Technicolor nihilism, anyone? Harper (1966) is so bright and shiny, its grim trajectory and potently cynical characters come as something as a surprise. Based on a Ross Macdonald novel, Harper follows a case of down-on-his-luck gumshoe Lew Harper (Paul Newman). Harper is hired by the wealthy Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to track down her missing husband. At first, Harper is led to believe Mr. Sampson is merely stepping out on his loveless marriage. But as the case continues, Harper—aided at times by his lawyer friend Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), Sampson’s personal pilot Allen Taggert (Robert Wagner), and the Sampsons’ sexpot daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin)—digs deeper and deeper into the sunny Southern California underworld, unraveling a tangled skein of corruption and complicity.
Given its era, colorful look, and outwardly conventional trappings, Harper’s quick, rapid descent into bleak noir is jarring. Mostly, that’s in a good way, as it gives the dark mystery more realism and pop-culture staying power. The plot is full of disorienting twists and turns, but it’s nicely organized and scripted with slangy detective-fiction eloquence. Unfortunately, the terribleness of its characters goes over the line by modern standards, the dialogue—especially from our hero, Harper—full of normalized misogyny, fat shaming, and homophobia. The takeaway? In 1965, you can get away with anything if you look like Paul Newman. That said, Newman is pretty good here, something of a proto-Jim Rockford—a beleaguered, low-rent mercenary who occasionally uses con artistry and social engineering to pry answers out of his sources. There’s A-game support from many familiar faces in the cast, including Julie Harris, Janet Leigh, and Robert Webber. Aside from its grimy sociopolitical blemishes, it’s an enjoyable mystery for fans of this filmic decade, perfect weekend matinee material for laundry-folding cinephiles.