Harper is a neo noir from 1966 directed by Jack Smight. When a producer asked writer William Goldman to find him a script with a harder edge, Goldman recommended Ross Macdonald’s Archer books. He was asked to write a screenplay and choice the first book in the series “The Moving Target.”
This movie was Goldman’s first solo screenplay writing credit and started the career of one of the greatest screenwriters in history.
So why is this movie called “Harper” and not “The Moving Target” or “Archer”? Well I have found three possibilities for this change of title in my research. I will call these theories since I do not know which one is right. One is Paul Newman wanted the name change to continue his streak of hits starting with H, including The Hustler and Hud, Hombre would come out a year later. The second theory is the film rights were for the story only and the rights to the Lew Archer name was not included in the deal. The third is the Macdonald estate was not pleased with the idea of a film and would not allow the use of the Archer name. Hard to say what really happened here, but I suspect theory two or three is true and they named it Harper because of theory one.
Either way, we got a throwback film in the vain of a classic film noir revolving around a private eye. This must have been an exciting film for fans of noir that didn’t really have a lot to choice from in the 1960’s. Fans of film noir also got to see some familiar faces from some of their past favorites. They got three of the best actresses from the classic film noir era making appearances in this film, Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, and Shelly Winters.
Paul Newman plays Harper as a wise cracking, tough as nails, street smart private detective, just like we like them. Harper is a little more wise than some of our detectives in the past, for instance all three of our female legends try to use their feminine ways on our hero in various ways, but all fall in the end. In fact he uses his charms on them to get what he wants more than the other way around. Harper may not have a lot of money, but he does have great taste. For instance I think his car tells much about the man. He has a Porsche, but it is a little beat up and in need of a tune-up and he has no money to do the proper repairs.
We do have a femme fatale or two in this film. Our first femme fatale is played by Pamela Tiffin who is a bit of a Lolita to Harper’s friend and the lawyer who got him this job, played by Arthur Hill.
Tiffin’s character also has a thing for pretty boy Allan Taggert, played by Robert Wagner. The thing is Taggert already has a femme fatale that is revealed later in the film.
This film is a twisted kidnapping case where Harper is hired by Bacall’s character to find her missing husband. As Harper tracks different leads, he discovers more strange characters. Will Harper find the kidnap victim before it is too late?
The first time I seen this, I was already a huge fan of Bacall and Newman and found the film good, but not great. On watching this again, I really found I enjoyed it much more. The wise cracking humor is very good and not over the top, especially Winters’ character. I think if you are a fan of hardboiled P.I.’s like Marlowe, Spade and Hammer you should give Archer…I mean Harper a try.
Favorite Tidbit: Frank Sinatra was offered the lead, but turned it down.