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Lew Harper is a Los Angeles based private investigator whose marriage to Susan Harper, who he still loves, is ending in imminent divorce since she can't stand being second fiddle to his work, which is always taking him away at the most inopportune of times. His latest client is tough talking and physically disabled Elaine Sampson, who wants him to find her wealthy husband, Ralph Sampson, missing now for twenty-four hours, ever since he disappeared at Van Nuys Airport after having just arrived from Vegas. No one seems to like Ralph, Elaine included. She believes he is cavorting with some woman, which to her would be more a fact than a problem. Harper got the case on the recommendation of the Sampsons' lawyer and Harper's personal friend, milquetoast Albert Graves, who is unrequitedly in love with Sampson's seductive daughter, Miranda Sampson. Miranda, who Harper later states throws herself at anything "pretty in pants", also has a decidedly cold relationship with her stepmother, Elaine... Written by
Some movie posters for the film featured a preamble that read: "Paul Newman is 'Harper' - and Harper is just not to be believed!!! Girls think Harper is kicky. But sometimes he makes them feel funny. See Harper make girls feel funny. See Harper.". See more »
When Harper is first talking to Mrs. Sampson, a paralytic, she obviously moves her legs under the towel that is over her. See more »
I first saw this film when it came out, at age 12, and chewed my gum like Paul Newman for the next 20 years.
What's remarkable about that is, I "got" the film at that time, recognized its depth (as well as its superficialities), loved it; and having seen the film several times over many years, the basic experience hasn't changed.
This is probably the most accessible "hardboiled" detective film ever made, yet it never panders - it depicts a rough world straight on, and doesn't particularly like - or condemn - any of its characters. Is it the classic that "The Big Sleep" is? No, because its world is smaller than that of Chandler/Faulkner/Hawks, even though it glitters more; and Smight is a solidly competent director but not an 'auteur' - which works in the film's favor: Smight just gets on with the job and tells his story, he doesn't stop for extra flourishes.
But, although all the acting in the film is top-quality, it is Newman's performance that carries the film over the top: witty, cynical, detached, yet with glimpses of passion and commitment, Newman uses Harper to define pre-hippie cool once and for all.
Historical note: although this is not "The-Maltese-Falcon" classic noir film, the detective film was believed to be a genre of the past (at best fodder for bad TV) when this came out. "Harper" kept alive what many thought a dead tradition. The reviewer who wrote that this film made the Elliot Gould "Long Goodbye" possible is right on the money; and when nine years later Jack Nicholson starred in Polanski's tribute to the genre - "Chinatown" - it was Newman's performance here that he is referencing, not Bogart. That makes this an important film, and one should give a second look to a film that influenced so many others.
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