KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (4)

By: Mark Kingwell
August 4, 2017

One of 25 installments in a series of enthusiastic posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite neo-noir movies from the Sixties (1964–1973).

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HARPER | d. JACK SMIGHT | 1966

Paul Newman was not everyone’s first choice to portray Lew Archer, Ross Macdonald’s tortured Southern California private detective. In fact, the producers initially wanted Frank Sinatra. But Newman’s chiseled features and clear blue eyes convey something essential of the complex gumshoe who appeared in eighteen compelling novels by Macdonald (pseudonym of the prolific Canadian-born Kenneth Millar). Archer becomes smart-ass Harper in Newman’s portrayal, but keeps all the psychological insight and feelings of lurking bafflement. Why do people do things? What does all this mean?

Newman would offer another take on Lew in The Drowning Pool (1975, d. Stuart Rosenberg, after the novel of the same name), but the first-take Harper (1966, d. Jack Smight, based on The Moving Target) is far superior. Newman shimmers with cool intensity and has a lithe physical presence that reflects Macdonald’s shifting of the hard-boiled genre from Chandleresque preoccupation with honour and courage to nuanced displays of empathy and vulnerability. The common factor is, of course, corruption and death in and around Los Angeles.

The film, with a witty screenplay by William Goldman, is exceptional but flawed. Unnerving scenes atop the weird hillside “temple in the clouds,” where Harper is subtly threatened by a bogus guru (Strother Martin) and his Mexican-worker posse, are set alongside awkward domestic exchanges with his tragically devoted wife (Janet Leigh). The labyrinthine plot concerns missing persons who want to be missing, various murders, and an inconclusive existential ending that might or might not work. (I loved it at seventeen, when I first saw the film, hated it the next time, at age thirty.) Along the way, Robert Wagner, Shelley Winters, and Lauren Bacall, among others, populate the twisting narrative trail.

Most of all, this is a cinematic essay on California in the mid-Sixties, with swimming pools and tiki bars not many blocks from alleys scattered with used needles. The male clothing styles alone map a terrain that covers college-boy jacket-and-skinny-tie outfits for the trim Harper to the jumpsuits and neckerchiefs worn by one swinging villain (the exquisitely menacing Robert Webber). Heroin addiction is openly acknowledged, though necessarily associated with jazz music in sleazy beachfront clubs. And the high exurban life is, as usual, skewered for its large walk-in closets full of skeletons.

Every viewer will have to judge for themselves, but that odd ending may actually offer aesthetic finality of a high order. “Aw, hell,” as world-weary Lew says in his last line. Yes, exactly.

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MORE KINGWELL at HILOBROW: TALISMANIC OBJECTS: ZIPPO | #SQUADGOALS: THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | HERMENAUTIC TAROT: THE WARY WATCHERS | KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: HARPER | QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: TAINTED LOVE | GROK MY ENTHUSIASM: NORTH STAR SNEAKERS & GWG JEANS | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM: GILL SANS | KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Plus: HILO HERO items on Roland Barthes, Muriel Spark, Iain Banks, Slavoj Zizek, Hannah Arendt, Andy Kaufman, and many others.

KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Series Introduction | Kio Stark on THE KILLERS | Alix Lambert on BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | Judith Zissman on ALPHAVILLE | Mark Kingwell on HARPER | Lynn Peril on BLOW-UP | Devin McKinney on SECONDS | Drew Daniel on BRANDED TO KILL | Luc Sante on POINT BLANK | Gordon Dahlquist on LE SAMOURAÏ | Alice Boone on LE CERCLE ROUGE | Brian Berger on COTTON COMES TO HARLEM | Adrienne Crewe on PERFORMANCE | David Levine on THE FRENCH CONNECTION | Dan Fox on GET CARTER | Melissa Gira Grant on KLUTE | Brandi Brown on SHAFT | Kaleb Horton on FAT CITY | Peter Doyle on THE GETAWAY | Sarah Weinman on HICKEY & BOGGS | Annie Nocenti on BADLANDS | Josh Glenn on CHARLEY VARRICK | Gary Groth on THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE | Lisa Jane Persky on THE LONG GOODBYE | Mimi Lipson on MEAN STREETS | Sherri Wasserman on SOYLENT GREEN.

MORE MOVIES at HILOBROW: KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: 25 neo-noirs of the Sixties (1964–1973) | James Parker’s BOURNE VARIATIONS series | Alix Lambert’s SÉRIE NOIRE series | Jacob Mikanowski’s SCREEN TIME series | Josh Glenn’s SHOCKING BLOCKING series | Joanne McNeil’s ALL MY STARS series | MORE: including dozens of HILO HERO items on movie directors and actors.

MORE ENTHUSIASM at HILOBROW

KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): THE KILLERS | BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | ALPHAVILLE | HARPER | BLOW-UP | & 20 other neo-noir movies. #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads | GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.

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