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Rethinking Paul Newman, Part 2: "Harper"

By admin Published: July 19, 2008

Harper

Detective writer Ross Macdonald once said that his novel "The Moving Target" "is a story clearly aspiring to be a movie." And it did lead to a movie, "Harper," which is significant in the Newman catalog -- but not, to modern eyes, a very good one. ...

I recommend that, after seeing the movie, you go and read William Goldman's essay about it in his "Adventures in the Screen Trade."

It notes how movie success can be a happy accident.(The lovely, funny opening sequence was a last-minute addition to the script, to have something to go along with the opening credits.) That Newman is indeed, as I mentioned in my previous post about "Nobody's Fool," someone who worries almost none at all about ego and all about working with good people; Goldman says Newman wants the best possible script and character and "to be surrounded by the finest actors available."

This scores points for Robert Wagner, whose performance in "Harper" is highly praised by Goldman, and deservedly so. There's a scene Goldman talks about that I won't give away because you should see the movie first. But there's another where nothing huge is happening -- except that a couple of terrific actors are doing marvelous things. It has Lew Harper, the private eye played by Newman, and a guy involved in his case, played by Wagner, both walking across a hotel lobby. But look at the way these guys walk: Newman is slouching, worn down, a working guy on the job; Wagner swaggers, the coolest dude in the room. (And considering that Wagner can still be the coolest guy in the room, he knows how to make that work.) Perfect contrast, and I would have loved to hear director Jack Smight set it up.

The Newman credo is also significant because Strother Martin has a small part in "Harper." According to IMDB, Newman and Martin were both in "The Silver Chalice," the movie notorious for Newman's later public regret for making it. I don't know if a friendship was formed then, but in later years, when Newman was an established star, Martin shows up in "Harper" (1966); "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), where it's delivery of "What we have here is a failure to communicate" that pushed the line into catchphrase; "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), "Pocket Money" (1972) and "Slap Shot" (1977). Martin left behind a long resume when he died in 1980, so Newman was hardly the only guy to admire his work. But it's clear Newman did.

Then there's Goldman, who a few years after "Harper" would write "Butch Cassidy," as well as "All the President's Men," "Marathon Man," "Princess Bride" and other classics -- as well as less successful but also interesting pics like "The Great Waldo Pepper" (see "Adventures in the Screen Trade" for what went wrong there). Although he had done some screenwriting before "Harper," he makes clear that was the movie that, to paraphrase, jumped him past all the nonsense facing an aspiring screenwriter. He was no longer just a novelist from New York;
now he was a "novelist who had written a Paul Newman picture." And in the '60s, that was a very big deal indeed.

By now, though, you can probably sense that I am avoiding writing about "Harper" itself (where, the story goes, the detective's name was changed from Macdonald's original Lew Archer to Lew Harper because Newman was having good luck with movies with "H" in the name, but I am digressing again). This is because its tale of a private eye searching for a missing man and getting tangled up in trouble, does not add up to a good movie.

Its debt to "The Big Sleep" is enormous and undisguised, for starters. It looks too brightly lit -- too Hollywood -- in comparison to more recent films. The blood looks fake, the violence for the most part sanitized (although there is one torture scene that feels uglier for what it doesn't show, and for Robert Webber's performance in it). I wonder if some of my problem has to do with this being in color; I can forgive a lot of technical limitations in older private-eye movies, and it may have to do with the grit (and unreality) that comes with their being in black-and-white. But it's more likely that the movie story isn't strong enough to overcome my reservations about the look.

I might also argue that no one has ever figured out how to play Macdonald's Archer right on the screen (and Newman would try again, in "The Drowning Pool"), that the melancholy especially is tough to hold onto.

But on recent viewing, Newman came closer than I remembered, although he's playing Lew more as tired than sad. Still, I think Goldman is right that Newman "simply shouldered the script and rammed it home." And he did so in a way that kind of faked out the audiences. There's Newman, all blue eyes and rascal charm on the surface, and people could go home thinking that he was just (with apologies to Robert Wagner) the coolest guy in the world. Only however much people may focus on Newman's looks, he's not just being a movie icon. He's acting, playing the guy who lives cheap and doesn't have enough coffee and makes it look like hard work to walk across the hotel lobby. And if you look closely enough, you believe that even when the movie around it is unbelievable.

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