Novelist-turned-screenwriter William Goldman's adaptation is very good: impressively it was only his second produced script, and the smart-looking film has many fine vignettes, though its tone is inconsistent. Audiences responded to its slick coolness in much the same manner as the later Bullitt (1968), which has aged a bit better. Bullitt takes place in San Francisco, but steered clear of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture movement. Harper tries acknowledging then-current trends in and around Los Angeles, but not very convincingly.
Rechristened Lew Harper for the film, Newman's character is a private investigator so down on his luck that, during the overly emphatically comical opening titles, we see that he sleeps in a sofa bed in his tiny office, and forced to reuse soaked grounds pulled from the trash when he runs out of coffee.
Things look a bit brighter when his oldest friend, attorney Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), tosses him a bone, much like the early scenes of Newman's late-career masterpiece of acting, The Verdict (1982). Here, Harper is dispatched to the Santa Theresa estate of wealthy but wheelchair-restricted Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), whose eccentric, multi-millionaire husband has gone missing after a Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles flight.
After meeting Elaine's flirtatious stepdaughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin of One Two Three) and her boyfriend, Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), also the old man's private pilot, clues lead Harper to the not-so-secret hotel bungalow where Sampson stashed his mistresses. After finding a signed photo of Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), once promising Hollywood starlet but now an embarrassingly fat alcoholic, Harper flirts with the pathetic never-been and, at her Pacific Palisades home, intercepts a phone call from heroin addicted lounge singer Betty (Julie Harris) to Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), Fay's sadistic husband, suggesting that Sampson may have been kidnapped.
Newman's private detective isn't really hard-boiled in the classic sense, nor cynical and misanthropic like many later neo-noir heroes. Rather, he's a bit gauche, constantly chewing gum and spitting it out in the bushes; slightly juvenile, he delights in teasing his fed-up, soon-to-be ex-wife (Janet Leigh), crank-calling her in the middle of the night, pretending to be someone else and talking in a funny voice. Sort of a humorless Jim Rockford, like James Garner's later, iconic TV character Harper gets beaten up a lot more frequently than most movie/TV private eyes, and the bad guys are often several steps ahead of his investigation, making the story's hero appear less intelligent than his classical forebears.
In this sense Lew Harper somewhat bridges the gap between P.I.s like Philip Marlowe and later, contemporary adaptations in movies (like Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye) and TV shows like Rockford Files and even less ambitious Quinn Martin shows like Cannon. Indeed, a good chunk of Harper's cast regularly appeared on such shows, especially Webber and Hill. For a time Robert Webber was the go-to guy to play the outwardly well-groomed businessman types secretly cruel and cold-blood killers, while Arthur Hill virtually owned the last-guy-you'd-ever-imagine-was-the-murderer role.
(Hill, incidentally, must have had the worst agent in Hollywood history. After making a big name for himself as the original George in the Broadway Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and appearing in Harper, one of his best film roles, Hill went directly to work on Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, for an episode entitled "Monster from the Inferno." What was he thinking?)
The A-level cast all have moments to shine, with Winters and Harris given particularly colorful roles, but these showcases also tend to slow down the episodic, slightly overlong (121 minutes) film.
Goldman's script, while generally faithful to Macdonald's novel, emphasizes its similarities to The Big Sleep: the crippled, no-nonsense client; the flaky, seductive daughter fresh out of puberty (Tiffin is undeniably sexy, even with that ‘60s "big hair"); the sadistic heavy; the convoluted, almost Byzantine plot.
Less successful are attempts to bring the ‘40s antihero into the proto-swinging ‘60s. The bungalow's bedroom is a purple plastered shrine to astrology; and clues send Harper to an installation art-junk yard-like hilltop temple where its faux guru (played, by of all people, Strother Martin) extols the virtues of love and peace, man. For such a hip movie, it has moments that wouldn't be out of place on Jack Webb's Dragnet revival.
After a long, occasionally impressive television career, director Jack Smight turned to features and prestigious TV work, almost ping-ponging between good (Harper, Frankenstein: The True Story) and terrible (The Illustrated Man, Damnation Alley) projects. Certainly a major asset for Smight was fellow TV graduate Conrad Hall, Harper's cinematographer, who avoids the flashy, daring imagery that made his work on The Outer Limits and other shows so memorable, opting instead for mostly straightforward for imaginative Panavision lensing here.
Video & Audio
Filmed in anamorphic Panavision, Warner Archive's Blu-ray of Harper looks great, a far cry from the panned-and-scanned 16mm TV prints I remember growing up with. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono also benefits from the format. Optional English subtitles are included.
Supplements are limited to a recycled audio commentary by William Goldman, from an earlier DVD release, and a trailer, that includes footage of the several cast members shot specifically for that purpose.
Mostly very good, dated but still exceptional for its time, Harper is Highly Recommended.