Thursday, January 14, 2010

HARPER – They Don’t (and Won’t) Make ‘em Like That Anymore

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In the film, Harper (1), screenwriter William Goldman was asked at the eleventh hour during shooting, for an opening credits sequence to be written and sent overnight to the production. He wanted to avoid the familiar P.I. story opening in which the hero is summoned to the prospective client who states the case to be solved. This is the way The Big Sleep (Bogart version) opens, to name just one example.

During the opening credits, Goldman shows us Harper (Paul Newman) getting up, presumably after a particularly wicked night. He stumbles about his darkened kitchen, looking for the coffee filters, and when he discovers he’s out, he pauses over the trash can for a moment, arrives at a tough decision, and then removes yesterday’s filter and grounds and puts them into the coffeemaker. When the “coffee” is ready, he pours a cup, takes a sip, and after a pause, with a rictus grin, he registers his “approval.” With that very human demonstration of Monday morning desperation, Goldman’s audience was hooked. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, considered such a thing? We identify with Harper completely. The moment resonates within us. He is one of us. And so, we care what might happen to him during the events ahead. Our hopes and fears are invested in him. All achieved in a single opening moment.
Here’s how Goldman describes the sequence from his commentary on the Harper DVD:
“What you’re looking at now is the credit sequence, which was in many ways the most important part of my education in screenwriting. This sequence, now, the credit sequence... Here’s how the movie happened: I had written a long, long novel called Boys and Girls Together. Elliot Kastner had optioned it. We’d met. He had just seen a movie called The Professionals, cinematography by Conrad Hall. He said, ‘I wanna do a movie with balls. I wanna do a movie like The Professionals.’ And I said read some Ross MacDonald, who was then and now, for me, the greatest writer of detective fiction, of tough guy detective fiction novels. And Kastner said, ‘I’ll read some and call you and see if I like it.’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ So I read all the MacDonald books starting with 1964 or ’65, and his first one came out in ’49, and it was The Moving Target, which was the one I chose to adapt...
“At any rate, I was very happy in New York while they were shooting, and I got a phone call that said, ‘Write a credit sequence.’ And I panicked and thought, ‘What do you mean, write a credit—I have no idea how to do that. I don’t know what it would be, blah, blah, blah. Detective movies like this or stories traditionally begin when the detective meets the person who hires him. In this case, as you’ll see shortly, Lauren Bacall. And I thought, ‘Should I write a phone call: Hello, this is Lew Harper,’ but that would be boring. So I got the notion that he had to get up. And so I wrote the credit sequence, and just as in Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid], the moment that everybody talked about in those years when it came out was the jump off the cliff. The moment everybody talked about in Harper was the credit sequence and the coffee. It was a huge laugh... When I finally saw it, I was stunned...
“What that did, was... it started the movie on rails. They liked the main guy. And that was HUGE! ‘Cause when you’re doing this kind of movie, all you have, really, is your main character. And if they didn’t like him, or found him boring, etc. we would have been in deep trouble.     
The opening of Harper is an example of something that today’s audience takes for granted in its films. But in Harper’s day, it was much rarer. It might be described as behavior-based internal monologue. It's a kind of sub-textual breaking (without breaking character) of "the fourth wall" to communicate directly with the viewer. Movies don’t work well in telling audiences what their characters are thinking. Other than behavior and clever dialogue, the methods to reveal such internalization, such as voice-over narration, are clunky and frowned-upon by producers and studios. 

The great films and film-makers have always used behavior to reveal a character’s innermost thoughts, but, until more recently, it hasn’t been routine since the heyday of the silent film. Today’s films routinely reveal interior thinking through behavior, mostly through throwaway kinds of actions noticed only by us, the audience, showing what a character really thinks about something as opposed to what they might have just said. But in Harper’s era, other than in films by people like Billy Wilder, and certain top-level comedians like George Burns and Bill Cosby, for example, this kind of thing was just emerging as a standard mainstream narrative device. This freshness is why the opening received its HUGE laugh. Audiences were un-used to being given real truths in their popular entertainment.

Harper, despite its age, holds up extremely well today. Oh, there’s the stupid ‘60’s dancing scenes with Pamela Tiffin in the bikini on the diving board and, later, with Newman and Shelley Winters in the night club, but otherwise, it looks very contemporary. I’ll venture that it would have aged far more quickly if it wasn’t for that opening sequence, because without that element achieving our identification with the hero, and two other scenes I’ll get to in a moment, it’s closer to being merely a two-hour episode of tv fodder such as the old Magnum P.I. show.

But Newman brings personality to the film. We see it in his interactions with Lauren Bacall, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, and Arthur Hill, among others. The final scene between Newman and Wagner has Newman issuing one scathing insult after another toward the woman Wagner secretly loves. His delivery is beautifully understated sarcasm, as he reels off one harsh slap after another. This forces a powerfully moving admission from Wagner that, in weaker hands (Robert Wagner? Yeah, Robert Wagner!), would have seemed contrived.

Newman, screenwriter Goldman tells us, stayed on the set, off-camera, delivering Harper’s provocative and caustic lines to his colleague, so that Wagner could feel the moment. As typically generous as it was for Newman, it nevertheless worked and brought the normally average Wagner up several notches.

Later, at the end of the film, the car ride with Newman and Arthur Hill, presages the kind of interaction Goldman was able to achieve for Newman with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and, later, writer David Ward was able to emulate in The Sting. The two characters in the scene are old friends, but the friendship and their lives are on the line in that ride should either of them carry out what their opposing duties call them to do. The light banter just underscores the menace awaiting. Neither backs down, and as we hit the moment of truth, in two simultaneously-delivered identical lines, Goldman gives us one man’s destruction and another’s despair. This was not in the novel. This is pure Goldman. The very thing Shane Black copied for Lethal Weapon (don’t misunderstand, I like Black’s work) and most of his other works.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I mourn the loss of these kinds of movies. Thankfully, we had one recently in Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But today, all we really seem to get are super-heroes, over-sexed nerds, and the occasional rom-com. I like X-Men and Batman, don’t get me wrong. But can’t we finish the Chinatown trilogy? Can’t we have more of the chemistry of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes, but with the quality of a story like Harper? Here’s what Goldman (on the Harper DVD) thinks:

“And one of the things (that’s) amazing (is) how movies have changed… I think this movie cost - with a giant star - I think it cost $3 million dollars. Now this is a long time ago, but today Paul Newman would be Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise, so you’re talking… even if you double and double again what this movie would’ve cost… Y’know, one of the things that’s staggering with movies is how expensive they’ve gotten… which affects movies and it affects you, the viewer in only one way… because costs are so ferocious, it very much affects the kind of movies that Hollywood will make now. They would never make… this movie. They would want to make it more operatic, they would have to make it more important, he would not just be a lonely private detective, he would have to have some deep secret, and he would have to know the man he was chasing… It would have been a whole horse-shit thing. This was just a detective movie! They had stopped making them.”

Despite the success of Harper, Newman did not want to make another in the series. Only when his career was starting to power down, nine years later, did he finally agree to do another turn as Harper in The Drowning Pool. Goldman’s own career was flying high, and the script he had written to follow Harper (from another of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels, The Chill) was not used, probably because of Goldman’s price. The Drowning Pool wasn’t as good as Harper, but it wasn’t bad, either. They moved the poorer novel from its setting in Southern California to New Orleans, and improved the somewhat convoluted plot a good deal. The writers, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Tracy Keenan Wynn, managed to bring it off fairly well. But it was too late. The P.I. genre in films was winding down already (as evidenced by its saturation across the mid-1970’s television line-up – the same thing happened with westerns during the ‘60’s).

Goldman has been criticized of late for having written many merely average screenplays. And they’re out there. Remember Year of the Comet? But to argue that these represent the truth of Goldman’s worth? Such huffery and puffery is probably a reaction to all the praise he’s received, because few screenwriters ever get criticized, they just get forgotten. Why the animosity if not for the promise?

We have to ask, how many screenwriters have there been that hit the bulls-eye nearly every time? Robert Riskin. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. But what about modern screenwriters? Shane Black? Nope. Nora Ephron or Charlie Kaufman? Maybe, so far. Even Woody Allen has turned in a few weak films, and he controls them from top to bottom.

Remember, films are collaborations, and Goldman’s screenwriting has had to survive stars, directors, additional writers, and all the literally scores of notes everyone from the story department to the above-the-line talent, to the producer’s girlfriend feels qualified to impose. Babe Ruth led in both home-runs and strike-outs. The last .400 hitter (4 hits out of 10 at-bats for an entire season) in baseball was almost a century ago (Ty Cobb - 1922), and he didn’t have to take the umpire’s notes. So, cut the guy some slack. We’d all like to have that career. #

End Note

(1) It was based on the late Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target – there are 17 others plus a bunch of short stories - they changed the character’s name because using the series’ name of Archer would have cost more. So they decided to make it an “H” picture to fit with Newman’s other H-pictures: The Hustler, Hud, and the later film, Hombre.


Lee A. Matthias

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