Remember Paul Newman as that gun-chewing Los Angeles detective who was hell-bent on Bogart country in Harper (1966)? Well, he's returned in another Ross MacDonald story, this one adapted for the screen by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and Walter Hill. Our man goes to New Orleans where he meets Iris (Joannae Woodward), and old flame who's become the wife of a rich Southern landowner. She wants him to find the blackmailer who has threatened to expose details of her extra-marital affairs. While working on her problem, Harper fleshes out a much bigger case involving multiple murders, police corruption, and fraudulent oil business wheeling and dealing.
The burnt-out baby blue eyes of Harper make him an obvious target for the amorous intentions of Iris, her sensually inclined teen-age daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith); Mavis (Gail Strickland), the wife of an unscrupulous oilman; and Gretchen (Linda Haynes), a lonely gal who loses her boyfriend and longs for some companionship. But Harper, who can love 'em and leave 'em, operates on a business-only ethic and just leaves 'em. Wit sustains him when asked "How do you do?" he responds coyly, "Some days I do and some days I don't." Only Iris realizes that Harper has "no talent for surrender." Like Harry Moseby in Night Moves, he hasn't learned how to "give up gracefully." This cool gumshoe has a one-track mind solving the case he's working on. At times a more prudent detective might be tempted to leave well enough alone, but not Harper. He's got to get to the bottom of it all.
Director Stuart Rosenberg (who has worked before with Newman on Cool Hand Luke and W*U*S*A) paces the movie with a laid-back style. The plot is quite convoluted with goings on centered around bad marriages, destructive family relationships, police harassment, and corrupt business dealings. Newman glides through the wreckage around him, only losing his cool when he nearly drowns. Joanna Woodward is credible as Iris who sadly comments, "It's a juggling act just to make my life work." Murray Hamilton is menacing as the arch villain Kilbourne who surrounds himself with flesh-eating dogs.