If, as the trailer proclaims, Paul Newman is Harper and if “Harper” the movie is a little dull, does that make Paul Newman dull? In a math world, yes. In our world, not at all.
“Harper” is the screen adaptation of the Ross MacDonald book The Moving Target, featuring the PI Lew Archer. In a nice introduction to the DVD, Robert Osborn from TCM explains how the name Archer became Harper for the movie. Paul Newman had, by 1966, some success with movies that had the letter “H” in the title. See "Hud" and "The Hustler." So, he lobbied for the name change. I’m not that much of a purist so it didn’t bother me one way or the other.
If you’ve read my review of the novel, you’ll know that I didn’t love the book all that much. In fact, I found it dull in places. Bruce Grossman from Bookgasm.com has assured me that MacDonald’s books get better once the author starts writing in his own voice rather than a Chandler pastiche. Unfortunately, the somewhat dull book created a somewhat dull movie. Not that it wasn’t entertaining. Newman gave Harper a lively appearance and his sarcastic wit shined as brightly as his blue eyes. He made me laugh in places that I didn’t in the book. And the cast was quite good. Lauren Bacall as the invalid wife of the missing husband dripped with barely-concealed venom. A young Robert Wagner as the pilot/hanger-on of the missing husband gives a buoyant and cheerful performance. Shelley Winters plays the older actress who is past her prime with a drunken authority that is hard to believe she’s only four years older than Bacall, the “younger” wife of Ralph Sampson, the missing husband Harper’s been hired to locate. And Pamela Tiffin exudes the overt sexiness that rivals our modern pop stars but with a lot more left to the imagination.
William Goldman, who would later write “The Princess Bride” and snag a couple of Oscars, adapted and updated MacDonald’s 1949 novel. With the story now set in 1966, you get almost everything that you would expect from a movie set just before the tumultuous final years of that decade. You get the cars—Newman drives a beat-up convertible—the clothes, the lingo, the vibe of a decade trying on everything new. You get the teenagers all dancing in sync with the latest jazzy tunes. About the only thing you don’t get is a beach scene with Newman on a surfboard, riding the waves, to the cheering applause of enraptured teens. (Maybe that’s in the sequel?) Actually, the jazz score by Johnny Mandel is one of the best things about the film. His music, not altogether unlike the soundtrack to the recent film "Sideways," consisting of nice and breezy melodies with combinations of instruments that just scream mid-60s (flute, congas) makes the watching of the movie much easier.
Newman does rise above the rote script. In fact, one of the nicest visual touches in the film is how Harper moves from flippant but professional PI to serious and hard-edged PI. His gum chewing is another visual clue to how he does his job. When interviewing the clients, he chews gum like a hood. When it comes times to draw a gun and take action, he chunks the gum. And Newman’s affected accents work to make you laugh, too. Harper is off-putting, and the folks he interviews never quite know that they’ve just revealed something of interest.
“Harper’ is not a bad film. It was enjoyable albeit slow. There is nothing wrong with a slow-burn story. I enjoy them and, frankly, I wrote my first novel in that fashion. But you’d certainly expect the big finish. And “Harper,” like the novel, ends the way it begins: somewhat dull.