Harper (film)

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Harper film poster.jpg
Original cinema poster
Directed byJack Smight
Screenplay byWilliam Goldman
Based onThe Moving Target (1949)
by Ross Macdonald
Produced by
CinematographyConrad L. Hall
Edited byStefan Arnsten
Music byJohnny Mandel
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • February 23, 1966 (1966-02-23)
Running time
121 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3.5 million
Box office$12,000,000[1]

Harper (released in the UK as The Moving Target) is a 1966 American Technicolor mystery film in Panavision based on Ross Macdonald's 1949 novel The Moving Target and adapted for the screen by novelist William Goldman,[2] who admired MacDonald's writings.[3] The film stars Paul Newman as Lew Harper (Lew Archer in the novel). It is directed by Jack Smight, with a cast that includes Robert Wagner, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters, Lauren Bacall and Arthur Hill.

Goldman received a 1967 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.

The film pays homage to Humphrey Bogart's portrayals of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe by featuring Lauren Bacall, Bogart's widow, who plays a wounded wife searching for her missing husband, a role similar to General Sternwood in the 1946 Bogart-and-Bacall film The Big Sleep.

In 1975, Newman reprised the role in The Drowning Pool.


Private investigator Lew Harper (Paul Newman) does not have many friends and has an appointment to sign his divorce papers. He is referred to a missing persons case by former D.A. turned rich private lawyer, Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), one of several attorneys of multi-millionaire Ralph Sampson. Sampson, who is described as crazy, alcoholic and egotistical, disappeared after flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Sampson is married to the physically disabled but hard-boiled Elaine (Lauren Bacall). She doesn't like her husband, who began philandering on their honeymoon after Elaine had fallen off a horse, and has been led by Graves to believe Sampson is off with another woman. She wants to be sure he is not squandering his fortune.

Harper interviews Ralph Sampson's seductive daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin), who hates and is hated by her stepmother, and Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), who was the missing man's private pilot. He is told Sampson disappeared from the airport after telling a hotel to send a limousine for him. The hotel staff say Sampson cancelled his request shortly after making it. An old photo of a glamorous starlet in Sampson's bungalow leads Harper to Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), now an aging alcoholic. Harper gets her drunk to see if she is connected to Sampson's disappearance. While she is passed out, he answers her phone and pretends to be the "Mr. Troy" the caller, "Betty", assumed him to be. Betty warns the man she thinks is Troy that Fay was seen with a stranger and that they need to be careful "when the truck goes through." Harper asks about Ralph Sampson, which alerts Betty that she is not speaking to Troy, so she hangs up. Harper hangs up too, and is confronted by Troy, holding a gun. Troy is Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), Fay's husband, and the house is his. He menacingly asks Harper some questions, but is satisfied by Harper's cover story that he is just a lovesick fan of the ex-star Fay.

Harper tracks down Betty Fraley (Julie Harris), a lounge singer. When he asks about Ralph, she recognizes his voice from the phone call. Harper, noticing fresh needle marks on her arm, threatens to turn her over to the narcotics squad, and Betty admits she knows Sampson, but says it is only casually, as a drunk who frequents the bar. Harper becomes more insistent, and Betty has the bouncer Puddler (Roy Jenson) throw him out. Puddler assaults Harper in a back alley until Taggert comes out of nowhere and knocks Puddler unconscious. Taggert had been investigating the case, which took him to the lounge. They head back to Troy's house to check on the truck, thinking Sampson may be in it. While Harper is inside the house, he hears gunshots. Taggert, standing watch outside, spotted the truck and shot at it. Harper tries to run the truck down on foot, but the truck, which has distinctive tire tracks, attempts to run Harper over and then speeds away.

Elaine receives a message from Ralph asking her to cash in $500,000 worth of bonds. She verifies that the handwriting is Ralph's, and Harper deduces that he has been kidnapped. After Graves cashes the bonds for her and puts the money in the estate's safe, Harper advises him to call in the police to guard it, and he goes up to a remote mountaintop property that Sampson previously had given to Claude (Strother Martin), a bogus holy man, for his cult's Temple in the Clouds. Despite Claude's attempts to distract him, Harper looks around. He finds a huge kettle of beans cooking and a tire print identical to the truck's.

Back at the Sampson estate, Harper finds a ransom note with instructions to drop the cash that night at an oilfield outside of town. Because the note assumes they already have the cash, Harper suspects the kidnapper has an inside source. During the ransom drop, the man picking up the money is shot dead, and the cash is taken by someone following in a white convertible. A matchbook on the body leads Harper to The Corner, a seedy bar in Castle Beach, a beachfront community. Harper cons the barmaid into revealing the dead man was Eddie, a regular customer who had made a long-distance call to Las Vegas from the bar three nights before. Outside, Harper spots the truck that earlier tried to run him over, driven by Puddler, which he follows back to the mountaintop temple. There, he uncovers a smuggling operation of illegal immigrant labor run by Troy, using Claude's temple as a front, with Eddie as the smuggler. Harper is caught and questioned by Troy, who knows nothing of the kidnapping or Eddie's part in it, but realizes the white convertible belongs to Betty Fraley. Puddler takes Harper to another location and beats him up, but Harper is able to escape and kill the pursuing Puddler.

Shaken, Harper makes his way to his soon-to-be ex-wife Susan (Janet Leigh). She comforts him, and they spend the night together, but the next morning, he leaves her again, and she realizes Harper's only true love is for his work.

At the estate, Graves tells Harper that the dead man was Eddie Rossiter, a small-time car thief and junkie who has a sister, Betty, who is also a junkie. Harper concludes that Taggert, Betty, and Eddie kidnapped Sampson. He confronts Taggert, who initially denies any involvement. Harper then goads Taggert by disparaging Betty. Taggert is visibly offended, because he and Betty are secretly involved in a romantic relationship, and he pulls a gun on Harper. Taggert is about to kill Harper, but he is shot by Graves, who bursts into the room just in time. When Harper tells Miranda that Taggert is dead and he kidnapped her father, Miranda admits she hated her father. Graves, who has long been in love with Miranda, attempts to console her.

Harper goes looking for Betty and the money in Castle Beach, where she and Taggert had a place, and locates the cottage by finding her white convertible parked outside. He hears Betty being tortured inside by Troy, Claude and Fay. She tells them the money is hidden in a deep-freeze storage locker. Harper bursts in, shoots Troy, slugs Claude unconscious, locks Fay in a closet, and after he retrieves the key to the locker, helps Betty to escape. Harper tells Betty he knows she double-crossed and killed her brother, and she admits to it, saying it was because he had got her addicted to drugs. She reveals that Sampson is being held in an abandoned oil tanker. Harper calls Graves to tell him to meet them there. When Harper searches the ship, he is knocked unconscious from behind. Some time later Graves revives Harper. They find Ralph Sampson's body; he has recently been killed, presumably by whoever hit Harper over the head. Harper and Graves dub this mystery person "the fourth man". They also discover that Harper's car is gone, driven off by Betty. They drive after her, and when she sees them following in her car, she flees at high speed along a narrow winding hillside road and is killed when the car swerves off the road.

Harper and Graves retrieve the money, and Graves drives Harper home. On the way, Harper tells Graves he knows he is the fourth man because the locker key is still in Harper's pocket and a kidnapper would have searched him for it while he was unconscious. Graves admits he killed Sampson, saying he did so because Sampson was a monster who was cruel to everyone, including him, when he prodded Graves to pursue Miranda's affections just for his own cruel amusement. Harper tells Graves that he has no choice but to turn him in, Graves replies that he will not allow Harper to do that. Harper says that Graves will have to shoot him to stop him. Graves stops the car, and Harper gets out and walks to his front door. Graves cannot bring himself to shoot Harper. Neither man is sure what to do; each pauses uncertainly, saying to himself "Aw, hell."




William Goldman had written the novel Boys and Girls Together, the film rights to which had been optioned by producer Elliot Kastner. Kastner met with Goldman and expressed a desire to make a tough movie, one "with balls". Goldman suggested the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald would be ideal – Goldman had long been an admirer of Macdonald, saying the Archer books were "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American" and that Macdonald was "one of the best American novelists now operating, and he keeps getting better."[4]

Goldman offered to do an adaptation. Kastner agreed, saying he would option whatever of the novels Goldman suggested. Goldman chose The Moving Target, the first novel. Kastner later said he paid Macdonald $1,000 for the film rights and Goldman $5,000 to do the script.[5]

According to Goldman, the script was offered first to Frank Sinatra, who turned it down, then to Paul Newman, who was eager to accept as he had just made the costume film Lady L, and he was keen to do something contemporary.[6] Newman's signing was announced in March 1965.[7] Kastner set up the film at Warner Bros for a budget of $3.3 million of which Kastner got $500,000.[8]

The script originally was called Archer. The name of the lead character was changed from Lew Archer to Harper because the producers had not bought the rights to the series, just to The Moving Target. Goldman later wrote "so we needed a different name and Harper seemed OK, the guy harps on things, it's essentially what he does for a living."[9] Goldman says Newman wanted a title with the letter H as he had good luck with one word titles starting with "H" such as The Hustler and Hud.

"It's a Bogie kind of film", said Newman, adding the difference in the private eye character "is the level of commitment. He has more of a sense of humor about his job."[10]

Jack Smight[edit]

Goldman says the film originally was offered to a director who was engaged in a legal fight with Warners. The job eventually went to Jack Smight, best known then for his TV work, who had recently signed a six-picture deal with Warner Bros. The Third Day (1965) was the first and Harper was to be the second.[11]

According to Smight, Paul Newman had admired some of the director's work for live TV. The director met with Newman, discussed the script, and received the star's approval. In contrast with his first two features, Smight loved the script for Harper.[12]

Smight later said "attempting a private eye story at the height of all these Bonds could have been a risky business. We wanted to capture some of the qualities of Double Indemnity and all those earlier Raymond Chandlers and Hammetts – in other words to do a really good movie movie – without being accused of retrogressing. I studied some of those pictures to see what made them tick. One great thing they had going for them was that the character people were so visually explicit: When Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet walked in on Bogart, you didn't need an explanation. Today it's harder to find them; they just aren't being developed in the way they used to be."[11]

Smight asked for, and got, rehearsal time for the movie.[12]


In the title sequence, Newman dunks his head into a sinkful of ice cubes to rouse himself awake; a bit that he repeated in the 1973 film The Sting. Newman reportedly followed this routine every morning in real life.[13]

Robert Wagner later recalled Jack Smight "lacked confidence; his wife was with him on the set for the entire shoot and seemed to function as a kind of security blanket. This was annoying because a film set derives its specific temperature from the star and the director. Our director was nervous, which can make the cast and crew nervous. But Paul pretended not to notice and his confidence spread to the rest of the cast. The reason he was confident was because William Goldman's script was tight and amusing and the cast kept things bubbling."[14]


The film was a hit at the box office. It launched Goldman's career as a screenwriter.[15]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Subject Result
Edgar Awards Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture William Goldman Won
Laurel Awards Action Drama Harper 5th
Action Performance Paul Newman 3rd
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Drama William Goldman Nominated

Box office[edit]

The film earned $5.3 million in North American rentals in 1966.[16]


Goldman adapted The Chill, another Macdonald novel, for the same producers, but it was not filmed.[17] Paul Newman pulled out of the project, and Sam Peckinpah became attached as director for a while as the film was set up at Commonwealth United Entertainment. When that company ended its film operations, it was not made.[18]

The Drowning Pool (1950), another Macdonald novel, was adapted to film with Paul Newman reprising the role of Harper. The Drowning Pool was released by Warner Brothers in 1975.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Harper, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved May 22, 2012.
  2. ^ Variety film review; February 16, 1966, page 6.
  3. ^ William Goldman (June 1, 1969). "The Goodbye Look: By Ross Macdonald". The New York Times.
  4. ^ WILLIAM GOLDMAN (June 1, 1969). "The Goodbye Look: By Ross Macdonald. 243 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $4.95". The New York Times. p. BR1.
  5. ^ Webster, Jack (1991). Alistair MacLean: A Life. Chapmans. p. 128.
  6. ^ "William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1982). p 177–179".
  7. ^ Martin, Betty (March 31, 1965). "MOVIE CALL SHEET: 'Winkle' on Tap at MGM; 'Target' Due". Los Angeles Times. p. c9.
  8. ^ Webster, p. 128.
  9. ^ William Goldman, Five Screenplays, Applause (1997). p 5
  10. ^ Champlin, Charles (August 18, 1965). "No Blinkers on This Private Eye". Los Angeles Times. p. D9.
  11. ^ a b "Hollywood Kind to TV Directors". Los Angeles Times. May 17, 1966. p. c9.
  12. ^ a b Myers, JP (March 8, 2018). "This is the story of Director Jack Smight's life in entertainment written by himself".
  13. ^ Borden, Marian Edelman (2011). Paul Newman: A Biography. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-313-38311-3. Retrieved March 7, 2018.
  14. ^ Wagner, Robert (2016). I Loved Her in the Movies: Memoirs of Hollywood's Legendary Actors. Viking. p. 193.
  15. ^ RALPH TYLER (November 12, 1978). "'Butch Cassidy' Was: My Western, 'Magic' Is My Hitchcock' 'Magic' Is My Hitchcock". The New York Times. p. D23.
  16. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1966", Variety, 4 January 1967 p 8
  17. ^ Dennis Brown, Shoptalk, Newmarket Press, 1992 p 63
  18. ^ Adler, Dick (January 31, 1971). "TOP PIX DEALS GOPOOF: "Say, what ever happened with that script I read you had all set up to shoot in Swaziland with Paul Newman, Raquel Welch, the Spanish Air Force, Godzilla and the June Taylor Dancers?" he asked, folding his copy of the Hollywood Reporter. "Don't ask", the man answered". Los Angeles Times. p. u14.

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