Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald

Published in 1949, The Moving Target was Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer novel. Reportedly, MacDonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and gave his character the name of Sam Spade’s partner from that famous pulp novel. The Moving Target is best known as the book that inspired the film Harper (1966) starring Paul Newman (Archer was changed to Harper). As you would expect, there are major differences between the book and the film. I love both, so the differences have never been a point of contention with me. Raymond Chandler’s output had diminished by 1949, and MacDonald’s books found a ready audience for the next forty or so years. Lew Archer was the successor to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade. Archer was “New School” while Marlowe and Spade were “Old School.” Those differences are primarily found in the culture these characters inhabited. Keep in mind, this is post war America, which is made clear by MacDonald in chapter 15 where he writes: “In a 1946 car, with a late-model girl beside me, I could still imagine we were crossing the watershed between Colton’s atomic age and the age of stone when men stood up on their hind legs and began to count time by the sun.” In all of MacDonald’s books the villain’s are often corrupted by greed. Archer moves in affluent circles in Los Angeles and surrounding area. His clients have money, and they know what power comes from money. The plot for The Moving Target is simplistic (blackmail), a lesson here for writers looking to complicate their plots with a perceived clever yet labyrinthine series of twists. Simple works fine when the prose is as sharp as this. Ultimately, it is Ross MacDonald’s strong writing that holds everything together. His scenes are fully realized, his characters well-developed and the dialogue realistic. In some ways I see MacDonald as the last of the great detective novelists. This is not minimalist writing at all. Vivid and suspenseful, The Moving Target and its hero Lew Archer are impossible to dislike.
The film version was released in 1966, smack-dab in the middle of the 60s counter-culture movement. Harper is just as much a reflection of the 60s as The Moving Target was a reflection of late 40s post-war America. Harper, of course, forever belongs a part of Paul Newman’s so-called “H period” of films alongside The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), and Hombre (1967). The cast included Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Janet Leigh, Pamela Tiffin, Robert Wagner and Shelley Winters. Directed by Jack Smight, the screenplay was by William Goldman, best known for his screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; and cinematography by Conrad Hall who also filmed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. These connections were relevant to me in 2002 when I met Newman and Hall during the Road to Perdition press junket in Chicago. Harper is among my favorite Paul Newman films and it certainly rates among my favorite 60s films (I would have to put Harper next to Bullet with Steve McQueen as two classic 60s films). Newman plays Lew Harper as a man of his era, and not as a dinosaur from the 40s. The choices were correct because the film was set in present day Los Angeles. Paul Newman and author Ross MacDonald both had a modest reunion of sorts in the 1975 film version of The Drowning Pool, MacDonald’s second Lew Archer novel and published in 1950. That film was good, but the book was much better. Today, Ross MacDonald is given scant attention. That’s a shame because he was such a fine writer, and his early Archer novels are among the best of their kind.


  1. I remember seeing The Drowning Pool as a teenager when it came out. I went to the library to look for Lew Harper novels, but of course all they had were Lew Archer novels instead. So I checked them out and became a fan for life. I only recently heard why Archer was changed to Harper for the movies. Recently saw Harper again on TCM and I really dug Pamela Tiffin's go-go dance on the diving board. Girls like her are why some boys become private eyes!

  2. Thanks Kurt, I love that scene too! After posting this I was told that most of MacDonald's books are in print again so that's good news!


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