Thursday, December 20, 2007

Acting up

Spurred by a fine old article from January Magazine, I decided to acquaint myself with Ross Macdonald, only I did so secondhand, through the 1966 movie Harper.

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

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Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Just watched it.
I haven't read the source Ross Macdonald novel so I can't say how it compared to the original, but:

1). Paul Newman's performance here was far superior to 'The Moving Target', as was the film
(somewhat surprising as the director of the latter, Stuart Rosenberg had drawn a couple of good performances from Newman in a couple of other films he made with him): there was thankfully far less of the Newman mugging that blighted the later film
2). I doubt very much that there was much of the flirting with soon to be ex-wife, played by Janet Leigh, in the book;
3). Too many of the scenes with Robert Wagner were of too light a tone to be in the book; ditto the early scenes with Pamela Tiffin
(a favourite (decorous) 60's actress of mine); and the various 60's dance scenes seemed designed to creat a 'vibe' to help attract fans of such as the 'Flint' series of films;
4). I'm not sure Lew Archer would have been involved in as many fistfights/action-man type scenes in the novel
5). Interesting unsympathetic performance by Julie Harris, - the best actress among a glittering cast of actresses: she reminded me, in that night-club scene, of Ida Lupino in 'Roadhouse'
6). Great performance by a favourite actor of mine, Robert Webber, who had been so memorable, with the prematurely-demised Gig Young, as a pair of gay corporate hit-men in Peckinpah's 'Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia'.
7). Great to see a non-Western role for the great Strother Martin, who seemed to have problem communicating with yet another Newman character.

On the whole I greatly enjoyed the film, even if its unmistakeably a 60's film.

September 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul Newman's performance here was far superior to 'The Moving Target,' as was the film.

What did you mean by that? You saud you had not read the source novel, but then you said Newman's performance was superior to The Moving Target, implying that you had, in fact, read the novel. What am I missing?

Yep, it was a highly talented cast, though I'll withhold my vote on Pamela Tiffin. That's why it's obvious that the mugging came on order from the director or producer. The actors and actresses were talented enough to have done better had they been allowed to do so.

I enjoyed the movie, too, despite its unmistakably 1960s look. But anyone who needs convincing that the '60s were not all about peace and love need only look at what movies and television did with that decade.

September 02, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

What did you mean by that? You saud you had not read the source novel, but then you said Newman's performance was superior to The Moving Target, "
Meaning there was less of Paul Newman mugging in this one, and less of the standard Paul Newman persona and more of an Archer-esque PI

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...


I don't know enough about Newman to make generalizations about his work other than that he was generally restrained in his acting.

September 02, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

The box-set which I recently bought, and which includes the two Harper films, also includes one of his early films, 'The Left Handed Gun', where his Method-acting influence is all too evident; by the time he made 'Harper' he seems to have finally shaken off the worst excesses of his Method training, but I'm particularly interested in listening to the (director) Arthur Penn commentary track for 'The Left Handed Gun'

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, that is interesting. I'd singled out Newman as a commendably quiet presence amid the talented overactors of "Harper." I did not know he had once been an overactor himself.

September 02, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Try and see 'The Left Handed Gun' and you'll see what I mean
Even in 'The Hustler' he displayed considerable Method Actor excesses: perhaps he tried too hard to cmpete with George C.Scott, in that one.

September 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Whatever the reason, the background you suggest makes his restraint in "Harper" all the more impressive.

September 02, 2010  

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