Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Harper (1966)

Harper (Jack Smight, 1966) The modern private eye, post-Chandler has always been a smart-aleck, but most of them have the charm to at least be surprised by the pecadilloes of their clients.

Not Lew Harper* (Paul Newman).  He's been in Los Angeles so long, he's seen everything and is so jaded, everything rolls off his back like polluted water.  Been there, done that, sneered at it and held his tongue, did his job and took a shower afterwards.  

Most detectives of the ilk don't take their work home with them.  Not Harper.  Now, in the middle of divorce proceedings from his wife (Janet Leigh)—well, not in the middle, he's just not signing the papers, hoping he might be able to charm her back (fat chance)—his work is his home, living in his rat-trap of an office.  When he's not working, he looks like he's a derelict.  But, he's Paul Newman, so he "cleans up" very nice when he's got a job to do, getting his hands dirty..
Harper cleans up real nice
But business has not been good, and he's been depending on the kindness of friends.  His attorney buddy Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), has a very lucrative client—an eccentric oil millionaire, Ralph Sampson—who has gone missing. An interview with his brittle, incapacitated wife (Lauren Bacall) shows a disdain for the man, disinterest in his whereabouts, and only a cunning interest in how it will affect the family dynamic—she despises her step-daughter, the lithe and somewhat vacuous Miranda (Pamela Tiffin)—and the financial situation if Graves should wind up...you know...dead or, worse, out of money. 

The man is eccentric and invisible.  Mrs. Sampson has been through it before—the disappearance for weeks at a time, the affairs, the drunken remorse, then Sampson washes, rinses, then repeats.  She just wants to know where he goes on these benders.  First, stop: round back to the pool, where Sampson's pilot (Robert Wagner) is enjoying not working, with Miranda, Sampson's daughter, who is fulfilling her part in, what can be described in the 60's as "the Raquel Welch role," dancing in a bikini to generic rock n' roll.  Both are curious where Daddy is, but not enough to do anything about it.  And the last time the pilot saw Sampson, he'd just flown him to L.A. from Vegas, and the man had made a phone call to be driven to the bungalow he keeps in Bel-Air

Pamela Tiffin, comfortable with boogaloos and bungalows
The trail leads Harper through a series of California cast-off's, a way-past-her-prime actress (Shelley Winters) and her husband-handler (Robert Webber), a junkie lounge-singer (Julie Harris) and the leader of a religious cult (Strother Martin) that's a front for smuggling illegals into the U.S.  They're all semi-competent, deeply flawed to the bone and more than a little desperate.  Just when Harper thinks he might be onto something, there's a call from the Sampson's saying that the old man's been kidnapped and the perpetrators are asking for $500,000.  The money is dropped, then disappears.

Then people start dying.

It's an odd, slightly bungled mystery with not an awful lot of suspense, but more of a jaundiced eye towards the desert wasteland of Los Angeles and the buzzards who circle it.  Harper seems to mark a tipping-point for the detective movie—where the evil that men did was in the past done by a minority of professionals, now it's done by amateurs, and seemingly anybody.

What I think the central interest of Harper is in the subject of loyalty.  It's a stand-by of detective yarns as far back as The Maltese Falcon when Sam Spade rambled on about the raison d'ĂȘtre for taking the case.

When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.

Chandler took that moral quandry to the next level in his novel "The Long Goodbye"**(there are odd echoes of Chandler's books throughout Harper, but none of the moral authority).  There, a friend of detective Philip Marlowe's, Terry Lennox, asks him, no questions asked, to drive him to Mexico.  It is revealed later that Lennox's wife has been murdered, and suspicion immediately falls on Lennox, and, as an accomplice, Marlowe, being in the detective business, doggedly investigates whether his friend's a murderer. When Robert Altman made his 70's version of The Long Goodbye, he took a step far afield of the norm and the book—in the movie, Lennox does kill his wife, and Marlowe's answer to the loyalty question is simple: he shoots Lennox dead.  Loyalty's one thing, but murder's another.
Harper is somewhere in between, where loyalty is tested by actions of friends and the detective has to decide what he's supposed to do about it, whatever he thinks of him.  The ending, where Harper decides to do the right thing, expecting a bullet in his back so he doesn't have to ("Aw, hell!") is an example of not decisive action, but of passive-aggressiveness.  Newman was becoming well-known as an anti-hero actor, and his detective, while not being heroic, is not exactly anti-, either.  That would take a writer the likes of Mickey Spillane, crafting the hero as thug (because, "hey, why waste time, I've got a bottle of scotch getting warm"). William Goldman, after Kenneth Millar, doesn't go that far, and ends it unresolved.  The mystery ends, but justice is never served.  Life goes on, and seems disappointed at the prospect.  Hardly noir.  Hardly much of anything.

* Harper is based on Ross McDonald's Lew Archer character from the novel "The Moving Target," but Newman had enough clout that he could change the name to Harper (because he had a string of box-office hits with titles that began with "H.")

** "The Long Goodbye" was actually published four years after the the book that was the basis of Harper, "The Moving Target."

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