Paul Newman plays Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer (re-named Harper because Paul wanted another movie beginning with H, like Hud and The Hustler, and the next year, Hombre) and it’s lots of fun. He would play Harper again ten years later in The Drowning Pool. We enjoyed the Los Angeles settings, and the story is good, with lots of twists and turns, but for those of us who grew up in this era, there are some embarrassments. Pamela Tiffin’s hair, for instance. God, what is she growing in there? So many movies of this day had bikini-clad women dancing alone to music on the radio: the Frug, the Watusi, the Funky Chicken, the Mashed Potato … there was a new dance craze every Saturday in those days, forgotten by the next Saturday, and they are all stupid-looking now. So she dances on a diving board and the camera lingers on her. Looks very stupid. Sounds even more stupid, as all movie studio “rock and roll” in those days sounded vaguely like the Tijuana Brass, only not as good. Even worse than Tiffin alone is a whole roomful of people doing these lame dances.
This was William Goldman’s first solo movie script, and he’s written about the experience. One funny episode involves the first few minutes. The film was in the can, but then the producers decided they needed something to go under the opening credits. They told Bill to write something, so he sat down and knocked off a few pages very quickly, involving Paul Newman getting ready for his day. He’s lying in bed with his eyes open, the alarm going off. Eventually he shuts it down, gets up, turns off the humming TV with the test pattern (test pattern! How long since you’ve seen one of those?) and goes into the kitchen. Starts to make coffee. Realizes he’s out of grounds. Frustrated … then he looks into the garbage. There’s a filter with some old grounds on the top. He grimaces, hesitates, and pulls the grounds out of the garbage and puts them in the coffee maker. Simple stuff, right? But Goldman said he was astonished to be sitting in a preview audience and hear them roar with laughter when Newman did that. He realized he had struck a note with a lot of people, without even realizing he was doing it. Which was one more confirmation of his Hollywood Universal Rule: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Surefire hits flop, films that have been written off as hopeless end up with the Best Picture. NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Which is really scary in these days of $250,000,000 budgets. Like John Carter, well on its way to being the biggest flop of all time. Somebody signed off on that budget, and he no longer works for Disney. He might as well have signed off on his own death warrant.