Paul Newman in Harper (dir. Jack Smight, 1966).

I've heard two different reasons cited as to why the title of this movie is Harper rather than Archer (or The Moving Target, the name of the Lew Archer mystery by Ross Macdonald on which it's based). One is that Macdonald himself requested it because he didn't want there to be an entire series based on his books, just the one--an explanation that I don't quite get, especially as there was one more adaptation a few years later, The Drowning Pool. The other is that Paul Newman insisted on the name change, because he'd had great success with films that he'd starred in beginning with "H." I prefer to believe the second, because it helps me resent Newman for getting the character all wrong. What makes Lew Archer such an appealing modification of the hard-boiled private eye character as developed by Hammett and Chandler is that he's so wearily blank and sensible. When confronted by difficult antagonists on either side of the law, his usual response is to make himself small like a hedgehog, or to trot out reasonable arguments dutifully in the face of their obvious ineffectiveness. Newman's Harper, on the other hand, is a cocky loudmouth, festering with "boyish charm." When Archer gets clubbed over the head in the novels (it seems to happen once or twice in every one), it always makes me cringe in sympathy; when it happens to Harper, I feel gratified.

The film has a good look and a good cast, so it's a shame that it misses the boat so completely when it comes to tone. It also amplifies the misogyny that Macdonald managed by and large to muffle, especially with Shelly Winters' character. There are about twenty female roles, it seems like, and none of them manage to escape caricature. For some reason, William Goldman decides to insert a plot element about Archer's estranged wife (a theme that was only ever alluded to in the books). All it does is force poor Janet Leigh to play the long-suffering repressed shrew. Other than that, the script adheres pretty faithfully to the novel--until the unforgivably flippant and un-Archer-like ending, in which ethics and emotional gravity go out the window with a smirk.

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