The first scene in the movie Harper (1966) tells you all you need to know about Paul Newman’s character, a skeevy private eye with a heart of gold named Lew Harper.
Harper wakes up in his crummy apartment, somewhat less than overjoyed by consciousness. He fights with the alarm clock. He soaks his head in a sinkful of water and ice cubes. He tries to make coffee. The water comes to a boil on the stove. He opens the coffee can. Empty.
After a beat, he fishes the previous day’s soggy filter out of the trash and makes do. It’s a fantastic bit of exposition, and the movie that follows is just as sharp.
The screenplay was written by William Goldman, who once tossed off what is arguably the greatest maxim ever about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”
Goldman was specifically referring to whether or not a movie would do well at the box office after its release, but the line is now used most frequently as a club with which to bash studio executives.
Goldman adapted the script from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 novel The Moving Target, the first of 18 “Lew Archer” novels that cemented Macdonald’s place in the first rank of crime-fiction writers.
Legend has it that Newman requested the character’s last name be changed from Archer to one that started with an “H.” At the time, Newman was riding a lucky streak with the consonant.