Based on Ross Macdonald’s novel The Moving Target, Harper (1966) was Paul Newman’s starring turn as the detective who would pursue missing persons and find the truth. In the vein of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, Harper is an adaptation of Archer, Macdonald’s creation, by renowned screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man). Thanks to the Warner Archive Collection, audiences can now check out the original and the subsequent Harper sequel, The Drowning Pool (1975).
In the original directed by Jack Smight, Newman’s private investigator is struggling in his marriage (to Janet Leigh) and finds his next distraction investigating the disappearance of the physically disabled millionaire’s wife (Lauren Bacall). His search takes him to a stepdaughter, and her boyfriend (and the millionaire’s pilot), Allan (Robert Wagner), then to a hotel (and Shelley Winters) where the millionaire was last seen. There’s a fake cult run by Strother Martin’s Claude, too, just to add to the unusual turns that Harper must take to get to the truth of the millionaire’s disappearance, like so many movies from the 1960s and 70s about private detectives. Special features on the Harper Blu include a commentary by Goldman.
The sequel is directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, in collaboration with Newman), as Harper’s ex-girlfriend Iris (Joanne Woodward, Three Faces of Eve) needs Harper’s help to cover her infidelity and protect herself. A recurring theme, Iris has a daughter (Melanie Griffith) whose involvement complicates things. Nothing is straightforward though, as Harper gets stuck between Iris’ family and several other principal powers, like oil magnate J.J. Kilbourne (Murray Hamilton) and local police Chief Broussard (Anthony Franciosa). It’s a script that Walter Hill (The Getaway, 48 Hours, Last Man Standing) started, but that Tracy Keenan Wynn (The Longest Yard) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Batman TV series, Three Days of the Condor). The ‘specialist’ feature here is an old featurette about Harper returning to the big screen in the sequel.
For some hardboiled crime flicks in the vein of Chinatown (or to see where The Good Guys came from?) check these two films out to see Newman putting in work, making stories that have reality-based tendencies. They shine in comparison to more current films that lean on CGI and flashy action sequences to hide a lack of plot.