That Paul Newman vehicle, based on Macdonald's 1949 novel The Moving Target, alters one of the more famous names in crime fiction, turning Lew Archer into Lew Harper. It also brims with the early Macdonald's debts to Raymond Chandler that J. Kingston Pierce cited in January Mag, and more besides.
It's a highly watchable movie, though a weird blend of three eras in American pop culture: the wince-inducing Hollywood 1960s; the 1930s and early '40s, toward which Macdonald looked when he wrote the novel; and the late 1940s, when Macdonald, to judge from what we see on screen, had yet to make the "fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition" that Pierce cites.
Let me break down my comments into a list, and perhaps something coherent will emerge:
1) The Lauren Bacall/Raymond Chandler connections. In Howard Hawks' celebrated 1945/46 movie of Chandler's The Big Sleep, Bacall plays a sexy, spoiled rich woman whose father hires Philip Marlowe and hopes he can find a missing man, among other tasks. In Harper, she plays a sexy, spoiled rich woman who hires Lew Harper (Archer) to find her missing husband.
The Big Sleep has moody shots of oil rigs churning away in the California night; so does Harper.
Both stories take place in Los Angeles.
Both feature a troublesome, flighty young woman who makes herself a thorn in the Bacall character's side (Pamela Tiffin in Harper, the much-better Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep).
As a bonus, Michael Winner's 1978 remake of The Big Sleep, though transferring the setting to England, begins with a near duplicate of an early sequence from Harper.
2) The wince-inducing 1960s detail, and I don't mean just the laughable music and god-awful clothes and haircuts that are trotted out to indicate "1960s." I mean the acting. Just about anyone with more than thirty seconds' screen time spends some of it mugging or otherwise going over the top. Arthur Hill is not just Harper's lawyer friend, but a cringing über-nerd with thick glasses and a bad haircut. Shelley Winters plays a star gone fat, so naturally the camera captures her noisily stuffing her face.
Pamela Tiffin's go-go-dance-on-the-diving-board routine is so dated that I expected someone to yell, "Crazy, man!" Bacall grins evilly in one sort-of close-up, chewing scenery as if in an Agatha Christie parody. Even Newman, the anti-Pacino, the most graceful and restrained of stars, gets into the act, rolling his eyes and tossing his head in impatience. (He brings it off better than anyone else in the movie, making it a part of the character and not just a piece of schtick. With the exception of Tiffin, everyone in the cast can act and does so nicely when not mugging and grimacing.)
3) The really wince-inducing 1960s detail: The nightclub scene in which three musicians with English-style clothes and mod haircuts pretend to play guitar and bass to a soundtrack on which the only audible instruments are trumpets.
4) The pre-Chandler connection. The whiff of family secrets is still vaguely in the air, as in much crime fiction of Chandler's time and before. This was a hallmark of American crime fiction from the late 1920s on, as Robert Towne knew well when he wrote Chinatown.
A religious cult figures prominently, as in Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse or "The Scorched Face" or Jonathan Latimer's Solomon's Vineyard.
Hey, I didn't promise coherence.
© Peter Rozovsky 2007