Fifty-six years ago today, the film Harper premiered. The film pays homage to Humphrey Bogart’s portrayals of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe by featuring Lauren Bacall, Bogart’s widow, who plays a wounded wife searching for her missing husband, a role similar to General Sternwood in the 1946 Bogart-and-Bacall film The Big Sleep.
Directed by: Jack Smight
Produced by: Elliott Kastner, Jerry Gershwin
Screenplay by: William Goldman
Based on: The Moving Target (1949) by Ross Macdonald
Starring: Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh
Music by: Johnny Mandel
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall
Edited by: Stefan Arnsten
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Release date: February 23, 1966
Running time: 121 minutes
Country: United States
Budget: $3.5 million
Box office: $12,000,000
Private investigator Lew Harper (Paul Newman) does not have many friends and has an appointment to sign his divorce papers. He is referred to a missing persons case by one of his friends, mild-mannered Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), one of several attorneys of multi-millionaire Ralph Sampson. Sampson, who is described as crazy, alcoholic and egotistical, disappeared after flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Sampson is married to the physically disabled but hard-boiled Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall). She doesn’t like her husband and believes he is off with another woman, which she claims she would not mind, but she wants to be sure he is not squandering his fortune.
Harper interviews Ralph Sampson’s seductive daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin), who hates and is hated by her stepmother, and Miranda’s amiable boyfriend Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner), who was the missing man’s private pilot. He is told Sampson disappeared from the airport after telling a hotel to send a limousine for him. The hotel staff say Sampson cancelled his request shortly after making it. An old photo of a glamorous starlet in Sampson’s bungalow leads Harper to Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), now an overweight alcoholic. Harper gets her drunk to see if she is connected to Sampson’s disappearance. While she is passed out, he answers her phone and pretends to be the “Mr. Troy” the caller, “Betty”, assumed him to be. Betty warns the man she thinks is Troy that Fay was seen with a stranger and that they need to be careful “when the truck goes through.” Harper asks about Ralph Sampson, which alerts Betty that she is not speaking to Troy, so she hangs up. Harper hangs up too, and is confronted by Troy, holding a gun. Troy is Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), Fay’s husband, and the house is his. He menacingly asks Harper some questions, but is satisfied by Harper’s cover story that he is just a lovesick fan of the ex-star Fay.
Harper tracks down Betty Fraley (Julie Harris), a lounge singer. When he asks about Ralph, she recognizes his voice from the phone call. Harper, noticing fresh needle marks on her arm, threatens to turn her over to the narcotics squad, and Betty admits she knows Sampson, but says it is only casually, as a drunk who frequents the bar. Harper becomes more insistent, and Betty has the bouncer Puddler (Roy Jenson) throw him out. Puddler assaults Harper in a back alley until Taggert comes out of nowhere and knocks Puddler unconscious. Taggert had been investigating the case, which took him to the lounge. They head back to Troy’s house to check on the truck, thinking Sampson may be in it. While Harper is inside the house, he hears gunshots. Taggert, standing watch outside, spotted the truck and shot at it. Harper tries to run the truck down on foot, but the truck, which has distinctive tire tracks, attempts to run Harper over and then speeds away.
Elaine receives a message from Ralph asking her to cash in $500,000 worth of bonds. She verifies that the handwriting is Ralph’s, and Harper deduces that he has been kidnapped. After Graves cashes the bonds for her and puts the money in the estate’s safe, Harper advises him to call in the police to guard it, and he goes up to a remote mountaintop property that Sampson previously had given to Claude (Strother Martin), a bogus holy man, for his cult’s Temple in the Clouds. Despite Claude’s attempts to distract him, Harper looks around. He finds a huge kettle of beans cooking and a tire print identical to the truck’s.
Back at the Sampson estate, Harper finds a ransom note with instructions to drop the cash that night at an oilfield outside of town. Because the note assumes they already have the cash, Harper suspects the kidnapper has an inside source. During the ransom drop, the man picking up the money is shot dead, and the cash is taken by someone following in a white convertible. A matchbook on the body leads Harper to The Corner, a seedy bar in Castle Beach, a beachfront community. Harper cons the barmaid into revealing the dead man was Eddie, a regular customer who had made a long-distance call to Las Vegas from the bar three nights before. Outside, Harper spots the truck that earlier tried to run him over, driven by Puddler, which he follows back to the mountaintop temple. There, he uncovers a smuggling operation of illegal immigrant labor run by Troy, using Claude’s temple as a front, with Eddie as the smuggler. Harper is caught and questioned by Troy, who knows nothing of the kidnapping or Eddie’s part in it, but realizes the white convertible belongs to Betty Fraley. Puddler takes Harper to another location and beats him up, but Harper is able to escape and kill the pursuing Puddler.
Shaken, Harper makes his way to his soon-to-be ex-wife Susan (Janet Leigh). She comforts him, and they spend the night together, but the next morning, he leaves her again, and she realizes Harper’s only true love is for his work.
At the estate, Graves tells Harper that the dead man was Eddie Rossiter, a small-time car thief and junkie who has a sister, Betty, who is also a junkie. Harper concludes that Taggert, Betty, and Eddie kidnapped Sampson. He confronts Taggert, who pulls a gun on him. Taggert is about to kill Harper, but he is shot by Graves, who bursts into the room just in time. When Harper tells Miranda that Taggert is dead and he kidnapped her father, Miranda admits she hated her father. Graves, who has long been in love with Miranda, attempts to console her.
Harper goes looking for Betty and the money in Castle Beach, where she and Taggert had a place, and locates the cottage by finding her white convertible parked outside. He hears Betty being tortured inside by Troy, Claude and Fay. She tells them the money is hidden in a deep-freeze storage locker. Harper bursts in, shoots Troy, slugs Claude unconscious, locks Fay in a closet, and after he retrieves the key to the locker, helps Betty to escape. Harper tells Betty he knows she double-crossed and killed her brother, and she admits to it, saying it was because he had got her addicted to drugs. She reveals that Sampson is being held in an abandoned oil tanker. Harper calls Graves to tell him to meet them there. When Harper searches the ship, he is knocked unconscious from behind. Some time later Graves revives Harper. They find Ralph Sampson’s body, he has recently been killed, presumably by whoever hit Harper over the head. Harper and Graves dub this mystery person “the fourth man”. They also discover that Harper’s car is gone, driven off by Betty. They drive after her, and when she sees them following in her car, she flees at high speed along a narrow winding hillside road and is killed when the car swerves off the road.
Harper and Graves retrieve the money, and Graves drives Harper home. On the way, Harper tells Graves he knows he is the fourth man because the locker key is still in Harper’s pocket and a kidnapper would have searched him for it while he was unconscious. Graves admits he killed Sampson, saying he did so because Sampson was a monster who was cruel to everyone, including him, when he prodded Graves to pursue Miranda’s affections just for his own cruel amusement. Harper tells Graves that he has no choice but to turn him in, Graves replies that he will not allow Harper to do that. Harper says that Graves will have to shoot him to stop him. Graves stops the car, and Harper gets out and walks to his front door. Graves cannot bring himself to shoot Harper. Neither man is sure what to do; each pauses uncertainly, saying to himself “Aw, hell.”