Down on his luck private detective Lew Harper (Paul Newman) is faced with an impending divorce from wife Susan (Janet Leigh), when crippled socialite Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) hires him to trace her missing husband. Tagging along on the investigative trail come Sampson’s beautiful and capricious daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) with whom Harper’s best friend, lawyer Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), has grown romantically obsessed, and her on-off lover, playboy pilot Allan Taggart (Robert Wagner), who treats the whole affair as a lark. A ransom demand confirms Sampson has been kidnapped, but the mystery weaves in a drug-addled lounge singer (Julie Harris), various shady criminals and a nutty New Age cult, before Harper uncovers the shocking truth.
Stephen King once lamented how the Lew Archer novels are all but forgotten today, when author Ross MacDonald (the pseudonym used by Kenneth Millar) was once acclaimed the heir apparent to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. William Goldman, the writer behind Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), All the President’s Men (1976) and The Princess Bride (1987), proclaimed the eighteen Lew Archer stories “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American”. Harper marked Goldman’s screenwriting debut, with a name-change for the title character on account of Paul Newman’s success with films starting with the letter “H”: The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Hombre (1966).
Cinematographer Conrad Hall, who shot Butch Cassidy… and Newman’s final live-action outing in The Road to Perdition (2002), imparts a gorgeously glossy Technicolor sheen to proceedings, complementing the fantastically twisty plot and sparkling dialogue (Choice samples: “You’ve got a way of starting conversations that ends conversations”; “Only cream and bastards rise to the top”). Newman, caught at the height of his golden boy good looks, is charm personified, and more vulnerable both emotionally and physically than the average gumshoe. The sun-soaked vistas of California provide the perfect backdrop for a tale that contrasts surface beauty with inner ugliness, while the central thread of a down-at-heel private eye caught in the machinations of wealthy scumbags anticipates Chinatown (1974).
Although the mystery is suitably labyrinthine and involving, the tone is breezy and humorous, peppered with lively, well-defined characters made memorable by a well-chosen cast: Shelley Winters as fading starlet Fay Estabrook (“I am classy. Not everybody notices.”); Strother Martin as a sleazy New Age guru, whose “Temple of the Clouds” later reappeared in The Stone Killer (1973)); and Robert Wagner proves a real hoot as playboy Allan before events take a darker turn. Drop-dead gorgeous Pamela Tiffin enjoys her finest ever role as jaded hedonist Miranda Sampson, given a truly spectacular gravity-defying intro where she go-go dances atop a diving board in her polka-dot bikini.
Remarkably, Harper repels Miranda’s amorous advances, largely because he’s cut-up about his impending divorce. While in most instances the romantic subplot would seem an unnecessary diversion, it provides one heartbreaking scene wherein after a brief reconciliation Harper walks away from a happy home life because he’s compelled to crack this case. Visceral set-pieces include Harper being swarmed by migrant workers at the New Age hippie hideout and his brutal fight with psychotic Puddler (Roy Jenson) at an abandoned shipyard, but it’s that ineffably chic, Swinging Sixties vibe, with go-go dancers on the peripheries and a delightfully wry ending, that makes this buoyant and lovable where its sequel The Drowning Pool (1975) is melancholy and introspective.