Paul Newman as Lew Harper, wisecracking private eye
Los Angeles, Late Summer 1965
Release Date: February 23, 1966
Director: Jack Smight
By the mid 1960s, Paul Newman had proved himself to be one of the most talented – and yet still down-to-earth – actors in the industry. He had racked up impressive performances in dramas like The Long Hot Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Exodus, The Hustler, and Hud, but the world still had yet to see how well the charming blue-eyed actor could handle comedy.
Around this time, novelist and screenwriter William Goldman was desperately trying to get Ross MacDonald’s 1949 mystery novel The Moving Target turned into a film. The film rights were purchased, and Goldman completed his first ever solo screenplay, now titled Harper. Frank Sinatra was originally slated to play the protagonist, as he was looking for detective roles at the time, but the role eventually went to Newman.
Readers of the novel may have been confused as to how the protagonist Lew Archer became Lew Harper, and there are two theories. One, which sounds more apocryphal, states that Newman believed he would be more successful in a film starting with an “H” (The Hustler, Hud, etc.). This seems unlikely due to Newman’s humble reputation, and the more likely explanation is that the filmmakers only had the rights to the novel and not the character. Goldman himself wrote, “We needed a different name and ‘Harper’ seemed OK, the guy harps on things, it’s essentially what he does for a living.”
The film became a wild success for all involved and led to long and illustrious careers for both Newman and Goldman. Now having established himself as a cool actor with comic chops to boot, Newman went on to star in Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and a score of other classic films over the next forty years. Goldman would collaborate again with Newman for Butch Cassidy and is still turning out scripts today. Films like All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, and A Few Good Men show just how well Goldman could write for any character in any genre.
Though it didn’t receive any major attention from the Academy Awards or Golden Globes, Harper led to well-deserved award nominations for Newman (Laurel Award for Top Male Action Performance) and Goldman (Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay); Goldman won his award. The film is now remembered as a hip ’60s tribute to earlier noir mysteries, with Lauren Bacall cast as a grieving wife to pay homage to her involvement in films like The Big Sleep alongside her husband, Humphrey Bogart. Newman would later reprise the role of Lew Harper in 1975 in The Drowning Pool where he starred with real-life wife Joanne Woodward.
What’d He Wear?
In the style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s great pulp detectives, Lew Harper is simple, cynical, and skeptical. He dresses first for comfort and utilitarianism not bothering with frills or strict adherence to fashion. His base outfit is always a dark jacket and tie with a short-sleeved shirt. In a decade where ad men dressed to the nines and government agents sported bespoke suits, Harper has no time for these added distractions. Plus, as a Chandler-esque private detective, he averages about four beatings per week so the clothes won’t last long anyway.
After impressing the client with a blue suit on his first day at work, Harper dresses down a bit for his second day of investigations with a dark brown wool sport coat. The single-breasted coat has a thick brown and black Glen Plaid overcheck and fits nicely when Harper’s probing takes him out into the countryside, although the heavy wool was likely pretty hot in the desert.
The sport coat has a 3-button front, but Harper almost always leaves his jackets undone. The edge-swollen notch lapels are slightly wider than what was most fashionable in 1965-1966, indicating that this is probably an older jacket that managed to make its way to the front of Harper’s closet.
The shoulders are lightly padded with slight roping on the sleeveheads. The jacket has a welted breast pocket and straight hip pockets with slim flaps. The single vent is on the shorter side, and there are two black plastic buttons on each cuff.
Harper pairs the sport coat with dark brown medium-rise trousers that are almost definitely the same trousers he wears the next day as part of a suit, although they do appear more charcoal than brown in some light. The trousers are certainly not pleated, but they may have front darts that provide a more comfortable fit throughout the hips; I would need some higher quality images to determine whether or not this is the case.
Harper often keeps his hands in the on-seam side pockets, and there are two jetted pockets on the rear. The trousers taper down from the waist to the cuffed bottoms (with “turn-ups”) that break short over his ankles.
Not interested in the cleaner look that braces or side adjusters provide, Harper wears a thick brown leather belt that fastens in the front through a simple round brass clasp.
Harper’s preference for short-sleeved shirts marks his most sartorially irresponsible decision. Not only does a short-sleeved shirt and tie end up looking like a high school principal at best (and a chemist-cum-serial killer at worst), but a warm climate like the southern California desert means arm sweat will hit the jacket directly. It must be comfortable for Harper, though, as he wears only short-sleeved shirts throughout the film.
The shirt worn with this outfit is light cream with a spread collar, continuing the earth tones. It has large buttons down a plain, placket-less front. The shirt is clearly meant to be more of a casual utility shirt with its double chest pockets, although it’s worth mentioning that Al Pacino also wore a dress shirt with two chest pockets in The Godfather.
Harper’s undershirt is visible through the lightweight shirt. As seen in the first sequence of the film, he wears a white ribbed sleeveless A-shirt.
Harper ties his solid dark brown silk necktie into a slim Windsor knot. I would imagine that men who don’t look like Paul Newman aren’t quite as capable of pulling off the short-sleeved shirt and tie look.
The shades of brown continue to Harper’s feet, where he wears a pair of dark cordovan leather plain-toe derbies and dark dress socks. While brown would be the most sartorially correct sock color option, I ran through a few different layers of color correction and Harper’s socks do appear to be black. (He does, however, wear dark brown socks the next day with his brown suit.)
Harper’s few accessories adorn his left hand, including a silver ring – likely Newman’s own wedding band – on his left ring finger and his wristwatch. The watch has a round stainless case, black dial, and black leather strap.
Paul Newman had yet to establish his relationship with Rolex (nor does it look like a Rolex), so the manufacturer is a mystery to me. Are there any budding wristwatch P.I.s out there able to help?
Go Big or Go Home
After watching most of the Newman catalog, it was fun to come across Harper and watch him still relatively early in his career getting to blend his comic, action, and dramatic abilities as a skid row P.I.
A good review at Forgotten Films calls out the fact that “Newman is a bit too smooth and handsome for his own good, he loses the grittiness the character needs rather quickly,” but Newman is still a top-notch actor and he channels his inner Chandler with lines like:
Stop acting like a bitch in heat anytime something pretty in pants wanders by.
Both the book and film are set in Los Angeles and its environs, although Ross MacDonald had employed the Chandler-esque technique of thinly veiling a real city (Santa Monica, Gray Lake) with a fictional name (Bay City, Silver Lake) in order to libel the hell out of it for the good of the story. MacDonald thus transformed Santa Barbara into “Santa Teresa”. Sue Grafton would later pay tribute to MacDonald by placing her fictional P.I. Kinsey Millhone in Santa Teresa for the “alphabet mystery” novels.
Has anyone ever heard of the Tabor beer drank by Newman, Robert Wagner, and others in the film?
It may be a fictional can, invented for the film, but I’m usually pretty good at sorting out which brands are real and which are not. My research has come up flat, which makes me wonder if it was some sort of budget-priced southern California regional beer… or maybe just a false label created by the props department.
How to Get the Look
If you’re the type that likes wearing a coat and tie but doesn’t go for any frills, Harper provides an outline for creating a basic look.
- Dark brown tonal glen plaid wool single-breasted sport coat with notch lapels, 3-button front, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and single rear vent
- Dark brown darted front medium-rise suit trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, jetted rear pockets, cuffs/turn-ups
- Light cream short-sleeve shirt with spread collar, two chest pockets, and plain button front
- Dark brown silk necktie
- Brown leather belt with round brass clasp
- Dark cordovan leather plain-toe derby shoes
- Black dress socks
- White ribbed sleeveless undershirt
- Stainless wristwatch with a round case and black dial on a black leather strap, worn on left wrist
- Plain silver ring, worn on left ring finger
Do Yourself a Favor and…
The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise.