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.

Harper followed two of Newman’s best films, The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963). Hud resulted in his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. (The first was for his work in 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) Newman would be nominated two more times – for 1967’s Cool Hand Luke and 1981’s Absence of Malice – before finally picking up a Best Actor Oscar for The Color of Money in 1986.

Wow, that turned into a boatload of filler, didn’t it? The research department assures me all of these facts have been checked, but they are pasty liars and eaters of beef jerky. They fear nothing but Brute Force.

There is never a good time to be trapped at a remote facility, surrounded by a mutinous band of careerist scum. It helps if you have satellite linkups and good movies and plenty of Winchester Ranger Law Enforcement 00 Buckshot.

The interns have delivered, via brick and Burger King sack, their demands. They are threatening to unlock the cages unless their demands (paychecks, iPhones, juice boxes etc.) are met.

Well, screw them. Some of my best friends are psychotic apes and Lizard People. If they make it through the wire, they will be welcome here in the Director’s bunker.

It is an Eerie time, a Between time. At maximum volume, “Dust Devil” by the Butthole Surfers will repel most boarders, but I’m running low on Maxwell House. Soon I will have to go Out There – or Make Do.

“Keep your head on a swivel,” the Old Gunslinger said. He was phoning it in from a marina in Port Arthur, Texas. “They may have blasting caps and waffle irons.”

“I dreamed about waffles last night,” I said. “I was on the back of a fire truck in a parade, tossing waffles into the crowd.”

“Don’t ever tell me your dreams again,” he said. “It is untoward.”

He was right, of course. It wasn’t like me, not at all. I apologized and hung up. I walked out to the wire with the Stevens and the bullhorn to deliver the bad news.


John Hicks is widely considered to be the world’s foremost authority on the North American Wampus Cat.

About the Author

John Hicks

Havin' a wild weekend.

John Hicks lives outside the city limits, where eagles dare.

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