by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film Charles and I watched last night was Harper, the 1966 homage to classic film noir made by producers Jerry Gershwin (any relation to George and Ira? imdb.com doesn’t say) and Elliott Kastner, directed by Jack Smight and written by William Goldman. Harper began life as The Moving Target, a 1949 novel by a Canadian writer named Kenneth Millar who, after having written two third-person thrillers under his real name, signed this one “John Ross Macdonald” (perhaps to get out from under the shadow of his wife, Margaret Millar, whose books had been more successful than his) and narrated it in the first person from the point of view of its detective hero, Lew Archer — whom he’d named after Miles Archer, the partner of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade who’s killed early on in The Maltese Falcon. Though Hammett was the inspiration for Archer’s name, the characterization and the overall mood were clearly ripped off from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe — and though the film wasn’t made until 17 years after the book was published, it still drew heavily on the noir mythos in general and on Chandler in particular, down to having the film open with the detective visiting a rich mansion to interview his latest client — and casting Lauren Bacall as said client, a wheelchair-bound woman (like Christopher Reeve, she was involved in a horse-riding accident) who wants him to find her missing husband.
Sources differ on why the character’s last name was changed from Archer to Harper; one account was it was because the film’s star, Paul Newman, had already had big hits with The Hustler and Hud and superstitiously believed that a title that began with “H” was good for him. (The next year Newman would make a Western called Hombre, continuing the “H” motif, and when Mad magazine parodied his later film Cool Hand Luke as Blue-Eyed Kook one of the characters told him that the torture prisoners were subjected to in “the hole” was watching Hud, Harper, Hombre and The Hustler without a break.) It’s also possible that the derivation of Archer’s name from The Maltese Falcon might have posed some legal problems with Dashiell Hammett’s estate (one imdb.com post suggested the problem might have been with Ross Macdonald’s estate — impossible because Macdonald was still alive when Harper was filmed) even though Warner Bros. owned the rights to The Maltese Falcon and had since the first version was made in 1931, a decade earlier than the famous one.
Anyway, Bacall’s presence already puts one in mind of The Big Sleep — she’s even reclining similarly on a couch, though in this case it’s explained as because she’s disabled — though the scene with her follows a marvelous opening sequence in which Harper gets up in the morning, finds he’s out of coffee and fishes some old coffee grounds from his trash can and brews himself a terrible cup from the leavings. (He’s doing this in a Chemex drip coffeemaker, a chic item among coffee gourmets in the early 1960’s — my mother had one — and a pricey one because in order to use it one had to buy circular filter paper from the company that made it and fold it in quarters to fit it in, as Newman is shown doing in the film — and that got expensive.) Any movie that begins with a shot of Paul Newman, at the height of his sexiness, in his underwear can’t be all bad, and Harper is a decent enough thriller whose main problem is that it’s stuck in some kind of movie netherworld.
The plot, situations and characters are the stuff of classic noir but the movie is also updated in all the wrong ways — color (overly bright picture-postcard color at that; I’ve often complained of the tendency of modern filmmakers to show almost nothing but browns and dirty greens, but this goes too far in the other direction), the 2.35-1 CinemaScope aspect ratio (though the actual process used was Panavision), which spreads things out too much and doesn’t give one the closed-in feeling of the 1.33-1 standard ratio of the great noirs; a well done but wildly inappropriate musical score by Johnny Mandel (who seemed to think that a Stan Kenton-ish jazz score would be appropriate because one of the dramatis personae is a jazz musician — but the filmmakers would have been better off recruiting one of the composers who scored classic noirs, at least two of whom — Bernard Herrmann and Miklós Rosza — were still alive and active in 1966); and a star who’s superficially well cast — he’s got the machismo and charisma to be believable as an heroic private detective but he almost totally lacks the world-weariness of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Dick Powell or Alan Ladd. (Nine years later Newman would do a sequel, The Drowning Pool, also playing Lew Harper née Archer, and he’d be better in that one not only because the plot was more coherent but because the nine years he’d visibly aged made him more suited to the role. The fact that his real-life wife, Joanne Woodward, was in The Drowning Pool also may have helped.)
The film also isn’t helped by a plot that’s so convoluted and directionless The Big Sleep seems like a model of clarity by comparison: the missing husband, Ralph Sampson, had fooled around with a succession of women of whom the latest was Betty Fraley (Julie Harris) — in the novel she’s a tough broad who plays boogie-woogie piano; in the film she’s a wispy cocktail-lounge singer-pianist whose only connection with her counterpart in the novel is an active heroin addiction — who apparently teamed up with her brother Eddie Rossiter (Tom Steele) and Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), Ralph Sampson’s pilot, who was living in a guest house on the Sampson estate (sort of like Kato Kaelin) — or was that Allen Taggert (Robert Wagner)? It’s the sort of plot where it’s not all that easy to tell who’s who or how they relate to each other, and the bizarrely twisted path Harper follows on his investigation leads him to such red herrings as a religious cult leader to whom Ralph Sampson gave a mountain for a retreat, and who’s using the cult as a blind to smuggle in undocumented aliens. (When Harper gets too close, the cult leader starts chanting, “Hermanos de mi alma — hermanos de mi corazón,” and even if you know what the words mean you won’t have any idea what he’s talking about until a small army of black-clad Mexicans appears to beat the shit out of Harper — something that happens to him quite often in the film: it’s a familiar device from classic noir to have the hero get beaten up but this film really overdoes it.)
There’s also Ralph Sampson’s oversexed daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) and the family attorney, Albert Graves (Arthur Hill, too boring an actor to live up to the potential of this rather interesting role), a middle-aged man who’s formed a schoolboy-ish crush on Miranda and is willing to do virtually anything to possess her, including kill her dad just when Harper has finally located where the kidnappers have stashed him. In the book there was a sense of wrenching tragedy when Archer realized how close he had come to locating the missing man alive and instead he finds him dead at the hands of his friend, who had ironically recommended him to Mrs. Sampson in the first place; but in the movie the moment comes and goes without much emotional impact other than the sense that the mystery has finally been resolved.
Had the makers of Harper filmed it as all-out noir — in narrow-screen black-and-white and with a late-Romantic orchestral score instead of Mandel’s jazzy strains (though there were other late-1960’s thrillers with noir pretensions, like Madigan and Marlowe, that suffered even more from their jazz scores than Harper does!) — they might have had a better movie. Had they updated it completely, dispensed with the noir trappings and staged the basic plot as a contemporary action thriller, that might also have worked better; instead they tried to have it both ways and ended up with a film that worked neither as noir nor as action, and wasted an all-star cast (including Janet Leigh as Harper’s ex-wife and Shelley Winters as a drunken old sot — a ripoff of Jessie Florian in Murder, My Sweet a.k.a. Farewell, My Lovely — who in one sequence tries to torture Betty Fraley to give up the secret of where she and her brother stashed the ransom money they collected for Sampson; one would think she’d have seen enough movies to know she didn’t have to bother torturing her; all you have to do to get an active drug addict to talk is to withhold the drug and wait until they go into withdrawal) on a movie that’s not bad in itself but falls significantly below its potential.