HARPER - DVD review

Harper shows the actor to good advantage, Newman's nonchalant demeanor well suiting the character of the PI.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Warner Home Video's "The Paul Newman Collection" contains seven films the actor did between 1956 and 1975. They are not necessarily the best films he ever made, but they are films distributed by WB that the studio has not previously made available on DVD. All the films but "Harper" are exclusive to the box set.

The films include, chronologically, "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956), "The Left Handed Gun" (1958), "The Young Philadelphians" (1959), "Harper" (1966), "Pocket Money" (1972), "The Mackintosh Man" (1973), and "The Drowning Pool" (1975). Because "Harper" is the only film in the set that Warner Bros. are also issuing separately, I will concentrate my review on that one release.

"Harper" was something of a change of pace for Newman. From his first starring role in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956), he had done only a few clear-cut genre pictures, playing Billy the Kid in the Western "The Left Handed Gun" and then some light-comedy roles in "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys" (1958), "A New Kind of Love," and "What a Way to Go" (1964). Mostly, though, he had stuck to serious dramatic parts, like "From the Terrace" (1960), "Exodus" (1960), "The Hustler" (1961), and "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962). In "Harper" (1966), he plays a private eye, a genre that had not fared so well since the heyday of film noir in the forties and early fifties. It was a daring move.

Based on the novel "The Moving Target" (1949), the first book in Ross Macdonald's popular Lew Archer detective series, "Harper" changed the name of the main character because, supposedly, Newman was superstitious and several of his previous hit movies had started with the letter "H." So Archer became Harper, much to the chagrin of Macdonald fans everywhere.

Name or no name, "Harper" suited Newman's acting style perfectly. The character is a glib, casual, clever, quick-witted, laid-back wise-guy. Harper is an L.A. gumshoe adept at chewing gum and barely scrapping by. He reuses his old coffee grounds in the morning and drives a beat-up Porsche convertible. Like all good private eyes, he gets beat up a lot and drops any number of one-liners: "You've got a way of starting a conversation that ends conversation"; "I used to be a sheriff until I passed my literacy test"; "As long as there's a Siberia, you'll find Lew Harper on the job."

Don't expect a stylish film noir here, however, or an action-packed adventure. Director Jack Smight was mostly a TV guy with only a handful of movies to his credits, things like "The Third Day," "No Way to Treat a Lady," and "The Illustrated Man." He pushes "Harper" along like an extended episode of a television show, with virtually no visual flair. What the movie has going for it is Newman's personal charisma and a cast of colorful supporting characters. About all the director does is move Newman from one encounter to another, as the detective is hired by a wealthy lady to find her missing husband, who may either have run away with another woman or been kidnapped.

But that supporting cast is a dilly. It begins with Lauren Bacall as Elaine Sampson, the superrich invalid who wants Harper to look for her absent spouse. Bacall's character is cold as ice and twice as hard, and Bacall herself is right at home after playing opposite her husband Humphrey Bogart in private-eye films years before. Pamela Tiffin plays Miranda, Mrs. Sampson's sexy, spoiled stepdaughter, who hates her with a passion. Robert Wagner is Allan Taggert, a hanger-on at the Sampson house, ostensibly the Sampson's personal pilot but more obviously the Sampson women's personal gigolo.

Then, there are Arthur Hill as Albert Graves, Harper's friend and the Sampsons' lawyer; Shelley Winters as Faye Estabrook, a washed-up, alcoholic actress; Robert Webber as Dwight Troy, an all-around shady fellow; Julie Harris as Betty Fraley, a jazz pianist and heroin addict; and Strother Martin as Claude the Holy Man, a phony cult leader to whom the missing Mr. Sampson donated an entire mountain. Finally, there is Janet Leigh as Susan Harper, Lew's estranged wife, who is in the process of divorcing him. Nothing is going right in Harper's life.

The movie is fun because of Newman and his fellow cast members. If the plot itself is entirely predictable, neither Newman nor the other actors are. As the story unfolds, Harper becomes more inexplicably drawn, emotionally, into the proceedings, and each of the characters stands out as an individualized personality and not just necessary wallpaper.

While "Harper" looks too slick and neat for its own good, without much sense of mood or atmosphere, its star shines, and that's enough to draw us along. I wish the same could be said for Newman's Lew Harper sequel, "The Drowning Pool" (1975), but, alas, that one doesn't quite make it on charm alone.

Warner Bros. have done an outstanding job transferring the 2.35:1 Panavision print to disc in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer that measures about 2.22:1 across my screen. The colors are beautiful, very rich and very lush, the detailing is about as good as it gets in standard definition, and grain is never an issue. Facial tones can look a bit dark at times, but it is a minor concern.

Although it's too bad the audio wasn't up to speed with the picture back in 1966, the movie's Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack is clear, clean, and natural in the midrange, which is where most of the action is, anyway. There isn't much going on in the frequency extremes nor much need for wide dynamics, so don't expect any. The audio conveys the dialogue nicely, and that's what matters.

The most important bonus on the disc is an audio commentary by the film's screenwriter, William Goldman (who also wrote "All the President's Men," "Marathon Man," "A Bridge Too Far," "The Princess Bride," "Chaplin," "The Chamber," "Absolute Power," and many more). He shares a wealth of information with the viewer, much of it wholly unrelated to the film at hand but always fascinating.

The disc also includes a brief, two-minute introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne, who tells us the main character's role was originally slated for Frank Sinatra, who bowed out. Then, there are thirty-two scene selections but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. If you buy the disc by itself, it comes in a standard keep case; if you buy it in "The Paul Newman Collection," it comes in its own ultrathin, translucent case.

Parting Thoughts:
Certainly, there are other worthy films in the Newman set, but it's "Harper" that stands out for me. Newman had already done better things like "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Hud," and "The Hustler," and he would do one of my favorite films the next year, "Cool Hand Luke," followed, of course, by "Butch Cassidy," "The Sting," and many more. But "Harper" shows the actor to good advantage, Newman's nonchalant demeanor well suiting the character of the PI. On its own or in the set, "Harper" is mildly pleasant entertainment. My ratings below are for "Harper" only; the other discs in the box vary in quality.


Film Value