Harper, based on The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald, screenplay by William Goldman, starring Paul Newman (Harper), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper), Pamela Tiffin (Miranda Sampson) and Robert Wagner (Allan Taggart) (1966): The Ross MacDonald novel this film adapts first appeared in 1949 and starred MacDonald’s recurring private eye, Lew Archer. The film changes the PI’s name to Harper and updates the setting to the go-go sixties, but Newman still embodies the tarnished virtues of Archer/Harper. The movie also bounces a number of ideas and characters off noir classic The Big Sleep, making Harper play sometimes like the missing link between The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski.
Hired to find a missing millionaire, Harper soon finds himself neck-deep in weird California shenanigans, from aging starlets and wheelchair-bound misfits to cult leaders, cult financiers, and trafficking in illegal immigrants. Harper takes a lot of punishment along the way, and dishes some out, while trying to put the pieces of an increasingly bizarre mystery together.
William Goldman’s screenplay is sharp and funny, the sort of writing one doesn’t get a lot of from Hollywood any more. Harper, another wounded knight errant, really does take an astonishing amount of physical punishment — like Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, he takes so many blows to the head that he should probably start wearing a helmet.
A subplot involving Harper’s soon-to-be-ex-wife (Leigh) offers some character depth, though it could probably have been jettisoned to streamline things a bit more — in this sort of film, it’s the twisty plot and weird characters we want more of, not the domestic travails of the hero. Newman is charming as ever. Harper chews gum with such violence throughout that one one wonders if he’s quitting smoking — or if Newman was. Followed by an inferior sequel, The Drowning Pool. Recommended.