Saturday 22 December 2012

Movie Review: Harper (1966)

An attempted homage to 1940s detective movies, Harper falls quite flat. Despite the presence of Paul Newman and Lauren Bacall, the convoluted story and the derivative characters never come close to their intended target, while stylistically the film is simply bland.

Private detective Lew Harper (Newman), struggling to reunite with his wife Susan (Janet Leigh), is summoned to the house of wealthy socialite Elaine Sampson (Bacall). She hires him to find her missing husband Ralph, although Elaine seems unperturbed that Ralph is missing and would be quite pleased if he were to turn up dead so she could outlive him. The characters swirling around Elaine include free-spirited daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin), her boyfriend and the Sampsons' private pilot Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), and the family lawyer and Harper's friend Albert Graves (Arthur Hill).

Harper follows a trail leading to an assortment of distasteful characters: Ralph Sampson's possible lover, overweight former starlet Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters); her husband Dwight Troy (Robert Webber); drug-addicted lounge singer Betty Fraley (Julie Harris); and phony cult leader Claude (Strother Martin). Harper uncovers multiple tangled plots involving kidnapping, blackmail, illicit affairs, unrequited love, the smuggling of illegal immigrants, and bad guys turning on each other. With $500,000 in ransom money at stake and Ralph Sampson still missing, Harper is frequently at gun-point or being beaten-up as the body count begins to mount.

Trying to borrow heavily from the plot of The Big Sleep, even Bacall's resonant presence cannot liven up the William Goldman screenplay (an adaptation of the Ross MacDonald book A Moving Target, with Lew Archer changed to Harper). A significant shortfall is the lack of any charm, charisma or genuine evil among the large assortment of unsavoury plotters scheming to profit from Ralph Sampson's disappearance. They all come across as low level riff-raff, more likely to intimidate each other than to harm their intended victims, lowering the movie down to an uninteresting level of scuzziness.

Director Jack Smight fails to add any panache to the battle of the low lifes, the film's look and style pedestrian at best.

With Bacall's role marginally above the level of a cameo, it is left to Newman to grapple with the inferior material. While he enjoys a few solid wisecracks, for the most part Newman appears ill-suited to the role of a private investigator bumbling around the lives of the rich and poking at the scum gathered in the corners. Newman almost comically overacts his more puzzled moments, and when it's time to stop chewing and kick ass, he simply does not bring enough intensity. The overriding theme of the movie is of Newman being heavily pushed around by others, not a good premise to hang any film on.

Pamela Tiffin almost saves the day with a dazzling portrayal of Miranda as the spoiled 1960s rich girl, certain that she could not care less about her father but almost oblivious to the carnage that her mere presence is causing among the crooks around her. While Janet Leigh is underused in an interesting role, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Robert Webber, Shelley Winters, Julie Harris and Strother Martin are an example of quantity over quality resulting in so much wasted talent, limited and poorly defined roles sinking Harper ever faster with each additional unconvincing snarl.

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