By 1966, the private eye had been regulated to television. Shows like 77 Sunset Strip, Peter Gunn, Hawaiian Eye, Honey West and Johnny Staccato are just a few of the better known shows that began in the late 1950’s and/or the early 1960’s. Part of the reason for the decline on the big screen had to do with the rise of James Bond and his fellow international spies. Foreign intrigue, fancy gadgets, sexy women and criminals with more on their mind than just robbery and mayhem superseded the bedroom antics of the lowly P.I.
While the private eye was rare on screen during this period, it never lost its popularity in print. The hard-boiled dick, made popular by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the 1930’s and 1940’s, was continued by a slew of mystery writers. Mystery paperbacks remained best sellers flying off the racks in drug stores, candy stores and wherever paperbacks were sold. However, none captured the Chandler/Hammett mindset like Ross MacDonald with his character of Lew Archer in a series of excellent novels that began in 1949 with The Moving Target.
With the making of Harper, based on MacDonald’s first novel,(1) there was a definite connection with the past. First, there’s author Ross MacDonald who writer Michael Avallone(2) once wrote that Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald were the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” of the hard-boiled school of fiction. MacDonald himself was a major influence on many of the mystery writers we read today including Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Robert Crias. Next up was Warner Brothers, the same studio that brought you The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, was making the film. Finally, last, but not least, there was Lauren Bacall. Bogie’s Baby herself who taught Bogart how to whistle. Adding Bacall to the cast was an inspired touch securely cementing the the mid-sixties film with the classic P.I. period of the 1940’s. Bacall had been “discovered” by director Howard Hawks, actually by his wife Slim who recommended her husband take a look at the then model. When the call came for the role of Mrs. Elaine Sampson in Harper, Bacall accepted. She liked Paul Newman, the film’s star, both personally and professionally. She also realized the connection to The Big Sleep and liked the idea of being in it the film though her part was obviously a supporting role and not the lead.
Some of Paul Newman’s biggest hits in the 1960’s were films that had an H prominently in the title (The Huster, Hud and in the near future Hombre and Cool Hand Luke). One of his requests was his character’s name had to be changed to begin with his lucky H. Thus, Lew Archer became Lew Harper. The screenplay was adapted by William Goldman who at the time was still a relative novice. He already had a few novels published including the bestselling Boy and Girls Together. Adapting MacDonald’s novel was only his second screenwriting assignment.
Lew Harper is a down and out gumshoe, in the middle of divorce from his wife (Janet Leigh). Lew lives in his office. He’s so ill equipped to live on his own that when he runs out of coffee, he’s forced to use yesterday’s grounds straight of out the garbage pail. A lawyer buddy of his, Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) throws a case his way. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) wants her husband Ralph, a multi-millionaire, alcoholic with an oversized ego, found. He’s only been missing since yesterday when he flew off in his private jet with his pilot Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), but she wants to know what woman he’s fooling around with. You see, when Mr. Sampson drinks too much he has a tendency to give his money away. Being a multi-millionaire, those dollars could add up. Mrs. Sampson really doesn’t care much if he’s fooling around. She puts up with it. Why? Well, not long after they were married, Mrs. Sampson had a horseback riding accident that left her paralyzed in a wheelchair, so she sort of expects him to stray. What she doesn’t want him doing is giving his money, read that eventually her money, before he dies away to some bimbo.
Bacall’s character is bitterly hard-boiled and razor sharp with cool cat like eyes. It’s a small role but she makes it memorable. Newman’s Harper is cynical and quick with the wise cracking, snappy comebacks. Like many of the classic P.I. films, it all takes place in California, land of off-beat cults represented here in the face of Strother Martin as a phony guru who runs a cult called Temple in the Clouds.
Harper’s list of suspects and odd balls also includes Mrs. Sampson’s sexy and seductive, though not too bright, step daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin), hubby’s private pilot, and Miranda’s boyfriend, Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), Faye Estabrook (Shelley Winters) a former film starlet, now an overweight drunk and Betty Fraley (Julie Harris), a two bit lounge singer and drug addict. The film’s plot is complex filled with liars, phonies, charlatans, a kidnapping and of course a murderer or two.
Harper was directed by Jack Smight, a competent director who seems to have been unable to put his own individual stamp on a film like say, well, The Big Sleep’s Howard Hawks. Smight had a long career in television, and had a long list of films beginning in 1964 with the innocuous I’d Rather be Rich. He seemed to be the kind of director who got hold of a script and just went with it. He lacked either the talent, the energy or the motivation to modify a script, or work with the writer, once it was handed to him. The results subsequently varied. Two of his better films were from the pen of William Goldman, Harper and No Way to Treat a Lady while other films failed miserably (Rabbit, Run and Airport 1975). As Andrew Sarris points out in his seminal book, The America Cinema, “Where Smight excels is in the tensions and humors of offbeat relationships enacted by Paul Newman and Arthur Hill in Harper…”
This being a Paul Newman film, Paul had to get beaten up (The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke) and he does so here by a bouncer at the club where Betty works after he becomes a little too insistent with his questioning. Newman, one of the true superstars of the 60’s and beyond had, after Hud, a streak of mediocre films (A New Kind of Love, The Prize, Lady L and a few others) that were damaging his status. He needed a super big hit and got it with Harper. For Lauren Bacall, Harper was also a shot in her cinematic career. She had not a good role since Designing Woman way back in 1957. In the 1960’s, films like the minor Shock Treatment and the insipid Sex and the Single Girl were reminders of a career going nowhere. With her appearance in Harper, Bacall’s choice of film roles picked up with works like The Shootist and Murder on the Orient Express. Boosting her career also were her appearances in two big hit Broadway musicals, Applause and Woman of the Year.
On a personal note, my wife and I were fortunate enough to see Lauren Bacall in Noel Coward’s Waiting in the Wings which as it turned out was her last appearance on Broadway.
(1) MacDonald wrote 18 Lew Archer novels as well as short stories.
(2) Michael Avallone was a prolific author of detective, mystery and science fiction novels including P.I. novels with his own series character, Ed Noon. He also was a prolific writer of novelizations and original books based on movies and TV shows which includes the first The Man From UNCLE book as well as two of The Girl from UNCLE books.
This post is part of the Lauren Bacall Blogathon. For more great post check out the link below.