Reviewing the Warner Archive February 27, 2018 DVD release of the William Goldman ("Princess Bride," "Butch Cassidy," "All the President's Men") 1975 Paul Newman "Harper" sequel "The Drowning Pool" before the 1966 film provides an interesting perspective on the earlier movie.
A more amusing observation is that both films (including the general tone and "Pool" taking titular P.I. Lew Harper well outside his comfort zone) warrants a comparison to the Chevy Chase "Fletch" films of the '80s. Fans of that franchise still have hope for "Fletch Won" to hit the megaplex as a triple feature with the third "Bill and Ted" and "Gremlins" movies.
Harper is the creation of crime novelist Ross MacDonald. Archive reminds us that the first film is based on the aptly titled book The Moving Target.
One interesting contrast between "Harper" and "Pool" is that the Blu-ray of "Harper" looks and sounds better than the perfectly good BD of the later film. Probable reasons for this include the first film being set in sunny southern California, and "Pool" looking much more gritty to better reflect the tougher New Orleans area setting of that film.
The most noticeable difference in these movies is apparent from the opening seconds of both films. Newman still looks good nine years later, but we see that time has been unkind to this modern day Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe. The implication is that this creation of novelist Ross MacDonald bears the physical and psychological burdens of cases such as the one in "Harper."
A similarity in both films is that the method technique of young lion Newman quickly establishes that he is a downtrodden "have not" who makes his living catering to the "haves." These largely silent scenes heavily rely on the acting talent of this national treasure.
The following YouTube clip of the theatrical trailer for "Harper" is one of the best ever of these promos. Well-written narration accurately and entertainingly conveys the tone of the film, and having the female stars stay in character while commenting on that sexy beast is great fun.
"Harper" opens with our exhausted hero waking up in the one-room office that doubles as his home. His humiliating life includes having to disgustingly improvise on discovering that he is out of coffee. "Pool" has Harper land at the New Orleans airport to discover that the seat belt of his beater rental car is broken.
Both films then have Harper drive either his own beater or the aforementioned crappy rental to the lavish estate of his new client. In this case, it is trophy wife Elaine Sampson. Former Mrs. Bogart Lauren Bacall, who is no stranger to noir, plays this kept woman. Elaine tells Harper that her husband Ralph apparently has run off, and that she merely wants to know the details. The probability that Ralph is with a woman is of less interest than anticipated.
The investigation goes poolside as Harper questions surrogate son/private pilot Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), who saw Ralph a few minutes before his disappearance. Watching 20-something daughter Miranda Sampson ('60s sex kitten Pamela Tiffin) dance '60s style to the accompaniment of generic rock music of the era is a highlight of the film. Her stereotypical behavior extends to the dancing being part of an extended futile effort to seduce Taggert. Taggert being a substitute for her deceased blood brother contributes an entertaining ick factor.
Harper then sets out to retrace the steps of Ralph with Taggert as his pilot and Miranda as a tag-a-long. Seeing the '66 "Batman" level tacky pied-a-terre of Ralph only is part of the fun. Watching Harper first verbally nail Miranda regarding her attempted seduction of him and then call her bluff is hilarious.
This investigation next leads Harper to the next member of the conga line of Hollywood stereotypes that populate the film. He tracks down Hollywood royalty turned overweight box office poison Fay Estabrook, who is a friend of Ralph. Shelley Winters is very good sport and does a great job portraying this sloppy alcoholic has-been.
The other star-studded stereotypes include Janet Leigh as the no-longer-suffering almost-ex Mrs. Harper, Julie Harris as a former notable jazz musician/current ex-con junkie, and Strother Martin as a guru. Discovering the extent of the connections between the stock character persons in the life of Ralph is much of the fun of the film and is a great example of the cynicism that characterizes noir.
Even more fun comes when the aforementioned reveals prompt the tumblers to click in the mind of any viewer savvy enough to solve a "Scooby-Doo" mystery. Although the general deduction will be correct, the assumption regarding the motive almost definitely will not be. The cynicism here relates to some people simply deserving what they get.
The most notable aspect of "Harper" is that it perfectly represents the transition from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the Silver Age. The tone of the film is very modern with a touch of the noir style that precedes it. We further get young lions Newman and Wagner taking center stage from Bacall and the other cast members of her generation.
The special features include audio commentary by Goldman.