Original cinema poster
|Directed by||Jack Smight|
|Produced by||Elliott Kastner
|Screenplay by||William Goldman|
|Based on||The Moving Target
by Ross Macdonald
|Music by||Johnny Mandel|
|Cinematography||Conrad L. Hall|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Running time||121 min.|
Harper , released in the UK as The Moving Target, is a 1966 film based on Ross Macdonald's novel The Moving Target and adapted for the screen by novelist William Goldman,2 who was a big admirer of Ross MacDonald.3 The film stars Paul Newman as the eponymous Lew Harper (Lew Archer in the novel).
Goldman received a 1967 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.
The film captures elements of the traditional "buddy" film. The film also pays homage to the Humphrey Bogart films by bringing Bogart's wife Lauren Bacall into the story. She plays the role of the wounded and woeful wife, the person most concerned with a missing husband, a role similar to the character General Sternwood in the Bogart and Bacall 1946 movie The Big Sleep.
In 1975, Newman reprised the role in The Drowning Pool.
Private investigator Lew Harper's marriage to Susan is in trouble and he doesn't have many friends, but one of them, mild-mannered attorney Albert Graves, brings him a case. Ralph Sampson, the millionaire husband of hard-boiled Elaine Sampson, is missing. Ralph, worth $20 million, is described by most as money-driven, crazy, alcoholic and egotistical. Elaine, who is physically disabled from a horseback riding accident, doesn't even seem to like her husband and believes he is off with another woman. She just wants to know where he is so that she can, as she states, outlive him.
Harper's first stop is to see Sampson's spoiled but seductive daughter, Miranda, and her amiable casual boyfriend Alan Taggert, who is the missing man's private pilot. A photo of a glamorous starlet in Sampson's belongings leads to Fay Estabrook, who is now an overweight alcoholic. Harper gets her drunk and drives her home to see if there is any evidence at her house linking her to Sampson's disappearance. While she is passed out, he intercepts a phone call meant for her. He pretends to be the "Troy" the caller assumes she's speaking with. The caller, named Betty, talks about reports that Fay was seen earlier in the evening with a stranger – that being Harper – and that they need to be careful. When Harper mentions Ralph Sampson, Betty realizes that she is not speaking to Troy. After Harper hangs up on her, Troy comes out of the woodwork. He is Fay's husband, Dwight Troy, who kicks Harper out of the house at gunpoint.
Harper tracks down "Betty" – Betty Fraley, a lounge singer, and not a very good one, who has a nasty drug habit. After she asks him about Ralph, she recognizes his voice from the telephone. Harper, noticing the fresh track marks on her arm, threatens to turn her over to the narcotics squad, and Betty admits she knows Sampson, but only casually as a drunk who comes into the bar. When Harper keeps questioning her, Betty gets the bouncer, Puddler, to throw him out, but not until Puddler's had a chance to beat him. Taggert comes out of nowhere to rescue Harper by knocking Puddler unconscious. Taggert had apparently been following leads himself which led him to the lounge. They head back to Fay's house to follow another lead that Betty had mentioned in her telephone call about a truck coming through, although Harper has no idea of the significance of the truck. While Harper is inside Fay's house, he hears gunshots outside. Taggert, standing watch outside, spotted the truck and tried to shoot the tires before it got away. Harper tries to run the truck down on foot, but the truck tries to run Harper over before it speeds away.
With Miranda, Harper next takes a trip up to the mountaintop temple of a religious cult led by Claude, a bogus holy man, to whom Ralph gave the property for the cult's temple.
Elaine receives a note from Ralph asking her to cash in $500,000 worth of bonds. She verifies that the handwriting is Ralph's. After Graves cashes the bonds for her and puts the money in his safe, Elaine receives a ransom note telling them where to drop the money. Since the kidnapper seems to know that they now had the money in their possession, Harper figures the kidnapper has an inside source. Now with the police involved, they decide to make the ransom drop, at an oil site outside of town at night. There, the person who picks up the money is shot dead by someone driving a white sedan, who is able to drive off with the money. A matchbook in the dead man's pocket leads Harper to a seedy bar called The Corner.
At The Corner, Harper learns the dead man is a regular customer named Eddie, who had made a long distance call to Vegas three nights ago from the bar, the last time he was there. Outside, Harper spots the truck that earlier tried to run him over. Following the truck leads Harper back to the mountaintop temple. There, he uncovers a smuggling organization of illegal immigrants, run by Dwight, who uses Claude's temple as a front. Harper is captured by Dwight, Claude and their band of illegal immigrants. Harper is held captive and beaten, overseen by Puddler. Despite having his wrists tied together, Harper manages to kill the guard and escape. He comes home to Susan, who treats his wounds, lets him stay for the night, and makes love to him, but Harper runs out on her again the next morning.
He goes to Taggert on the pretense of borrowing a clean shirt, then "casually" insults Betty in order to provoke Taggert into admitting he's in love with Betty and conspired with her to steal Mrs. Sampson's ransom payment. Taggert pulls a gun on Harper, who vows to let him go with the money if he lets Harper do what he was hired to do: find Ralph Sampson. Taggert refuses and is about to kill Harper. Graves saves the day at the last instant, bursting into the room and shooting Taggert from behind. After Harper tells Miranda that Taggert is dead, Miranda confesses that despite thinking Taggert attractive, she was not in love with him. She also admits to hating her father. She considers herself cold and uncaring. Graves, who has long been in love with Miranda, attempts to console her about her newly confessed self-loathing.
Harper goes looking for Betty and the money in Castle Beach, the beach front community where she and Taggert had their love nest. He is able to locate her by finding the white sedan parked outside one of the houses. He can hear inside that she is being tortured, her captors being Dwight, Claude and Fay, who are trying to find out where she hid the money. He also overhears Betty telling them that the money is hidden in a deep freeze storage locker, the key to which is in a box above the fireplace. Harper bursts in, shoots Dwight, slugs Claude, locks Fay in a closet and, after he retrieves the key to the locker, helps a barely mobile Betty to escape. After Harper tells her – and proves – that the man she loved, Taggert, is dead, Betty tells him that the man she murdered at the ransom site, Eddie, was her brother, who was working for Dwight, Fay and Claude. She also tells him that Sampson is being held in an abandoned oil tanker. Harper calls Graves to tell him to meet them at the tanker.
After they arrive at the tanker, Harper goes inside and is hit over the head from behind, rendering him unconscious. Arriving at the scene, Graves is able to revive Harper. The person who beat Harper is nowhere in sight. They both end up finding Sampson, who is now dead, presumably murdered by whoever hit Harper over the head. They also discover that Harper's car is gone. Betty has driven off with it, having learned hot-wiring skills from Eddie when they were kids.
Using his intuition, Harper, with Graves in Graves' car, goes searching for Betty. They end up spotting her driving along the highway. When she spots them behind her, a high-speed chase along a narrow winding hillside road ensues. Coming upon an unexpected construction crew around a bend in the road, Betty swerves and careens off the road down the hill. The accident kills her.
Harper telephones Elaine to tell her that her husband is dead. She takes the news matter of factly and with a sense of cynical happiness. Harper and Graves go to the deep freeze locker to retrieve the money, which is where Betty said it would be. As Harper and Graves drive to the Sampson estate in Graves' car to return the money, Harper confronts Graves with his suspicion: that Graves is the one who hit him from behind at the oil tanker and the one who killed Sampson. What gave Graves away was that if the person who hit him was part of the kidnapping gang, he would have searched him for the key to the locker. Graves admits he did kill Sampson, a spur of the moment decision when the opportunity arose. He thought Sampson a cruel man, not only to him but to everyone. As an example, Sampson tried to push Graves into Miranda's arms when Sampson learned Graves was in love with her, but Graves knew Sampson would never give his consent for Graves to marry her, and did it all just for his own amusement. When Graves consoled Miranda earlier that day, it pushed him over the edge with regard to his ill feelings for Sampson. Despite Graves telling him that no one will be sad about Sampson's death, Harper tells him that he has no choice but to turn him in.
At the gate to the Sampson estate, Harper gets out of the car with the money, telling Graves he'll need to shoot him to stop him. Harper walks slowly through the gate, and Graves points his revolver at Harper. But neither man is entirely sure what to do next; the film ends with each man pausing uncertainly and saying to himself, "Aw, hell."
- Paul Newman - Lew Harper
- Lauren Bacall - Elaine Sampson
- Julie Harris - Betty Fraley
- Arthur Hill - Albert Graves
- Janet Leigh - Susan Harper
- Pamela Tiffin - Miranda Sampson
- Robert Wagner - Allan Taggert
- Robert Webber - Dwight Troy
- Shelley Winters - Fay Estabrook
- Harold Gould - Sheriff Spanner
- Roy Jenson - Puddler
- Strother Martin - Claude
William Goldman had written a novel Boys and Girls Together, the film rights to which had been optioned by Eliot Kastner. Kastner met with Goldman and expressed a desire to make a tough movie, one "with balls". Goldman suggested the Lew Archer novels of Ross MacDonald would be ideal, and offered to do an adaptation. Kastner agreed, saying he would option whatever of the novels Goldman suggested, and Goldman chose the first The Moving Target. According to Goldman, the script was offered to Frank Sinatra first who turned it down, then to Paul Newman, who was eager to accept as he had just made a costume film, Lady L, and was keen to do something contemporary.4
The script was originally called Archer. The name of the lead character was changed from Lew Archer to Harper because the producers had not bought the rights to the series, just to The Moving Target. Goldman later wrote "so we needed a different name and Harper seemed OK, the guy harps on things, it's essentially what he does for a living."5
The film was a hit earning $5.3 million in North American rentals in 1966.6
Goldman adapted another MacDonald novel, The Chill but it was not filmed.7
- "Harper, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved May 22, 2012.
- Variety film review; February 16, 1966, page 6.
- New York Times, June 01, 1969: 'The Goodbye Look: By Ross Macdonald', review by William Goldman
- William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade 1982 p 177-179
- William Goldman, Five Screenplays, Applause, 1997 p 5
- "Big Rental Pictures of 1966", Variety, 4 January 1967 p 8
- Dennis Brown, Shoptalk, Newmarket Press, 1992 p 63