Harper (Jack Smight, 1966)

There are some days I wake up with this hankering to do absolutely nothing but stare into the turquoise jewels that are Paul Newman’s eyes. (I’m sure you do, too.)

Last Tuesday (and Wednesday…and Thursday…and Friday…) was one of those days. So I watched Harper for the first time.

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Paul Newman is Harper. Harper is a private detective. Harper is very cool. Very, very cool. The epitome of cool, even. Harper is also tough and shrewd and witty, throwing out sardonic lines like, “I used to be a sheriff until I passed my literacy test.”

Lauren Bacall is Elaine Simpson, a cold, no-nonsense kind of lady who hires Harper to locate her missing husband, Ralph Sampson, whom she doesn’t really love and doesn’t really miss but would kind of like to locate because he does have one redeeming quality–wealth.

Pamela Tiffin is Miranda Sampson, flirtatious stepdaughter to Lauren Bacall. At one point, Harper remarks that Miranda will throw herself at anything “pretty in pants”–like Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), Ralph’s private pilot. But not Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), Harper’s friend who recommended him to Mrs. Sampson for the job and who is hopelessly in love with Miranda.

Harper nicknames Taggert “Beauty” because of his pretty boy looks. Taggert likes to tag along with Harper (“This detective work is really fun”) and saves Harper from a fight one night outside a club where a piano-playin’, jazz-singin’ junkie Betty Fraley (Julie Harris) is instantly defensive at the mention of Ralph Sampson and calls the club’s security to dispose of Harper.

Fraley is close friends with a former movie star who is now an overweight alcoholic, Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), who is married to slime ball Dwight Troy (Robert Webber). All of these seedy characters are somehow connected to Ralph Sampson’s disappearance.

After discovering her husband’s connections to Fraley, Estabrook, and Troy, Harper reports to Mrs. Sampson that her husband keeps “as bad company as there is in L.A. And that’s as bad as there is.”

“I knew it. Oh, he loves playing the family man, but he never fooled me. Water seeks its own level, and that should leave Ralph bathing somewhere in a sewer,” Mrs. Sampson retorts.

Each of these characters could hold a clue for Harper about Sampson’s disappearance. Or perhaps some of them also hold a bullet for Harper. Each of them do work together to make Harper a great detective movie, a real whodunit that keeps you on the edge of your seat right ’til the very end. And once it reaches the end, you’ll throw your hands up in the air–quite literally–and throw a punch à la Harper at the television screen because the ending is so unexpected and infuriating and satisfying all at once.

Harper is one of Paul Newman’s most entertaining roles (originally intended for Frank Sinatra, ha!) and movies.

And it satiates the need to stare indefinitely into those ol’ blue eyes, albeit temporarily.

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‘Cause I’m pretty sure this will be me two weeks or two hours from now, unable and unwilling to get out of bed because all I want to do is have them turquoise jewels sear my entire being.

Seeking medical attention now.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956)

Rocky Graziano, Somebody Up There Likes Me

Somebody Up There Likes Me is the remarkable story of boxer Rocky Graziano, based on his autobiography of the same name. It stars Paul Newman as Graziano, who spends his youth indulging in mischief and thievery of all kinds, eventually landing himself in jail, the army, and back in jail again, until he finds salvation in the boxing ring and a girl.

Somebody Up There Likes Me, Newman’s second feature film, essentially put him on the map as a major actor. Criticisms comparing him to Brando plagued Newman for much of his early career. The similarities were superficial: akin appearances, their mutual Method training, and personifications of youthful rebellion. In The Silver Chalice, Newman’s disastrous film debut, the critics claimed he looked like Brando in Julius Caesar. Upon the release of Somebody Up There Likes Me, they again criticized Newman for imitating Brando’s Oscar-winning performance of an ex-fighter in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. (What better performance to imitate? Honestly.) The comparison was unfair.

When questioned about his preparation for Somebody Up There Likes Me on the inaugural episode of Inside the Actors Studio, Paul Newman recalled that he essentially lived with Graziano for two weeks, absorbing all of his mannerisms, from his boxing stance to his voice inflection. He shared the following anecdote:

“Rocky said that at one point he noticed this guy in Stillman’s gymnasium, was always standing around, watching him and listening to his conversation and was sidling up and watching his movements and his mannerisms and chatting in the locker room and everything. And finally this kid walked up to him and says, ‘How would you like to see this play that I done?’ And Rocky said, ‘You sing?’ He says, ‘No,’ he says, ‘It’s a play.’ He said, ‘What’s the name of the play?’ He said, ‘Streetcar Named Desire.’ So I’d always like to think that Marlon and I were working off the same guy.”

Touché.

Paul Newman & Rocky Graziano
Newman and Graziano. Dig the pencil. 

I must admit, though, part of me cringed at Newman’s performance in the first quarter of the film; I saw validation for the criticism. It seemed as though Newman were trying to imitate Brando–and trying too hard. I was grossly mistaken, though, as Newman’s performance utterly encompassed me as the film progressed. Newman was Graziano; he played the role (which was initially intended for James Dean, who died before filming began) perfectly. He is ruthless and kind, tough and sensitive, a simpleton yet acutely aware of the world around him and how it works.

The film was heavily marketed as a sentimental romance (the original tagline was: “A girl can lift a guy to the skies!”), which does play a central role, but I found the character of Rocky, his humor, his insecurity and ultimately determination far more compelling.

Rocky & Norma Go to the Movies
FAVORITE SCENE: Norma and Rocky go to the movies

When Edward Murrow interviewed Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward, settling into their New York apartment, on his program Person to Person (which Murrow loathed), he questioned Woodward about her Oscar she had won earlier that year for Three Faces of Eve, whether it was yet on display despite the chaos of moving. It was–and next to her Oscar was a Noscar. (“No Oscar”–get it? Haha.) It was given to Newman by Somebody Up There Likes Me director Robert Wise and producer Charles Schnee, who felt Newman should have been nominated for Best Actor. (Newman would be nominated nine times in his lifetime, finally winning for 1986’s The Color of Money–a sequel to The Hustler, for which he was also nominated. Newman didn’t attend the ceremony, not expecting to win yet again.) The inscription read:

“The Schnee-Wise Noscar Award to Paul Newman for best portraying a terrible, no-good blankity blank, for turning him into a charming and lovable sprite and thereby doing what Lincoln said could never be done, i.e. fooling all of the people all of the time.”

I quite enjoyed being fooled. You will, too.

P.S. Look out for Steve McQueen’s debut in this film as one of Graziano’s gang cronies.

Steve McQueen, Somebody Up There Likes Me

Always too cool.