Paul Newman as Lew Harper, wisecracking private eye
Los Angeles, Late Summer 1965
Release Date: February 23, 1966
Director: Jack Smight
The beginning of Harper is classic hard-boiled private eye stuff as we see our titular hero waking up in his shitty apartment cum office, pulling on his clothes, and drinking bad coffee (from a filter pulled out of the trash, no less) before slipping on his shoulder holster and heading out in his old roadster to a better part of town where the better class of people turn out to be worse in every other way.
While we’re used to Hollywood’s traditional tough guys like Bogart and Mitchum in roles like that, it was a refreshing turn of pace to see Paul Newman take on the lead role in one of my favorite cinematic subgenres. Philip Marlowe he ain’t, and he’s the first to acknowledge it when the grieving wife played by Lauren Bacall offers him a drink:
Sampson: Drink, Mr. Harper?
Harper: Not before lunchtime.
Sampson: I thought you were a detective.
Harper: New type.
Examples like that show how perfectly the legendary screenwriter William Goldman was able to adapt Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target from the 1949 source novel to the screen in 1966. Only seventeen years had elapsed, but it was a much different world than the more noir-friendly world of the ’40s where one could expect a gumshoe in a trench coat on every other screen. Contending with movies that were consistently pushing the envelope for sex and violence, the double entendres of the classic noir era wouldn’t be enough to attract audiences from the era of “free love”. Goldman, Newman, and director Smight pulled together to make Harper a “new type” of detective in the spirit of Marlowe and Sam Spade without becoming an instant anachronism.
What’d He Wear?
Other than his brown accessories, Harper utilizes various shades of blue when building his wardrobe for his first day on the new job. Harper’s two-piece suit is a muted navy blue wool with a subtle blue tonal windowpane overcheck.
The suit jacket is single-breasted with slim notch lapels that roll easily down to the 2-button front, which Harper keeps unbuttoned to fit with his informality. The low welted breast pocket slants slightly forward and each of the hip pockets sits straight with a slim flap. Like most standard American business suits, there is a single rear vent.
Harper’s jacket also has roped sleeveheads and 3-button cuffs.
Harper’s matching suit trousers rise high on his waist with flat fronts and a straight fly. The belt loops are slim and high, certainly high enough to accommodate a wider belt than the one he wears. Only the on-seam side pockets of the trousers are seen. The bottoms are cuffed.
Harper wears the same brown leather belt and shoes with this suit as he does with his brown plaid sport coat and brown suit. Both are the only non-blue items featured in this outfit. His plain toe derbies are cordovan, a shade darker than the belt.
When we first meet Harper during his banal morning routine, he rolls out of bed wearing a white ribbed cotton sleeveless undershirt, plain white cotton boxers, and thick white cotton tube socks. He seems to wear the same undershirt and boxers with his suit, but he wisely changes into dark dress socks – either navy or, more likely, black.
Harper wears a pale blue lightweight poplin short-sleeve sport shirt with a camp collar that spreads to fit a tie when he buttons it to the throat. I – and many others – often deride the short-sleeve shirt and tie look as belonging in the unflattering domain of office nerds (here and here) or high school principals, but Harper wisely keeps his suit coat on. The fact that L.A. can be very warm in summers and the fact that he’s Paul Newman also give him some extra passing points.
The shirt has two patch pockets – one on each chest panel – and white plastic buttons down the plain, placket-less front. His tie is a solid dark shade of blue-gray silk, tied neatly in a four-in-hand and just kissing the top of his belt.
Harper’s wristwatch remains a mystery, although it gets slightly better exposure in these scenes. It has a round stainless case with a black dial and a black leather strap.
Harper’s only other piece of jewelry is a plain silver ring, which I assume is Newman’s own wedding band (not to be confused with Newman’s Own salad dressing), and is worn on the third finger of his left hand.
Under his suit coat, Harper straps on a brown leather shoulder holster, rigged to carry his 2″-barreled .38 Special snubnose revolver.
Go Big or Go Home
Although his music isn’t used in the film, Miles Davis’ 1959 masterpiece album Kind of Blue comes to mind when watching Newman nonchalantly navigate his ’55 Porsche through the hip backdrop of mid-’60s L.A… especially in this sequence, where Newman is wearing multiple kinds of blue and heads to a jazz bar.
And at that jazz bar, Harper gets himself a can of Tabor beer, which shows up several times throughout the story… did we ever establish if this was a real brand?
Whether it’s real or not, the exchange when Harper orders a beer is worthy of any pulp novel and should be kept in mind anytime one has to deal with a troublesome bartender…
Bartender: It’s two after six. We don’t serve domestic after six. Only imported.
Harper: Terrific. Keep the change.
Bartender: There is no change.
Harper: Keep it anyway.
Harper is a detective, so his preferred sidearm of a Colt Detective Special is reasonable. The Detective Special is ubiquitous in early crime films… and early crime in general, favored by both sides of the law for its concealability, reliability, and six round cylinder of popular and powerful .38 Special ammunition.
How to Get the Look
Not including his eyes, Newman uses various shades of blue to great effect when establishing Harper’s role.
- Navy blue tonal windowpane wool suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with slim notch lapels, slanted welt breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and single rear vent
- Flat front high-rise suit trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, cuffs/turn-ups
- Pale blue short-sleeve sport shirt with spread camp collar, two chest pockets, and plain button front
- Dark blue-gray silk necktie
- Brown leather belt with round brass clasp
- Dark cordovan leather plain-toe derby shoes
- Black dress socks
- White ribbed cotton 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…
You got a way of starting conversations that ends conversation.