Follow TV Tropes


Film / Harper

Go To

Harper is a 1966 mystery thriller directed by Jack Smight, starring Paul Newman, with a screenplay by William Goldman.

Lew Harper (Newman) is a rumpled, world-weary private detective who's in the middle of a divorce from his wife Susan (Janet Leigh). His friend Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), an attorney, brings him a job. Albert's client, Ralph Sampson, has disappeared. Sampson's embittered ex-wife Elaine (Lauren Bacall) certainly doesn't care if Ralph lives or dies, but hires Harper out of a sense of obligation more than anything else. Sure enough, Sampson has been kidnapped.

Harper finds himself drawn into a mystery involving Sampson's sexy daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin), his pilot/flunkie Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), drug-addicted nightclub singer Betty Fraley (Julie Harris), all-around sleazeball Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), and Troy's sad alcoholic wife, former actress Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters).

Based on Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novel The Moving Target. Newman reprised the Harper role in the 1975 film The Drowning Pool.


  • Actor IS the Title Character: Advertised as "Paul Newman is Harper."
  • Adaptation Name Change: In the novel, the protagonist was named Lew Archer. The Movie changed his name to Lew Harper because the producers bought the rights to the novel, but not the overall rights to the character.
  • Bad to the Last Drop: In the opening scene, Harper, realizing he is out of coffee, makes a cup from yesterday's coffee grounds, which he fishes out of the garbage. Judging by his grimace, the result is not good.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Assembled to carry the $500,000 ransom demand.
  • Casting Gag
    • For this film which bears an obvious debt to '40s Film Noir in general and the film version of The Big Sleep in particular, the producers got none other than Lauren Bacall to play the part of Sampson's cynical wife.
    • For the part of a former hot blonde sexpot actress who got fat, the producers hired Shelley Winters, a former hot blonde sexpot actress who got fat. (The difference of course being that Winters was still enjoying a thriving career.)
  • Character Title: Harper features Harper.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Dwight Troy resorts to burning Betty's feet with a cigarette to make her reveal where the ransom money is hidden.
  • Cool Car: Harper drives a Porsche Speedster - as befits the low-rent detective, it's painted a couple shades of primer (and presumably, in the mid-1960s, Speedsters were still affordable for low-rent detectives).
  • Detective Drama: Probably a more exciting job for Harper than his usual divorce cases.
  • Dirty Old Man: Harper calls Albert this after finding out Albert is in love with Miranda, who is less than half his age.
  • Disney Villain Death: Harper's fight with a bad guy in a warehouse that's storing ship anchors ends with the bad guy falling from a catwalk onto the anchors below.
  • Driving a Desk: Done horribly, as was usually the case, like the scene in which Harper is driving Miranda along the winding roads of the California coast.
  • Establishing Character Moment: A rumpled, disheveled Harper gets up from sleeping on a couch, and makes coffee with yesterday's coffee grounds. The shot then reveals that he's sleeping in his office. Establishes what kind of person Harper is and how his life is going.
    • Alfred is introduced doing exercises in his office, which make him look quite dorky compared to Harper.
    • We first see Elaine lounging in her mansion, establishing her wealth and catty nature.
    • Miranda is first seen dancing in a bikini by the pool.
    • Harper finds Fay Estabrook drinking in a bar.
    • Dwight Troy appears in a doorway, holding a gun on Harper and threatening him.
  • Evil All Along: Allen Taggert. Harper initiates this reveal by bad-mouthing Betty, whom he suspects Allen is secretly in love with, and when Allen can't stand it anymore, he pulls a gun on Harper and reveals he was one of the ones who kidnapped Ralph Sampson.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Dwight Troy acts pleasant and jovial to everyone he meets, but the sadism and cruelty underneath are always apparent.
  • Fille Fatale: Miranda, who has Albert wrapped around her little finger, flirts shamelessly with Albert, and tries to seduce Harper.
  • Going by the Matchbook: Harper pulls a matchbook out of the pocket of Eddie, the dead guy who came for the ransom money. It leads him to the nightclub where Betty Fraley is performing.
  • The Ghost: Ralph Sampson, millionaire, crook, bad husband, and dirtbag, discussed at length, but never seen alive.
  • Hate Sink: Dwight Troy, a sleazy crime boss who tries to kill Harper several times and tortures Betty. He's easily the most unambiguously evil character in the entire film, with no friendships or any Freudian Excuse for his behavior. Ralph Sampson, the victim, also counts. As the film progresses, we learn that he was despised by his family for his cruelty, and was helping Dwight Troy run an illegal immigrant trafficking ring.
  • The Heavy: Dwight Troy. He's a sadistic gangster who is running a human trafficking ring in the middle of Los Angeles, makes several attempts on Harper's life, tortures Betty, and is the prime suspect in Ralph Sampson's disappearance. However, he's not the kidnapper of Ralph Sampson, or the killer. In fact, Sampson was his accomplice.
  • Instant Death Bullet: Both Dwight Troy and Allen Taggert die instantly after being shot in the torso.
  • Lady Drunk: Fay Estabrook seems to spend most of her time getting drunk in bars. Harper refers to her as a "fat alcoholic."
  • Left Hanging: In the last scene Alfred confesses, saying he killed Sampson basically on impulse after finding Sampson—a bad person and all-around monster who was thoroughly hated by his daughter Miranda—tied up on the boat where he was left by the kidnappers. Harper says he has to turn Alfred in, whereupon Alfred says he'll have to shoot Harper. Harper gets out of the car, and Alfred pulls his gun. Alfred can't bring himself to shoot Harper, though, saying "Oh hell", and lowering his gun. Harper says "Oh hell" as well, and raises his arms in frustration—freeze frame. The End.
  • Let Off by the Detective: Maybe. See Left Hanging above.
  • Lens Flare: Produced by a police flashlight after Harper finally calls the cops.
  • Match Cut: And a pretty good one. Fay is wobbling on her feet from too much liquor at the bar, only to finally fall down—cut to Fay crumpling onto her couch at home.
  • Private Detective: Lew Harper.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Susan basically exists to give Harper something to feel bad about, and to provide a booty call in one scene.note 
  • Soft Glass: No injuries for Harper after jumping through a glass window to escape a Mook.
  • Verbal Tic: Dwight Troy fakes an English accent so as to sound sophisticated, and calls everyone he meets "Old Stick".
  • We Have the Keys: Allan and Harper have arrived at a house where they think the bad guys are. Allan, who is getting way too enthusiastic about helping in the private detective game, asks if he can knock the door down. He rams the door with one shoulder, and fails. Wincing in pain, he rams the door with his other shoulder, and fails. As he cringes from two hurt shoulders, Harper laughs, and opens the door, which wasn't locked.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Elaine and Miranda hate the hell out of each other. Miranda accuses her stepmother of faking her paralysis. Elaine's face shines with malevolent glee when she's about to tell Miranda that her father is dead.