Directed By: Jack Smight
Starring: Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris
Tag line: "Paul Newman is 'Harper' and Harper is just not to be believed !!! "
Trivia: The opening credits sequence was written and shot after the first cut of the film had already been delivered to the studio
Harper, a 1966 whodunit directed by Jack Smight, features Paul Newman in a very different kind of role, that of Lew Harper, a private eye hired to investigate the disappearance of a millionaire.
With the help of his friend, attorney Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), Harper is put in touch with Mrs. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), whose wealthy husband has gone missing. What makes the case so interesting is that Mrs. Sampson doesn’t really care if Harper finds her husband dead or alive. In fact, she might be happier if he were dead, seeing as the two haven’t been on speaking terms for quite some time. Armed with a picture, Harper sets out to locate the missing tycoon and, if all goes well, collect his much-needed salary.
But like all good detective yarns, there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye. For one, the Sampson’s spoiled daughter, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) is having an affair with Allan (Robert Wagner), the pilot of the family’s private jet. And before Harper can figure out how these two might fit into the case, he’s introduced to several other shady characters, including former actress (and current alcoholic) Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), Fay’s husband, Dwight (Robert Webber), and a strung out nightclub singer named Betty Fraley (Julie Harris). All of these people are at least somewhat familiar with the missing Mr. Sampson, and it’s up to Harper to determine how much they know about his disappearance. He even has a run-in with a wacky religious cult, which, under the leadership of High Priest Claude (Strother Martin), doubles as a smuggling operation for illegal immigrants.
With so many twists and turns, Harper resembles such ‘40s mysteries as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, with Newman taking on the part of the cynical, cocky sleuth Humphrey Bogart played to perfection in these two Hollywood classics. What’s even more fascinating than the fact Paul Newman portrays such a character in Harper is how well he does it, bringing a smarmy confidence to Harper that fits the character to a T. And though he would reprise the role once again in 1975’s The Drowning Pool, I would have loved to see the actor play a wise-ass private eye a few more times. Apparently, he had a real knack for it.