By Richard Winters
My Rating: 9 out of 10
4-Word Review: New-age private eye.
Detective Lew Harper (Paul Newman) is hired by Mrs. Sampson (Lauren Bacall) a rich woman whose husband has gone missing. She wants a private eye to find him instead of the police due to the fact that her husband was involved in certain illegal business activities, which she doesn’t want to come to light. Harper finds himself immersed in a complex web of intrigue dealing with an array of shady characters, twists, and danger.
Newman is terrific and the Harper character is the perfect private eye for modern audiences. Watching him get out of bed in his dingy, cluttered apartment at the beginning and get ready for the day is excellent and builds characterization in a visual, subtle, and believable way. His cool, laid-back, and detached demeanor is a great contrast to the hyper, jaded, high-strung L.A. types that make up the assortment of suspects. His cynical style attaches the viewer to him right from the start and the banter that he has with everyone is marvelous.
The supporting characters are superb as well and very well-defined. Bacall gets one of her better later career roles as the bitchy eccentric wife. She gets quite a few quotable zingers particularly between her and her step daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) that are close to classic. I also got a kick out of Shelley Winters playing a parody of herself as a way past her prime Hollywood star who is now overweight and an alcoholic. Harper’s attempts to get information out of her by pretending to be a hick who is totally mesmerized by her is quite amusing.
Director Jack Smight is at his directorial peak here. The on-location shooting is splendid. I particularly enjoyed the modernistic building that fronts as a church, but is really used as a cover for criminal activity. It sits out on a sandy hilltop and leaves a strong visual impression as does Harper and Miranda’s car ride along a very winding desert highway to get there. I also liked his ability to capture an abandoned airplane hangar making it almost as evocative to the eye as the foot chase that happens in it. The whole production is consistently slick with color schemes, set design and editing that are all top notch.
William Goldman’s script, which is based on the novel by Ross Macdonald is sensational and one of his best in his already legendary career. The dialogue is sharp one can view it for the lines alone and might need to re-watch it again simply to pick-up on all of them as there are so many your liable to miss some. The mystery is also intriguing and nicely layered to the point that it will keep you guessing and impossible to figure out and fortunately there is a minimum of loopholes. I saw this before and knew the outcome, but still found it an enjoyable and involving ride.
My complaints are few and fortunately do not taint the quality of the picture, which is otherwise high. I didn’t like that Harper had an ex-wife Susan (Janet Leigh) who he is constantly trying to win back. The woman seemed a bit cold and snippy and not the type I would think Harper would fall for, or want to put up with. Having him act so needy to win back her affections hurt the ruggedness of the character who is appealing because of his independent and self-assured nature. There is another scene where a man is shot dead and Harper goes through his coat pockets in order to get some clues to his identity. He finds a matchbook listing a nightclub, which Harper goes to in order to ask questions from the patrons, but I kept thinking it would have been much easier had he just went through the victim’s pants pocket and taking out his wallet and looked at his driver’s license.
If you are looking for a nifty mystery done in the best crime noir tradition then they don’t come much better than this.
My Rating: 9 out of 10
Released: February 23, 1966
Runtime: 2Hours 1Minute
Rated NR (Not Rated)
Director: Jack Smight
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video