Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 8, 2018)
Paul Newman became a major star in the 1960s, and 1966’s Harper brings us one of his more popular efforts from that era. Set in Los Angeles, Lew Harper (Newman) works as a private detective stuck in the middle of an undesired divorce from wife Susan (Janet Leigh).
In the midst of this personal turmoil, Harper meets wealthy Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall). Her husband Ralph goes missing so she hires Harper to locate him. Inevitable complications ensue.
Elsewhere on this Blu-ray, we find the original trailer for Harper, one that appears to paint our lead as suave, hyper-masculine “lady killer” sort – and some of that proves true. Throughout the film, we see Harper’s appeal to women and get the impression of him as a fairly self-confident operative.
However, Harper lends more nuance to our lead than that, primarily via his sad sack pining for separated wife Susan. We see his continued devotion to her and how it affects him.
For a little while, at least, as Harper doesn’t devote a lot of time to this topic. Instead, most of the film follows a fairly predictable path.
Harper seems unsure how it wants to depict its lead, honestly. Through its first act, we get the more nuanced portrait I allude to above, but as the investigation proceeds, Harper morphs into a much more traditional tough guy detective.
Which seems like a mistake to me, as this shift robs the movie of potential. When the film goes for something different than the stock private eye vibe, it feels fresh and involving, but once it leaves that realm, it becomes much less interesting.
This means much of Harper drags and lacks real punch. Lew plods from one violent situation to another, all of which fail to feel terribly realistic – especially because he leaves a pool of corpses in his wake and never bothers with law enforcement. Shouldn’t Harper occasionally tell the cops what happened?
Like many mysteries, the main investigation – Sampson’s disappearance – exists mainly as a gimmick meant to motivate action. When we finally learn what happened to Sampson, it seems virtually irrelevant and we don’t care, as his status simply gives the story movement.
If the episodes this plot generates proved more enticing, I’d be happier, but Harper lacks a lot of interesting material. Lew bops from one seedy, duplicitous character to another and nothing much of real interest materializes, so we’re left with a collection of scenes in search of a coherent plot.
At least Harper comes with a stellar cast. Newman, Leigh and Bacall would seem like enough, but the film adds Robert Wagner, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters, Julie Harris, Strother Martin and other notables.
Most tend to overact and fail to do much with the material, though Bacall proves delightfully catty in her brief appearances and Arthur Hill adds a bit of depth to the lawyer in love with Sampson’s much younger daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin). Otherwise, it feels like the participants “act down” to the material and don’t bring their “A”-games.
The haphazard quality of the script surprises me given that it comes from Oscar-winning writer William Goldman. Then fairly new to Hollywood, perhaps he simply hadn’t gotten his sea legs yet, as Goldman doesn’t bring together to story in an especially coherent manner.
All of this leaves Harper as a disappointment. With lots of talent involved and a few quirky twists, it boasts the potential to become a good update on the private detective genre, but it ultimately fails to develop into a memorable effort.