We are brought into the world of Lew Harper with a cold open full of character. There he is. Paul Newman. Soaking his head in a sink full of ice. Making his morning cup of Joe. Popping that first piece of chewing gum before heading off to his first appointment.
What follows is a narrative courtesy of Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target and an up-and-coming screenwriter William Goldman. Really, the film pays tribute to all of Bogart’s great P.I. roles (even going so far as casting Lauren Bacall), becoming a ’60s revamp of The Big Sleep.
But although the plot is not quite as incomprehensible as its predecessor, the greatest joy of this storyline is the witty repartee of Goldman’s pen paired with wall-to-wall star power. We have Newman and Bacall headlining as a gumshoe and his client who is looking rather half-heartedly for her missing husband. We have young blood with Robert Wagner and Pamela Tiffin. Then some old reliable talent in the likes of Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, and Strother Martin. The characters might not be the most insightful, but who needs that when they’re fun.
Lew Harper’s marriage is going down the tubes as he begins digging around for leads on the whereabouts of millionaire Ralph Sampson. He begins his inquiries which ultimately lead him to a washed-up starlet (Winters) who he pumps for information. He meets her charming husband and pays a visit to a nightclub singer (Harris) with a drug habit.
The dive musical halls, a rogue truck, and an encounter with a new age religious cult point Harper toward’s Sampson’s kidnapping, but he must piece together all the broken shards. There are twists, turns, and big reveals that are only fitting for a mystery of this inclination.
It’s certainly a nifty charade of mystery accented by a bouncy score courtesy of Johnny Mandel. But this sublimely Paul Newman role is more fun. In his own words, “He’s a regular beaver,” a jaded cynic prone to smirks and sarcasm. He’s a sly dog even before Jim Rockford. He gives off an air of not being particularly happy in his work, but who would be thrilled to be a private investigator? On top of the lousy lifestyle and unglamorous dirty work, his wife is calling for divorce proceedings.
And yet he reveals moments of humanity and charm, whether he’s stacking up on tea sandwiches, chatting it up with his pal Albert, or pulling one over on his wife over the phone with paper towels stuffed down his throat.
Harper serves up exactly what we want with Newman grabbing hold of a cynical streak like he does best and riding the waves of Goldman’s engaging script. It’s not rocket science, but everything translates into a thoroughly enjoyable experience all around.
(After being beaten up again)
“Hey Lew, you alright?” ~ Albert
“I’m awful tired of answering that question” ~Lew