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The fashion industry and Paris provide the setting for a comedy surrounding the mistaken impression that Joanne Woodward is a high-priced call girl. Paul Newman is the journalist interviewing her for insights on her profession.
Lew Harper is a Los Angeles based private investigator whose marriage to Susan Harper, who he still loves, is ending in imminent divorce since she can't stand being second fiddle to his work, which is always taking him away at the most inopportune of times. His latest client is tough talking and physically disabled Elaine Sampson, who wants him to find her wealthy husband, Ralph Sampson, missing now for twenty-four hours, ever since he disappeared at Van Nuys Airport after having just arrived from Vegas. No one seems to like Ralph, Elaine included. She believes he is cavorting with some woman, which to her would be more a fact than a problem. Harper got the case on the recommendation of the Sampsons' lawyer and Harper's personal friend, milquetoast Albert Graves, who is unrequitedly in love with Sampson's seductive daughter, Miranda Sampson. Miranda, who Harper later states throws herself at anything "pretty in pants", also has a decidedly cold relationship with her stepmother, Elaine...Written by
While perhaps not as taut as "The Maltese Falcon", but just as intricate as "Chinatown" or "L.A. Confidential", "Harper" is an under-acknowledged gem of a film that's as cool as it's leading man. It's with this film that I began to get a better appreciation of Paul Newman, easily one of the most versatile leading men Hollywood has ever produced. Here, he plays Harper as something of a SOB, always looking at the paycheck as his top priority. Not that the pond he has to swim in is any better; a frigid woman client, a hot-to-trot teen daughter, a duplicitous servant, an attorney who's the closest thing to a friend Harper has, a washed-up nightclub singer, her sinister, Texan husband, and a cult leader aren't exactly what one would call charming dinner company. It also doesn't help that the guy Harper's trying to find isn't even liked by the wife who hired him (thanks to the under-appreciated fire and spirit of Lauren "Betty" Bacall, one of the true originals) or anybody else. The only thing they like is his money.
Like a good boxer, the plot bobs and weaves, never letting the audience know when the next surprise is coming until it's too late. While Chandler is cited when talking about this film, it also makes me think of Hammett's many, many tales of the Continental Op. Not everybody always tells the truth, not everything is what it seems, and the best laid plans of mice and men (to paraphrase Bobby Burns) wind up falling through. Some people may not have the patience for this film in our razzle-dazzle, in-your-face age of entertainment, but for those who prefer their movies with a soft, subtle touch, this is one for you.
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