Spadework

Paul Newman’s two Lew Harper films — based on two of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — are kind of like the square old Hollywood movies celebrated, or at any rate documented — in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Both have extremely gifted mod cinematographers, though: Conrad Hall shot HARPER in 1966 and Gordon “the Prince of Darkness” Willis shot its belated sequel THE DROWNING POOL in 1975. I double-billed them but I’ll mainly talk about the first one here.

Jack Smight, a truly square director but not untalented, allows or encourages or inspires Hall to pull off a few spectacular shots in HARPER (see top), perhaps aware that it’s just a reasonably good Raymond Chandler knock-off. As Donald Westlake complained, Ross MacDonald recycled the one about the rich, dysfunctional family until everyone was screaming at him to quit it for chrissakes — basically The Big Sleep ad nauseam, and here we have Lauren Bacall to remind us of past glories. So making the most of the widescreen and colour is essential to stop this from seeming like warmed-over stuff from an earlier decade — what’s harder is to stop it seeming like TV stuff. The down-at-heel, long-suffering private eye would be incarnated par excellence by James Garner in The Rockford Files who had a natural word-weariness Newman can’t match.

The first movie is quite diverting, with a spectacular comic turn from Shelley Winters (I felt bad about all the fat gibes in William Goldman’s script though) and very good work from Arthur Hill, Pamela Tiffin and a host of others. Strother Martin’s hillside cult temple is one of my favourite places I’ve ever seen in a movie. There’s a fight there between Newman and a hundred silent Mexicans (a short fight) which has a nice surreal vibe, like the multiple Agent Smiths in THE MATRIX.

Maybe the problem is that these stories never effect any change in the hero, making them more suited to series TV… though they used to work fine in the ‘forties. This one has too many corpses and complications, and Goldman’s misogyny gets grating, and I think sometimes Newman tries too hard to be “entertaining.” Here he is, reacting to the sight of Pamela Tiffin in a bikini:

Goldman writes about the film’s opening sequence in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He’d started his script, sensibly enough, with the private eye showing up to get briefed on his case. The studio called to say they needed some action to put under the credits. Well, what could he write that happens BEFORE the case?

In desperation, he scripted the early morning routine of his hero, and put in a gag about running out of coffee. Harper looks in his waste bin where there’s yesterday’s discarded coffee filter. Dare he recycle it?

He does. Closeup of Newman pulling disgusted face when he tastes the result. The audience laughs. It’s a nice gag — it humanizes the character, it’s gross but still relatable — it makes him a bit of an underdog. Down these mean streets a man must walk with a horrible taste of used coffee in his mouth.

What Goldman omits to mention is that, normally, opening a script with the hero getting up in the morning is a TERRIBLE idea, a huge cliche and a watse of the audience’s time. Don’t do it, he should be saying, especially as his book is a kind of screenwriting guide (written before there were a million of the things). It happens to work this one time.

The other bad thing is Newman thinking about whether to make terrible garbage coffee. It’s a classic Hitchcock set-up: show him looking, show what he’s looking at, and show him looking some more. We will do the thinking and project that onto the image. No acting required. You could remove the coffee grains and insert a shot of Pamela Tiffin or Robert Webber or the Serengeti plains and it would still work, if the angle was right.

But here’s what we get from Newman, the great method actor:

Boy, he’s thinking HARD, isn’t he? I bet if he thought that hard about the kidnapping case he has to solve the movie would only be twenty minutes long.

Newman is very affable generally and has that contradictory laid-back intensity that’s so useful in a star. It’s just that sometimes maybe somebody ought to sit on his head.

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24 Responses to “Spadework”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Smight is by no means without interest. “No Way To Treat a Lady” which came out the same year is darkly amusing as is “The Travelling Executioner” a few years later. Best of all his two-part TV movie “Frankenstein: The True Story” scripted by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.

    “Harper” has a great Johnny Mandel score and Pamela Tiffin frugging in a bikini by a swimming pool (a good reason to go to the movies in and of itself) Godard cited Roger Tailleur’s review of “Harper” in “Positif” as being particularly insightful and well-written

  2. Fiona and I saw Frankenstein: The True Story at an impressionable age and were greatly impressed.

    I picked up No Way TTAL recently and intend to give it a spin: I remember enjoying it, though Steiger is somewhat amok.

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Steiger amok is always fun — and never more so than in “The Loved One”

  4. Grant Skene Says:

    “James Garner in The Rockford Files who had a natural word-weariness (sic) Newman can’t match.”

    Was “word” weariness instead of “world” weariness a typo, or intentional? Because I kind of like it. Although word weariness might explain all the tics and mumblings of those method actors.

  5. Tony Williams Says:

    David E, Oh, yes, especially THE BIG KNIFE and I remember reviews of that UK IRA film HENNESSEY (sic?) co-starring Richard Johnson where one reviewee remarked that the director subtly allowed Steiger his one “amok” scene in distant long shot. I suppose it was the equivalent of the Anne Baxter smile that occurred in his later performances especially in one BBC TV of a Sherlock Holmes episode with Peter Cushing and the opening credits of the TV mini-series EAST OF EDEN?

  6. Presumably Goldman had also just watched The Ipcress File, that came out the year before and opens with a similar scene.

  7. I’m a moderate Smight fan as well. His best film may be the 1979 basketball comedy FAST BREAK.

  8. You’re badly underestimating Ross MacDonald. I think you’d find his collected short stories startlingly good, and at the end of that volume, something I haven’ seen before: the set-up ten or so pages for maybe two dozen stories he didn’t finish. Reading happily through those will leave you with new appreciation of what genre writers do.

  9. ehrenstein47 Says:

  10. I have enjoyed several Macdonald stories in the Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks I’ve been picking up in charity shops. They sometimes have his novels too, and I read a few. I think his short stories are better — their propulsiveness is impressive. The novels are well written but they do all seem kind of similar.

    This early post contains my favourite Rod Steiger overacting story:
    https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2007/12/04/terry-thomas-is-cinema/

  11. bensondonald Says:

    A free idea: A sleek, high-priced investigator finds himself stuck with a cheap, low-rent case that turns out to be … a cheap, low-rent case. And he does not fall in love or Learn Something.

  12. There’s a very good Brit series called The Public Eye, currently being repeated on Talking Pictures TV here, which fits this description to a tee.

  13. bensondonald Says:

    Well, I’ve still got my original idea about a poor girl who gets to go to a ball …

  14. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “Paris is Burning” covered that, bensondonald.

  15. Has there ever been a Steiger performance that isn’t more or less amok? I think it may be impossible for him to be anything but intense, I think he pegs the acting meter at 10.

  16. I think he’s quite low-key in Teresa, a very early one. Naturalistic.

  17. chris schneider Says:

    One of the moments I liked best in HARPER was when Newman calls Shelley Winters ”a classy dame” and she responds “I *am* classy! Not that many people notice it.”

  18. Pretty much everything she does and says in her first sequence is pure gold. Including grabbing Newman’s ass as they exit.

  19. ehrenstein47 Says:

  20. Bit of a Johnny Mandel connection between this post and the following.

  21. ehrenstein47 Says:

  22. mikeclelland Says:

    Michael Caine made coffee a year earlier during the opening credits of *The Ipcress File* (1965)

    If I remember correctly, there is a story that someone involved in the production was trying to promote the sales of French presses because they’d bought stock or something. Thus the step-by-step coffee making instructional that begins the film.

    Also, Caine used a paltry amount of grounds, and I have to assume the coffee would have been terribly weak. So (for me, who uses a French press daily) this sequence mirrors the offensively bad coffee in HARPER, yet without any grimace by the leading man.

  23. Would it have been Len Deighton, who was a food critic in his other job, who had the French press franchise? He did a bit of hand-doubling for Caine, who couldn’t master the trick of cracking two eggs together with one hand.

  24. mikeclelland Says:

    I found these informative snippets in the IMDB page titled: “The Ipcress File trivia”

    Harry’s coffee pot is an Insta-Brewer. Executive Producer Charles D. Kasher owned the patent on the product, and Sir Michael Caine appeared in a print ad for it.

    (and this)

    Harry Palmer is depicted as an accomplished cook, but when you see Palmer skillfully break a couple of eggs, the hands in the close-up belong to Len Deighton, author of the book, on which this movie was based. Deighton was an accomplished cook, and also wrote a comic strip about cooking for The Observer. The walls of Palmer’s kitchen are full of these strips.

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