Sixties Time Capsule: ‘Harper’ (1966)

Jack Smight’s Harper (1966) restrains from editing techniques such as dissolves and fades in favor of straight cuts, a stylistic choice that assists the narrative flow rather than set up a hyper-stylized edit. P.I. Lew Harper (Paul Newman), even in the CinemaScope ratio, is slightly off center at several points, highlighting the inter-turmoil that Harper faces, though the supporting characters typically have more personality than Harper and are often captured at a lower angle than him.

Harper seems to be withdrawn from the life that he, and everyone else, lives. Frames consist of long, deep focus shots, almost as if the viewer is looking down a narrow corridor. Conrad Hall’s cinematography has an aesthetic of tangibility. Objects are placed in the foreground, potentially blocking the viewer and providing a sense of depth to the frame.

Hall doesn’t over-stylize the camera tricks, either. While there are many tracking shots, it is often the case that these are very subtle in movement, almost unnoticeable. Still, he does change angles during dialogue sequences and pan to reveal the different spatial elements. The color palette is cold, with dark blues and green. And the only moments where vibrant color penetrates the dense environment occur outside.

It doesn’t help that Harper is a very cold, withdrawn character because the audience is in his perspective. He’s not particularly likeable, especially considering how he treats his wife, Susan Harper (Janet Leigh). Paired with the muted, filmic elements, Harper might seem shallow at first. But this is not the case, as the ending delivers an existential end.

Eventually, Harper discovers that Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) was the mastermind behind the operation. However, Arthur’s hesitation to shoot Lew, and Lew’s inability to deliver the money, beg questions of morality and of character. It is a simple intercut, that is seemingly smooth, before a screen-freeze and an abrupt end.

Hardly any character in Harper is redeemable, especially the despicable Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), who clearly revels in torturing people to achieve his objectives, and Claude (Strother Martin), a false prophet who uses his religious cult as a front for human trafficking. Janet Leigh might be considered a neutral figure, though her screen presence doesn’t last long and she’s only present as both a plot point and an object for Lew, who treats her as such.

Not often is there a protagonist, whose character is in question, that doesn’t attract a level of empathy with the viewer in classic films. Through the use of flat dialogue, many times none at all, and non-expressive facial reactions, Newman assures that the other actors involved are center-focused during numerous sequences, which is vastly different from many of the sixties’ crime thrillers; of course, at the expense of Harper’s connection to the audience and to himself.

Still from Harper

Still from Harper

Author: Jared Charles

I am the owner of The Burrow Reviews. Currently studying Film, English, Political Science, and Gender Studies.

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