If gruff, anti-social private eye Philip Marlowe had come of age a few decades later, he’d have been Lew Harper. Sarcastic, flippant, and completely unconcerned with others’ opinions of him, Harper might have responded as Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe did when Lauren Bacall complained about his manners in the 1946 film THE BIG SLEEP. “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.” Paul Newman’s Harper could get away with that.
THE BIG SLEEP comparisons don’t end with the protagonists. In HARPER, the private detective meets his invalid client, Mrs. Sampson under the hot lights of Sampson’s tanning room. In THE BIG SLEEP, Marlowe (Bogart) meets his wheelchair-bound client, General Sternwood, in a stiflingly hot greenhouse. Both films feature wealthy, rudderless people getting conned out of their money by pros. Both films feature glittering facades and gritty interiors. Both films show people succumbing to their baser instincts. This often ends poorly. In THE BIG SLEEP, gamblers and pornographers pull the strings. In HARPER, smugglers and religious charlatans have their hands out. Both Philip Marlowe and Lew Harper meander through labyrinthine plots to find people who may or may not want to be found. Both men use logic and horse sense to cut through the tangled web the bad guys keep weaving. Both men get roughed up a bit and both men do a little conning themselves. The most entertaining scenes in both films involve the detectives’ assuming different identities to get information. Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP pretends he’s a snotty book collector and Newman in HARPER feigns a Texas accent and an attraction to the vulgar, alcoholic Shelley Winters. Both actors manage to lighten up scripts filled with death and debauchery by using their natural charms.
THE BIG SLEEP was based on the great Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. The screenwriters managed to capture the dry wit and world weary attitude Chandler gave Marlowe in his novel. Marlowe’s a smartass with a brain. He’ll bend the rules, but he won’t break them. He’s true to his word and loyal to his friends. He knows the ropes. The good guys trust him and the bad guys can’t figure him out. Paul Newman’s Harper has the same sarcastic quality with a difference. The 1950s saw the beginning of the rebel as hero character and Newman plays the role as that kind of loner. In the 1970s, Bob Rafelson and Arthur Penn would use Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman as their loner/rebels.
HARPER, based on Ross Macdonald’s novel THE MOVING TARGET was adapted for the screen by prolific writer William Goldman. In the transition from book to film, Lew Archer became Lew Harper. One reason for the switch is the change in leading man. Originally set to star Frank Sinatra in the title role, HARPER reportedly got a new name because of new star Paul Newman’s success with H films. THE HUSTLER (1961) and HUD (1963) helped establish Newman as a star who could act and HARPER and 1967’s HOMBRE reinforced the idea. Newman requested the change and the producers obliged.
THE BIG SLEEP and HARPER have casts filled with veteran character actors who can handle the witty scripts and fast pace provided by both Howard Hawks (HIS GIRL FRIDAY, RIO BRAVO) and Jack Smight (AIRPORT, DAMNATION ALLEY) respectively. Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Bob Steele, Regis Toomey, and Elisha Cook, Jr. add depth to THE BIG SLEEP. Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Strother Martin, Robert Wagner, and Shelley Winters contribute their considerable strength to each scene in HARPER. There are even connections between the characters in each film. Martha Vickers’ boozy flirt becomes Pamela Tiffin’s spoiled tease. John Ridgely’s gambling boss becomes Robert Webber’s smuggling impresario. One can even make the comparison between Elisha Cook, Jr.’s stand-up guy and Robert Wagner’s handsome fly boy.
One of the things I like best about HARPER is its timelessness. With a slight change in music and wardrobe, HARPER could ride a TARDIS to the 1970s or even back to the 1940s. Written in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, HARPER puts a modern spin on the notions of tough dames, wise-cracking shamuses, and slimy con-men. With his role in HARPER, Paul Newman joins the ranks of Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, and Humphrey Bogart, all of whom played Philip Marlowe, by the way. The 1970s would see a resurgence of jaded private eyes with Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) and Dick Richards’ FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) and give Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum each a turn as the iconic Marlowe.
HARPER did well at the box office, cementing Paul Newman’s star status and allowing him to take his pick of the best films offered him. The next year Newman would eat fifty eggs. In 1969, he’d pair up with Robert Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, launching them both into superstardom. The success of HARPER also paved the way for a second Lew Harper outing in 1975 with Stuart Rosenberg’s THE DROWNING POOL, also starring Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward. HARPER is an entertaining and well-made film that succeeds in bringing fedoras (well, mental ones) and double scotches to sunny California. Through HARPER and its subsequent incarnations, the legacy of THE BIG SLEEP lives on.