Wednesday, October 08, 2014


I found Harper out of the blue in one of those $5 bargain DVD bins at a store. Certainly looked better than all the other crap they had in there, though the cover was misleading. I guess my definition of "many fights" is different from theirs. Or maybe it's just our definitions of "fight" that differ.

Lew Harper (played by Paul Newman) is your typical private eye. Sleeps on the fold-out couch in his dingy office, reuses yesterday's coffee grounds, his wife, Susan (Janet Leigh) is divorcing him for the usual reasons: Never around, emotionally distant, spending all his time in a dirty world. You know the stuff. He has a job, courtesy of an old friend of his, attorney Albert Graves. A wealthy man named Sampson has gone missing, and his paraplegic wife, Margot (Lauren Bacall), wants him located. Harper doesn't have to bring him back, just figure out where he is, and who he's with. Things spiral from there into kidnapping, human trafficking, weird religious cults, drug use, torture, murder, etc.

I'm not sure I like Harper. He has that fictional private eye tendency to be cruel, but he doesn't always wait until the story has established the person really deserves cruelty. In the Maltese Falcon, by the time Spade starts mocking Brigid's pleas for help, we already know she got his partner killed, and that she's trying to wrap him around her finger as well, so to heck with her. I thought Harper was kind of needlessly mean to Fay Estabrook (Shelly Winters), because the movie hadn't yet established that she was crooked and more than a little racist. Up to that point, all we knew was she was a once-popular actress that had seen her career go downhill as she got older and put on a little weight (and I didn't think she was fat, like people said. She probably could have gone up a dress size and her clothes would have fit more comfortably, but she wasn't wide or anything). She's kind of sad, lonely, she's definitely alcoholic, but the whole time Harper's trying to get information out of her by playing at being a big fan, I feel like he's laughing at her.

Other times, he seems like a nice enough guy. Newman's quite good at having an amused twinkle in his eye, and he makes Harper someone who at least is measured and reluctant in the use of violence, if not harsh words. He clearly doesn't want to shoot people, or even hit them if he can avoid it. I think he'd rather take a few hits while stalling to make an escape than actually hit someone. Which is a little strange, but not a bad quality.

There's a lot about relationships in the film, very little of it is pretty. Mostly it's guys tossing women aside as they get older, or being expected to do so, and teased if they don't. Fay is in a loveless marriage with a sadistic nightclub owner who is less inclined to hide his contempt for her than Lew. I'm not sure why they stay together. I guess she fears she can't find anyone else, and drinks to ignore the scorn, but I don't know what he gets out of it. Power, maybe.

There's a jazz pianist with a drug problem dating a much younger, more conventionally attractive man, which seems like a legitimate happy relationship. But Lew ribs the guy about being with someone older, who carries the time she spent in prison obviously, which is one of the uglier scenes in the film.

Sampson's daughter Miranda seems to enjoy playing at being interested in different guys, including Harper, but if they look like they'll take her up on her offer, she backs off. Sampson tried to push her and Albert together, even though, as Newman notes, Albert could be her grandfather. I don't know if it's that bad, though the movie is from '66 and Albert and Lew served together in the war - the way they say it, I'm guessing WW2, but it could be Korea - but there's certainly a gap, and Miranda barely notices Albert. Not sure if she legitimately doesn't notice him, or if she knows he's infatuated so she focuses on the guys who aren't. For Albert's side of it, I think he just thinks she's really pretty and the idea of an attractive young wife appeals to him. He might really care for her, but keeping that framed photo of her in some bathing suit thing in his office desk drawer is really creepy. Note it isn't signed as being from her or anything, so I don't know where he got it. Maybe it's better not to ask.

Lew himself keeps trying to get Susan to reconsider the divorce, and there are moments his sense of humor and charm win her over. But inevitably, all the things she doesn't like about him reemerge. He mentions at one point she'll never understand why he keeps doing this work, as he explains to another character why he does it. But we never see him actually try to explain it to her (outside of a terse, 'because it isn't finished' comment), and he doesn't get that he's basically expecting her to put her life on hold whenever he needs someone to hold him. What he wants, and what she wants, are entirely separate things. It's also interesting that whenever Susan gets angry with him, she puts on these thick-rimmed glasses, which I'm guessing is some symbol of her intelligence reasserting itself over the emotional bond. They're like a shield she wears, except she keeps forgetting and drops her guard.

Margot's maybe the most interesting case. She's Miranda's stepmom, and the girl despises her. The feeling seems to be mutual. Margot delights in teasing Miranda, exerting her age and wisdom on the girl. Margot lost the use of her legs when she fell off a horse, and mentions to Lew that her husband found another woman a week later. She won't divorce him, no matter how many affairs he has. No, she's determined to outlive him and inherit his fortune. Her primary reason for wanting him found is to make sure he didn't sign away some ridiculous amount of money in a moment of drunken generosity.

I'd say she has a right to be bitter. A accident (one plenty of people walk away from, as Miranda notes) takes away the use of half her body, and her husband immediately turns away from her. She's in a house full of servants who are always up to something*, with a husband who ignores her to go booze, gamble, and whore around in Vegas, and a stepdaughter who hates her so much she suggests Margot may be faking not being paralyzed (and because this was a detective story, I kept that possibility in the back of my mind the entire time). Miranda openly mocks her to her face about her aging, and not being desirable any longer. Which is nuts, this is Lauren Bacall we're talking about, she could set me on fire with a look, but Margot doesn't so much for sultry, or that smoky look Bacall was so good at. She's cold and clipped in her speaking, largely removing herself from any emotions other than spite and bitterness. But that's probably a defense mechanism for the situation, where people insist she's without value now, and I couldn't help wondering if they were ever a happy little family, or if it was always a mess.

Anyway, Harper has a lot of good performances that try to elevate what is otherwise a fairly by-the-numbers detective thriller. If you're familiar with the genre, you can probably figure out the connections and whodunit just based on the patterns of these types of films. Which is good; you can spend less time following the plot, and more time watching the actors.

* One of the things I like about this film is the sense of castle intrigue, all the servants snooping about, spying on the masters of the house and reporting back, but you never know to who. Every time Harper shows up, the head maid is coming in from someplace, or going somewhere else while keeping a sharp eye on him. I always wonder what she's up to.


SallyP said...

If the husband is cheating on Lauren Bacall, he MUST be crazy!

CalvinPitt said...

Certainly a drunken lech, also into astrology (so perhaps he'd argue his cheating was written in the stars). It's interesting, we never actually see him until the very end, and he never utters a word, so we don't really know why he did anything he did.

I can't decide if that's brilliant commentary on something, or it just didn't matter because he the MacGuffin to get Harper into the story.