Monday, August 05, 2013

HARPER (1966)

Detective Lew Harper (Paul Newman) is living in his small office because his wife (Janet Leigh) is divorcing him. He takes on a case for the rich invalid Mrs. Sampson (Lauren Bacall); her husband is missing and, though she doesn't necessarily want him back, she suspects he's shacked up with a woman and wants to who he's with. Either way, the family wants to avoid involving the police, but soon a ransom note arrives. This straightforward detective thriller (not really a film noir despite having a set-up like the film of THE BIG SLEEP—even featuring Bacall, that movie's star) moves through its predictable paces, and what makes it watchable are the interesting characters, mostly red herrings, and actors playing them: Shelley Winters as an alcoholic former movie star who was the latest in a string of Sampson's mistresses; Arthur Hill as the family lawyer and old buddy of Harper's, who may not be completely trustworthy; Pamela Tiffin as Bacall's sexy stepdaughter, Robert Wagner as the family driver and pilot who may be engaged in a dalliance with Tiffin, Julie Harris as a drug-addicted jazz singer and former mistress of Sampson's, and Stother Martin as a new age guru. Newman is fine as the laid-back gumshoe, kind of a very mellow but still manly Sam Spade (and sexy as hell even when he's supposed to be scuzzy and unclean first thing in the morning, as in the above picture), but both Bacall and Leigh are underused. The visual and narrative styles are rather flat, so at two hours, it wears out its welcome, but the last minute—a very 60s touch—is worth sticking around for. Based on a book by crime writer Ross Macdonald—in the book, the character is named Lew Archer. [TCM]

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