The conventional wisdom regarding movie stars has long held that they aren't "real" actors that leading men like John Wayne, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and Clint Eastwood essentially play the same character over and over again, and that they don't have much in the way of range or real acting chops. However, true cinephiles know differently, and they can point at Wayne's work in films like The Searchers or Bogart's in In a Lonely Place as examples that prove an actor's iconic screen presence is created because of and not despite of their extraordinary talent and understanding of their craft. One of the most underappreciated of the great movie stars is Paul Newman, whose languorous, relaxed manner has always made it appear as if he's not really working very hard at this acting thing at all, that he's only doing this for fun because it comes so easily to him. But Newman has a solid handle on his craft after attending the Yale School of Drama, he moved to New York and studied at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan, winning a Theater World Award for his first Broadway role, in William Inge's Picnic. Much of the reason that Newman became a star was timing the studio system was in decline, and Method actors were being recruited for new movies with more challenging thematics. Newman straddled both the old Hollywood and the new, being both handsome and charismatic enough to be a leading man while armed with the tools to handle the more naturalistic style of the 1960s and beyond. And he managed to make it all look easy, which is a feat in itself. By the mid '60s, he was on his way to becoming a powerful player in Hollywood with films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hud, and The Hustler under his belt. With the detective picture Harper (1966), he'd become a big enough star that he could pick and choose his film roles even dictating a change of character name and title and the film remains one of his very best.
Down-on-his-luck private investigator Lew Harper (Newman) is hired to look for a millionaire businessman who's gone missing. The man's wife (Lauren Bacall), who was paralyzed in a riding accident, thinks he's off with a mistress, but in classic detective-flick fashion, things get complicated real fast. Believing that the man has been kidnapped, Harper cozies up to the man's astrologer/lover, a washed up actress (Shelley Winters), suffers flirtations from the spoiled stepdaughter (Pamela Tiffin), gets help from the disingenuous pilot of the millionaire's private plane (Robert Wagner), tangles with a drug-addicted lounge singer (Julie Harris), and visits the mountaintop retreat of a bizarre religious fanatic (Strother Martin). Meanwhile, Harper's marriage teeters on the brink of divorce as his wife (Janet Leigh) is fed up with her husband's devotion to solving cases, which he pursues to the detriment of both his relationships and his own safety. It's a tough world that Harper inhabits, one in which he tells his lawyer pal (Arthur Hill) that "the bottom is loaded with nice people only cream and bastards rise."
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The first screenplay by a young fellow named William Goldman, Harper is the first of two adaptations of Ross MacDonald novels in which Newman would star. Based on MacDonald's book The Moving Target, Newman asked that the main character's name be changed from Lew Archer to Lew Harper, and that Harper become the title of the film. Nine years later, Newman would play Archer/Harper again in The Drowning Pool (1975) opposite his wife, Joanne Woodward. In many ways, Harper is sort of a throwback to the noir mysteries of the 1940s, strongly echoing the work of Raymond Chandler with the wisecracking private eye, rich dames, doublecrosses aplenty, and sunny L.A. locations. Harper's full of snappy patter as befits a hardboiled dick he doesn't think twice about telling a local cop "I used to be a sheriff, until I passed my literacy test" and responding to the self-involved stepdaughter's question of what he thinks of her with, "I'd say you had nearly everything and could develop into almost anything." However, the jazzy score by Johnny Mandel has a classic Lalo Schifrin feel that places it squarely in the 1960s, as does the rather unimaginative-but-serviceable direction by Jack Smight (The Secret War of Harry Frigg, Airport 1975). Nonetheless, the reason to watch Harper is Newman, who was just entering one of the most prolific periods of his career he would appear in no less than six more movies in the next three years, including Hombre, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In Harper he's smooth, cool, and clever, giving the sort of seemingly effortless but pitch-perfect performance that has made him a star for over six decades.
Part of Warner's seven-film "Paul Newman Collection," the DVD release of Harper offers a very good anamorphic transfer in its original Panavision aspect ratio (2.35:1), which features a clean and crisp source-print with surprisingly good color and deep, rich blacks. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (in English or French, with optional English, French, Portuguese or Spanish subtitles) is very good as well. Features include a commentary track by William Goldman, which is an absolute delight to listen to those who have read any of Goldman's books will know that he has a lot of opinions on Hollywood and scriptwriting, and he's not shy about sharing them. Here, he discusses the specifics of the film, while also offering fascinating tangents that are both insightful and worthwhile. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
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