Not Rated Dir: Jack Smight | Warner (Archive) | 2h 1min
Plot: What’s it about?
Warner Archive continues its string of successful catalog releases for collectors by releasing two Paul Newman Detective yarns, Harper and The Drowning Pool. Based on Ross Macdonald novels, the first is penned by notable screenwriter William Goldman. I watched both of them in sequence, so without further ado here is my review of Harper.
Lew Harper (Paul Newman,) gum chewing wise-cracking private detective, is called in by a rich wife, Elaine Simpson (Lauren Bacall,) to locate her husband, Ralph Samson. He had only disappeared the day before in Los Angeles. Ralph is a bit of an eccentric and incredibly rich and also known for a mean streak. Given that he recently gave an entire mountain to a cult leader, the wife would like to keep an eye on him and their shared fortune. Harper agrees to take the case for a thousand retainer and a hundred bucks per diem. Harper clears the fee with the family lawyer, Albert Graves (Arthur Hill,) who had recommended Harper for the job. They had been friends in earlier years. Harper flies to Los Angeles with the pilot, Allan (Robert Wagner,) and the daughter, Miranda. He meets up with a former starlet (Shelley Winters) that had gained some weight. He pumps her for information while pretending to be a country bumpkin. When he takes her home, he is warned off by her husband Troy. Meanwhile, a ransom comes across the wires for the missing Ralph.
I was extremely excited to watch this film and had been looking forward to this one since Warner Archive had put out the news that it would be coming to Blu-ray. I am a huge fan of Paul Newman and will watch any film in which he can be seen. I also love the genre of detective films and literature. My second son is named Dashiell in reference to author Dashiell Hammett, so that should give me some street cred here. When I saw that William Goldman (author of the classic Marathon Man amongst other classics) wrote the screenplay from a Ross Macdonald (Library of America inducted novelist) novel, I was extremely excited. With these elements coming together in one film, there is obvious potential for a truly classic detective yarn. The only problem is that the film never quite comes together as cohesively as this amount of talent would make you suspect.
As can be expected, Paul Newman is great, but the director, Jack Smight, seemed to try too hard to go for laughs with how Harper dupes people into giving information. By allowing Newman to try out any accent he would like, the film felt a little hamfisted. I have a feeling that the script tied together the pieces of the story a bit better than the film, but between the writer and the director, this film is somewhat unnecessarily convoluted. This is not uncommon with detective stories, but the threads that Harper follows seem so remote that it just didn’t quite gel the way that it must have appeared on paper.
This is an interesting film and a beautifully shot film making it harder to review in a way. Conrad Hall is one of my heroes – one of the most legendary cinematographers of all time – and he does an excellent job here. I mean, it is a vibrant and great looking film that brings Los Angeles of the Sixties back to roaring life. It also is not quite convincing in the actions of the characters or their motivations. Then again, I was entertained from the beginning to end and the cast is fantastic – Lauren Bacall, Robert Wagner, Shelley Winters, Arthur Hill, and more.
At the end of the day, this film is somewhat saved by a fantastic ending. The ending makes up for so many iniquities in what comes before it. Therefore, my recommendation would be this: go in with tempered expectations. Rent before purchase. If you are like myself, you will find yourself tilting towards enjoying the film overall.
Video: How’s it look?
Filmed in Panavision in Technicolor by Conrad Hall, this film is fantastic looking. I love this era in general, but the bright and colorful look of Los Angeles in the Sixties made me crave a Mai-tai or any Tiki inspired beverage desperately. Fine detail is very good. Colors pop. Warner does great work, and this film definitely benefits from their attention to detail. They have provided a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It fills the screen handsomely.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Warner Archive have provided a very competent DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono track. Like other Warner tracks the mono track has been duplicated on both sides of the sound field. This is really effective and helps to bring more life into mono tracks. Warner has always done a great job of preserving their tracks, and this is no exception. The score by Johnny Mandel is very lively and very reminiscent of the work of Herb Alpert at the time. Fans of that enjoyable brass sound will know what I am talking about. Dialogue is crystal clear and no hiss to be heard anywhere. Great stuff.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Commentary with William Goldman – Recorded for the prior DVD release, the famous screenwriter and novelist gives an enjoyable commentary that goes into his writing process for the film and recollections of Newman. Very enjoyable. Goldman has a great voice that is very easy to listen to.
- Theatrical Trailer
The Bottom Line
Harper has an amazing amount of talent onscreen, but it is not quite as good as the sum of its parts. I personally am glad to add it to my collection, and due to my predilection for Paul Newman films and Detective films, I will probably watch it again at some point. Any chance to see Conrad shall provide cinematography on Blu-ray is a moment to rejoice. Overall, this film is a bit of a mixed bag, but I loved the ending. That tilted me towards a recommendation. The audio commentary included with William Goldman is a treat as well. Overall, you may want to rent prior to purchase, but fans should rejoice at how great the film looks.