The Paul Newman Collection: Harper Review

Lew Harper (Paul Newman) is a private investigator, hired by the wealthy Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to find her missing husband. Needless to say it’s not as simple as that.

By the end of the 1960s, Paul Newman was in his forties and one of the biggest stars on the planet. Harper was one of the films which got him there. The film was adapted by William Goldman (his first produced screenplay) from a Ross McDonald novel The Moving Target, which became the film’s UK cinema release title. Incidentally, the hero’s name in the novel is Lew Archer. However, the McDonald estate did not want the name to be used in the film, so he became Harper, on the grounds that H had been good to Newman, what with The Hustler and Hud, not to mention the later Hombre.

The impression given by this film is one of style: Goldman’s script is full of quotable lines and memorable characters and it pleasingly twists and turns for the film’s two hours. It also looks great, thanks to Conrad Hall’s Scope camerawork. Hall was then a newish, in-demand DP, having been Oscar-nominated for his black-and-white Scope work on the previous year’s Morituri: Harper was his first colour film. Given that support, director Jack Smight, in only his second cinema feature after a lot of television work, would have to go some to mess this up, and he doesn’t. His career was hardly distinguished, with a lot of studio hackwork to come, but Harper is his best film.

Newman gives a full-blown star performance, relying heavily on his own charisma. It’s certainly not a role that gives him most demands as an actor, but there’s an ease and a confident masculinity to his work that’s quite seductive. Assembled behind him is the kind of cast you probably couldn’t afford nowadays, each of whom is given a chance to shine, especially Robert Wagner as a poolside gigolo and Shelley Winters as an alcoholic former starlet. Even Pamela Tiffin, as the Sampson’s sexy daughter, not the most distinguished actress by any means, makes an impression and has a memorable opening scene where she’s dancing on a diving board in a bikini. There’s also a nice turn by reliable supporting actor Strother Martin as the leader of the Temple of the Clouds.

In a way, Harper is a film of its time, pushing the envelope a little with PG-level violence and naughtiness. Stylistically it’s of another era, with its use of the wide screen enabling some rather lengthy shots which may make the film a little slow-moving by today’s standards. But given that adjustment, this is still a very enjoyable picture. I can’t, and won’t, claim it’s anything deep – it’s a success derived from applied craftsmanship, a movie that sets out simply to entertain and does just that. Newman returned to the role of Harper nine years later in The Drowning Pool, also included in this boxset and which will be reviewed by me soon.

Harper is included in the seven-film Paul Newman Collection box set, and is the only one of them available singly. (The affiliate link to the left refers to the boxset.) The DVD is encoded for regions 1,2,3 and 4.

Shot in Scope with anamorphic lenses, Harper is transferred to DVD in a widescreen-enhanced transfer in the ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is nice and sharp – bearing in mind that Scope is not always, by its nature, pin-sharp, but the colour is a little bit dull. It’s possible to differentiate between different decades due to their use of colour, and Sixties Technicolor looks brighter and more saturated than later decades, as a rule of thumb. Back in 1966, although black and white was by then on the way out, colour was still a selling point, as colour television was still a year away for any country other than the USA. This transfer is certainly not unacceptable, but it’s not what it could be.

The soundtrack is the original mono (centre-channel only), and as before no complaints. This film dates from an era when dialogue was recorded to be clearly audible (experiments in overlapping sound are more characteristic of the 1970s, especially in Robert Altman’s work), and it’s well balanced with the sound effects and Johnny Mandel’s jazzy score. Also available on this disc are a French dub, and Portuguese subtitles in addition to the usual English, French and Spanish.

The extras begin with a short introduction (2:03) by Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies. This doesn’t say a lot – apart from detailing the character name change mentioned above, and that the role was originally intended for Frank Sinatra. (Who incidentally was the original choice for Dirty Harry - how film history might have been different.) There are no spoilers here, so this is safe to watch before the film if you haven’t seen it before. Also included is the theatrical trailer (3:47), in anamorphic 2.35:1, which tries to depict Harper as a babe-magnet, something along the lines of a more down-to-earth James Bond.

William Goldman provides a commentary, describing how he came to write this, his first produced screenplay – he had been a novelist up to then. He also discusses how the film is of a genre (the private-eye movie) that has gone out of fashion, and would certainly be made differently today. There are some very long pauses, and Goldman tends to pitch his talk towards apprentice screenwriters. Goldman is a very engaging writer, as anyone who has read Adventures in the Screen Trade and other books will know. As often turns out to be the case, he’s a less engaging speaker, but when he does talk he says interesting things.

Given that this is the only one of the seven films in the Paul Newman Collection set available separately, this is in a sense the showcase and is certainly one of the most entertaining of the seven and is as well presented as the others on disc. Having said that, there are enough good films in the box to justify buying it.

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