I got aboard the Paul Newman train late, but if 2020 has done anything for it it’s been my conversion into the world of Newman movies. I’ve watched several this year but Harper fit so perfectly into Noirvember that it felt like a shame to not discuss it.
Paul Newman plays Lew Harper, a private detective tasked with finding the missing husband of wealthy invalid Mrs. Sampson (Lauren Bacall). As Harper traverses the streets of Los Angeles looking for Mr. Sampson it draws him into a world of former movie queens, hippies, and religious zealots.
The detective picture has been a consistent genre in films and the subtle transitions between periods is interesting to see. Harper feels drawn from the likes of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe in that he’s cool, unaffected by having beautiful women fling themselves at him (and, boy, do they). At the same time it’s easy to see how Harper is part of the new breed of detective that would dominate the late-1960s into the ’70s, taking that cool and turning it into a modern apathy towards vice. He drops into the lap of luxury, with its large mansions and bizarre religious sects out in the desert and just rolls his eyes. He’s a man outside the world of wealth, so much so that he’s introduced to the audience recycling coffee grounds.
Newman saw this as a chance to renew his popularity in the wake of a few flops, going so far as to chance the character’s name from the book — Lew Archer — to Harper because his most successful films had featured “H” names: Hud and The Hustler. This character fits Newman like a glove. He’s charming, a loveable rogue, and at the same time completely damaged. As Harper goes about his investigating he also has to cope with the fact that his wife (an underutilized Janet Leigh) is divorcing him because of his commitment to the job.
And that element of cool is staunchly controlled by him because without his restraint the movie would feel like a relic of the 1960s, which it does at time with its dancing hepcats and Julie Harris’ dope-addicted singer. On top of that, actress Pamela Tiffin, who is utterly gorgeous, becomes the embodiment of the ’60s sex kitten with her dancing in bikinis and generally being the little girl searching for a daddy. The rest of the supporting cast is equally reflective of the period but are nothing to complain about.
Shelley Winters looks to be having the most fun as fading movie star Fay Estabrook, who Harper attempts to seduce to find more information. Their scenes provide the most levity in the movie, particularly as the two attempt to dance like the young kids around them. Funnily enough, Winters said on an episode of Johnny Carson that she had little memory of making this movie.
Harper is a new kind of detective that would inspire later takes. Harper is the perfect movie if you’re in the mood for a slick, sexy noir that thoroughly evokes the mood of the Swinging Sixties without feeling like a relic.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion is donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.