Sunday, October 09, 2005


Here is an article on the film Harper (1966), with Paul Newman as world-weary private eye Lew Harper, and how it differs from the book it's based on, the Ross MacDonald novel "The Moving Target," about world-weary private eye Lew Archer. (The name was changed for the movie because someone -- either Newman or the someone at the studio -- thought Paul Newman pictures did better when they started with "H.") The article does a good job of summing up the flaws of Harper as an adaptation and as a film.

Harper isn't on DVD yet, but it turns up quite a lot on television, and it's perfect lazy-afternoon TV viewing; it has a lot of familiar faces, it has a mystery that's entertaining without being particularly emotionally engaging, and like a lot of '60s studio productions, it even looks like a '60s TV show, with its flat lighting and generic sets and locations, bad rear projection, the works. It's one of those films that is useful as a sort of snapshot of all the problems that studio movies were having in the mid-'60s. There were still a few stars around -- Newman being one of the biggest and one of the best -- and there was still a pool of good character actors to draw on. But the pool of writers, producers, and directors wasn't anything like what it had been, and so Harper wound up presided over by a director of no particular interest, Jack Smight.

Like a lot of '60s movie directors, Smight had started in series television and been "promoted" to feature films; this could have been seen as the equivalent of the old system of promoting directors from "B" to "A" pictures, except that a director's involvement in the average weekly television show is essentially that of a traffic cop, telling everyone where to move and when. Very few directors of weekly TV series have any real degree of creative involvement. (Note: this is not to disparage good movie directors who came from TV, like Robert Altman and John Frankenheimer; I'm just on a generalization kick here.) When directors like Smight went to features, where a director needs to have more creative input (especially since, by the '60s, creative, auteur producers were already starting to vanish from the scene), they often brought nothing with them except the ability to get along with actors. The result was a string of movies where the actors were happy but no one seemed to be co-ordinating the creative people -- actors, writers, technicians -- toward the same goal. On a weekly TV show, the executive producer performs that task; in a movie, it can be either the producer or the director who does the co-ordinating. The problem with Harper-era Hollywood movies is that there wasn't anybody capable of doing that.

Harper also indicates how the studios were no longer really capable of developing young talent. The film features two actors, Robert Wagner and Pamela Tiffin, who looked like they might be headed for big things; but they're both miscast, unable to play to their strengths. Wagner's self-mocking humor should have made him a big star of romantic comedies, except there weren't any good romantic comedies at the time; in Harper, he can't do what he does best, and when he does get funny, he seems out of character. Pamela Tiffin, one of my favorite lost starlets of the '60s, looks remarkable, but is stuck with a generic part that doesn't make any use of her distinctive, off-the-wall charm. To become a movie star in the '60s, you essentially had to be a strong enough personality to shape your own career, the way Warren Beatty would do the following year by becoming a producer (on Bonnie and Clyde, which helped smash the system of which Harper was a part). Less strong personalities -- genuine talents but talents with limitations, that needed a strong hand to guide them into the right projects -- tended to flounder, the way Wagner and Tiffin do in Harper.

One more thing about the article: it never occurred to me that the end of the film was supposed to be ambiguous about what Harper would do, but I've since talked to other people who interpreted it that way, so there must be something to it. I just thought it was kind of cheesy to end a movie with the words "Aw, hell" and a goofy-looking freeze-frame. But that's the '60s for you.

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