Harper (1966)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Harper (1966):          
         This Paul Newman detective story might as well be ‘The Big Sleep’ or any of the good hard-boiled detective stories of the ‘30s or ‘40s.  All the interesting characters are there. 
         This was 1966, and Paul Newman was at the top of his game.  The supporting cast is all-star, too.  Lauren Bacall, Robert Wagner, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh; I could go on and on. They spent the money, they got it right.  Bright, slick and Technicolor, but also tough and true.
         It is a good story, a great detective story and all you could want from a mainstream Hollywood ‘A’ Picture in 1966.
         What makes this picture so special that I mention it here? Well, historically, this is the first U. S. film that - by it's ending - has the perpetrator of a crime go unpunished. Since the early Thirties the Hollywood Production Code had kept a strict hand on anything they considered morally unsuitable.
         Even Edward G. Robinson in SCARLET STREET – who got away with his crimes - went insane at the end.
         Warning, I have to use a SPOILER here to make my point.
         At the end of the film, and all its convolutions of plot, our hero Lew Harper discovers that his friend - the Arthur Hill lawyer character – has killed the missing kidnapped millionaire.  He didn’t do the kidnapping; just the opportunistic killing.  After having to take the millionaire’s abuse for many years, the lawyer made a choice and went for the money.
         When all the other matters are settled, Lew Harper, riding with his friend back to the millionaire’s wife, tells his friend he knows he did the killing.
         Quietly, still just talking, the lawyer tells Harper he’ll have to stop him from giving him up.
         Well, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, says Harper. He gets out of the car and slowly walks toward the door, he knows his friend has a gun trained on his back.
         At the last minute Newman (Harper) throws up his hands in a Christ-like gesture, they both say ‘oh, hell.’ and the film is over.  A sigh of relief all around. 
         Without saying a word more, Harper agrees not to turn his friend in for the killing. He is not going to cast his best friend to the wolves (the cops) over a dead kidnapped millionaire no one in the film liked. A bad man, forget it, let's split the money and just go on with our lives.
         Essentially, it's a "whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone" ending.
         This was the first US film - by my reckoning - to do this.  After HARPER, any film could end any way it wanted, with no fear of the release being blocked by the Production Code.
         Unlike so many of the mid-‘60s Hollywood’s desperate attempts to be hip, slick and cool – trying so very hard to be as honest as the foreign films of that era - this one got it right.
         From this point on, no one had to go to jail or die by the last reel. Morally dubious? Yes. Realistic? Also, yes.
         For this, HARPER is a milestone. – Electro deFog / JBW.

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