bright colors.  Newman manages to look a little scuzzy, but he's the only one who puts any effort into looking the way his character acted: dirty.  Still, the dialogue is often great, there are several memorable scenes, and it's always fun to watch Paul Newman outsmart people.

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