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The man with the barbed wire soul turned himself into the first of the compassionate private eyes when Paul Newman took on the role of Lew Harper, a private eye trying to find a missing millionaire amidst the lush life and low life of Los Angeles in Harper (1966). The result was a memorable success - one of Newman's biggest hits of the '60s and a film that helped establish his reputation as one of the screen's coolest stars.
Harper entered the world as Lew Archer, the hero of a series of books started by mystery writer Ross Macdonald in 1949 with The Moving Target. The series has been hailed for adding psychological depth to the detective genre and made Macdonald one of the best-selling authors of mystery novels. As a result, he has been consistently ranked among such giants as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In fact, one critic dubbed Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald the "Holy Trinity of hardboiled detective fiction," with Macdonald as the Holy Ghost, a title that stuck.
That didn't stop Newman from changing the name of Macdonald's most famous detective, however. Struck by his success in two films beginning with the letter "h" - The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963), Newman asked that the private eye's name be changed from Archer to Harper. Aside from that, the film remained true to Macdonald's vision and helped bring him new readers. The role became so associated with Newman that he would play Harper nine years later in The Drowning Pool (1976).
Harper also demonstrated a respect for the film noirs of the past that had helped inspire it. To play Mrs. Sampson, the acid-tongued older woman whose husband has disappeared, the producers cast Lauren Bacall, who had starred in one of the classics of the genre, The Big Sleep (1946). In fact, the man who had hired detective Phillip Marlowe in that film, General Sternwood, was confined to a wheelchair, just like Bacall's character in Harper.
Director: Jack Smight
Producer: Jerry Gershwin, Elliott Kastner
Screenplay: William Goldman, based on the novel ÔThe Moving Target' by Ross McDonald
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Editor: Stefan Arnsten
Art Direction: Alfred Sweeney
Music: Johnny Mandel
Cast: Paul Newman (Lew Harper), Lauren Bacall (Elaine Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper).
by Frank Miller