The Drowning Pool (1975) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film


Lew Archer, Ross Macdonald’s immortal private detective, had a name change when played by Paul Newman in Harper (1966). The movie was a hit so further attempts were made to transpose the character to the screen. The 1974 TV-Movie of The Underground Man starring Peter Graves didn’t sell and Archer, starring Brian Keith, was killed off almost instantly the following year. Newman returned to his version of the character shortly after that – could lightning strike twice?

I offer this film review for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog and the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for all reviews, click here) after my review of the book (here).

“Harper days are here again”

In late 1960s Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffmann, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman set up their own production company, First Artists, to take better control of their careers as part of a deal with Warner Bros. The results weren’t especially successful though there were some notable hits like Streisand’s 1976 version of A Star is Born, Poitier’s Uptown Saturday Night and McQueen’s The Getaway (review coming to Fedora next month-ish). Newman’s third and final contribution for the company was The Drowning Pool, a belated attempt to follow-up on the success of Harper, his popular 1966 adaptation of the first Archer novel, The Moving Target. It had been the first big PI movie in a long time. There had been several made since then …

“You spotted my car? Will it wash off? It’s a rental”

Nine years on and Newman still looks great if a little grayer (as he is told in the opening part of the film) though the tone is a little darker, befitting perhaps the mood of the decade. A number of cosmetic changes are made to the book, most obviously relocating the action to Louisiana, with nearly all the character names changed. Thus the semi-rich Slocums becomes the fantastically wealthy Devereux family. Maude becomes Iris, played by the ravishing Joanne Woodward, her brainy and demure daughter Cathy turning into the much more sexy and exotic nymphette Schuyler (played by Melanie Griffith, who played basically the same role in the studio’s other big private eye movie that year, Night Moves); while Knudson the flatfoot with a passionate nature becomes Broussard (a moustached and heavily accented Tony Franciosa).


The plot is more or less adhered to, with Murray Hamilton perfect as the villainous oil magnate Kilbourne trying to get his hands on the oil under the Devereux family’s land while Gail Strickland is wonderful as his miserable but sensual wife. Most of the dialogue is dispensed with however and a new plot element – a notebook with details of Kilbourne’s payoffs – is added to knit the story together more tightly and, while a bit of a cliché, is in fact an improvement. Given the three major screenwriters credited on the film, this remains one of the few obvious signs of some thought having gone into the story, which tends to move a little arbitrarily, resulting in an entertaining but rather sluggish and surprisingly long film (just under 2 hours). Andy Robinson also gets a small but showy part as Reavis, the family chauffeur who too conveniently gets blamed for killing the Devereux matriarch (a great cameo by Coral Browne).


Otherwise it’s the characters and settings that benefit the most from the movie’s various revisions. Lew and Iris are now old lovers, still pining for each other after a ‘voluptuous week’ they shared some six years before, while the finale does a much more dramatic job of handling the revelation of the murderer and a further family twist (the kind that once again would become much more frequent in the author’s later work). This makes for a more dynamic conclusion when compared with the novel’s rather odd and inconclusive finish in which most of the dramatic action takes place off the page, leading to a rather desultory punch up. Here we conclude with a full-scale confrontation that is much more satisfying. However, the most notable aspect of the film is the large-scale depiction of the book’s action climax set in the eponymous hydro room – trapped inside, Archer (and Mavis too now) decide that the only way to escape is to turn on all the taps and use the water pressure to bust out. Private eye movies of the traditional type rarely manage to raise themselves to an action climax so this is thoroughly welcome and is brilliantly handled by a top-notch technical crew led by cinematographer Gordon Willis (one of Hollywood’s princes of darkness, known for his penumbral lensing of the Godfather films). It’s a rather bitty film though, with little of the drive and humour that made the original such a success, rarely giving its good cast enough to do.


Since Harper the PI genre had become somewhat saturated on both the large and small screen, including such entertaining Chandler knock-offs as Tony Rome (1967) and Lady in Cement (1968) starring Frank Sinatra as well as several adaptations from the old master himself including James Garner as Marlowe (1969), Elliot Gould in the same role in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (1975); even better were Jack Nicholson in the Oscar-winning Chinatown (1974) as well as Robert Culp’s fabulous Hickey & Boggs (which I reviewed here). In addition there was something of a glut on TV with such shows as Mannix (1967-75), Barnaby Jones (1973-80) Cannon (1971-76), Banyon (1971-73), City of Angels (1976) and the wonderful The Rockford Files (1974-80) etc.

The Drowning Pool (1975)

To keep its head above water (natch) in such company The Drowning Pool needed to be a lot better – it just about manages to keep itself afloat (sorry, couldn’t resist), but perhaps deservedly got lost in the glut of similar movies from the time. It is well shot, well cast, the setting is unusual, the score by Michael Small is attractive and it has a decent climax and an OK finish too (especially compared with the book). So am I am being unduly harsh? Fatally, to me, it lacks narrative drive, being rather sluggish in terms of momentum, and seems to be coasting along, unsure quite what story it wants to tell. Also, it is strangely beholden to the earlier movie, from its title sequence in which Harper struggles with his rental car, to its freeze frame conclusion, which are just not as effective – and anyway, would anyone have really remembered these thing nine years on? Either way, it passes the time but only the hydro room sequence is really memorable.

DVD Availability: Warners released this originally as part of a Paul Newman box set a few years in a strong anamorphic transfer that showed only faint instances of fading. It has since been released worldwide singly. The only extra is a contemporary ‘making of’ entitled “Harper Days Are Here Again”, the film’s tagline, which is typical fluff but does however include a nice little interview with Millar, who apparently approved of the relocation to Louisiana.

The Drowning Pool (1975)
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Producer: David Foster
Screenplay: Walter Hill, Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Art Direction: Paul Sylbert
Music: Michael Small
Cast: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Melanie Griffith, Murray Hamilton, Gail Strickland, Coral Browne

***** (2 fedora tips)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, New Orleans, Ross Macdonald. Bookmark the permalink.

47 Responses to The Drowning Pool (1975) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Interesting how in many cases, a film that’s faithful to an earlier one can be the better for that, but as you’ve shown so well here, not always. And this is just my unsophisticated opinion, but I think movies suffer more from being a bit plodding than books do. Not, of course, that a book with no pace is well-written. But somehow it’s more noticeable in a film. I’m probably not putting that very coherently but I hope you know what I mean. As always, an excellent review/discussion.

    • Thanks Margot – I know what you mean, the rewquirements of the traditional narrative mode in Hollywood movies can be a bit stultifying without humour or a bit of pizzaz to lift it – which is mainly the difference between this one and the original.

  2. Patti Abbott says:

    Wish it had been better but Newman is always worth looking at. He is not a good enough actor to rise above his material though. Yep, we went from lots of cowboys to lots of PIs. around then.

  3. Colin says:

    Very fair assessment of the movie Sergio. It’s not up to the standard of Harper but it’s still entertaining enough. I think Newman had become a little more relaxed as time passed, no bad thing, and I find his performances of the period to be more naturalistic.
    I guess there was a kind of PI overkill at the time, but I also miss those days quite a bit.

    • Thanks Colin and I agree it’s thoroughly entertaining. Indeed, I could I could live for months very happily on a solid diet of 70s PI movies – in fact I’m just lending a colleague some some titles from my collection today such as Late Show, Night Moves, Hickey & Boggs but added Harper as I lent her a Ross Macdonald and Benton’s Twilight as a kind of summary to it. I’d have to go quite far down the list before getting to The Drowning Pool, which in my memory I had ranked higher – but there you go …

      • Colin says:

        Funny too how things go in cycles. As was mentioned, westerns seemed to cede ground to PI/cop movies at that time, and were then displaced themselves by the fantasy/sci-fi stuff that is still riding pretty high. Personally, I wouldn’t be the least bit bothered to see the latter trend finally tail off.

        • I know what you mean – especily when one looks at Hunger Games, which is just ancient Rome transposed to a Logan’s Run type dystopia and to me just seem like a really absurd mish mash of styles. And I say that as someone who has a soft spot for Outland!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Yowsa. While the latter-day Newman, after the lawyer period, settled into retired working stiff roles for a bit…a little politics to share along with the cookies and condiments (Newman’s Own, still a market force).

          • Never liked the condiments (but then, I don’t like any) – I did buy some at some point though (popcorn maybe?) – always a sucker for a worthy cause I am 🙂

  4. John says:

    I’d like to see the end of comic books turned into movies. I pray for it every summer. We’re doomed for another decade or so I think.

    I saw this on TV when I was in high school and can’t remember any of it even when reading your usual well done review. Oh! except the death trap scene which I think was probably the only reason I watched the movie. Remember when the title alone was reason to watch a movie? Ah, youth.

    Two good private eye movies from that mid 70s era: THE LATE SHOW and MIDNIGHT MAN. Have you reviewed either of those? I should write up the Art Carney/Lily Tomlin one one of these days. I guess the Burt Lancaster flick is a pseudo-PI movie because he’s really a security guard who turns detective on his own, but it still has the feel of one.

    • Thanks for that John. I don’t necessarily have anything again comic books adaptations ( I liked the Marvel films and the Nolan takes on Batman and Superman were bracingly dark I thought) but it does make me feel well and truly out of the minstream when they so dominate the marketplace … As for the Newman flick, Harper is much more memorable. Jeff Flugel wrote a great piece on The Late Show over at his blog, The Stalking Moon. I have The Midnight Man on DVD right next to the original novel on my TBR shelf and was hoping to review them in tandem this year but I think it’s going to have to slip to 2014 …

    • Todd Mason says:

      Yep, and I believe I listed that (and other LATE SHOW reviews)…yours would be welcome.

      • Cheers matey, lovely company to be in

        • Jeff Flugel says:

          Thanks for the plug re: my THE LATE SHOW review, Sergio! I’d love to see your take on that, and John’s as well. I had no idea THE MIDNIGHT MAN was out on DVD…I have VERY fond memories of that movie from numerous TV airings and will have to track down a copy ASAP. Thanks for the heads- up, guys!

          • I got my DVD edition of Midnight Man from Amazon in Germany though it’s a bilingual version – it is in widescreen but no great shakes to be honest though it definitely passes muster (and is an official release licensed from Universal).

  5. Ela says:

    I think my sister has a copy of HARPER from a Paul Newman box set, but not THE DROWNING POOL – must borrow it from her! I admit I’ve previously been unenthusiastic about the idea of Newman playing Archer – Robert Mitchum would have been my ideal casting.

    • Hi Ela – well, Newman is not really playing Archer from the books but I think Harper works very well on its own terms, lets put it that way! I liked Mitchum as Marlowe, though he was too old really to play it as written, which was a shame.

  6. Yvette says:

    Can’t remember ever seeing this, Sergio. I think I read the book but can’t even remember that much. Possibly it was because at that point in my life I was less interested in detective movies than in the reading of them. I was a young mother by ’75 and didn’t have as much time as to watch movies as I might have liked. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

    • That is an excellent reason Yvette, but in fairness, it just isn’t that memorable a book or film frankly apart from the hydro room – it’s OK but a bit too generic. Book is better but Macdonald / Millar did much better work later on.

  7. TracyK says:

    Putting this on the Netflix queue and we will watch it after we re-watch Harper. I had wondered recently how this movie compared to Harper (which I cannot remember much about anyway). But with Paul Newman, it can’t be too bad.

    • Well, exactly, Newman is always worth keeping an eye on (hard not to in fact) though there are a few early films from the 50s and some from the late 70s that I can live without watching again frankly 🙂

  8. Jeff says:

    As always a very well written review. I’ve always liked Paul Newman and despite some of the weaknesses of this movie he was always good. At times he might be the best thing in the movie.

    • Thanks Jeff – I agree with you and I think I have pretty much seen them all. Nothing could save When Time Ran Out though!

      • Jeff says:

        Yes good point. I guess Paul wanted a new Porsche when he agreed to appear in that one.

        • Well, at least someone got something out of it! I saw that one at the cinema aged 11 and I knew it was a turkey even at that age – Newman did have some gigantic hist that decade though with THE STING, TOWERING INFERNO and SLAPSHOT especially and did seem to alternate smaller and bigger projects.

  9. Sergio, I haven’t seen any of the film adaptations of Ross Macdonald’s novels though I can picture Paul Newman as Lew Archer. He does have that look. I kind of stopped watching his films after he grew old and especially after I saw THE COLOUR OF MONEY. I do, however, intend to see HARPER and THE DROWNING POOL. On a side note, Melanie Griffith was only 18 when she acted in this film and to think I saw her mostly in her latter films like PACIFIC HEIGHTS, WORKING GIRL, and BORN YESTERDAY. I think you should do a post on some of the early PI films that you mentioned so that the ignorant like me (is there anyone else?) can get a grip on this very interesting genre. Thanks very much, Sergio.

    • Melanie Griffith is pretty good in the film – gosh, 18 seems like such along time ago … It is a bit creepy how young she is in the film given the sexpot role she plays. It’s crucial of the story to work but troubling, none the less. Well, who could resist such flattery – I promise to review plenty more PI movies from the 70s – you heard it here first! Thanks Prashant.

  10. Todd Mason says:

    “McQueen’s The Getaway” –I thoroughly despise that film, and even with a few missteps the remake is better (even in the casting), while even STRAW DOGS (another film I don’t care for at all, much less in the inept remake by my high-school classmate) is better among Peckinpah’s work. Referring to Willis as Prince of Darkness is a good point that must be made with care, for fear someone will misconstrue a melanin reference from it.

    • It’s great to be kept on one’s toes about films like THE GETAWAY – I am a big fan of Peckinpah, even at his most macho (well, I draw the line at CONVOY and OSTERMAN WEEKEND is barely acceptable) and there is much that I thinks works despite the horrible way the McGraw character is presented. If one accepts that the McQueen character is a son of a bitch, not a hero or even an antihero but merely not a psychopath like his . nemesis, then I find room for it in my mind as that pretty much comes from the novel – which I think is still powerful stuff. The remake is better in terms of giving some power back to the role as played by Basinger, no question – problematic texts, either way. On the other hand, STRAW DOGS were are not going to agree on I suspect – it is definitely aesthetically and morally suspect and that is what I like about it – I much prefer it to the safe remoteness of say CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which seems to be the middle brow, middle class was of dealing with dark subject matter by being just as horrible but by inserting a Brechtian layer to keep it from touching you on any kind of emotional level, which is not dishonest is certainly artistically very timid.

    • Re Willis – fair enough chum – no idea what Mr Willis is like in person but have no reason to believe he is the spawn of Satan – but he sure you used to like to shoot films dark …

      • Todd Mason says:

        Nope, to all reports (what few I’ve seen), Willis was a consummate pro and presumably a gent…of African, not Satanic, descent.

        • Todd Mason says:

          Ha! No, I’m thinking of Gordon Parks! Not much chance anyone is thinking your trying a back-door insinuation on Willis. Sorry. It’s been a tiring week.
          And, indeed, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is problematic, and pseudo-sanitized…but so is Peckinpah, and his no bones about it hatred, not least but not exclusively of women (Sally Struthers’s character in the earlier film is that much more a misogynist’s freak show than Jennifer Tilly’s in the remake, as well). You’re going to have to make some special pleading to interpret Peckinpah’s vision of women, very much including those in STRAW DOGS and THE GETAWAY, as people (full stop) who are not simply there to tempt, chivvy and betray men, and who not only need a good slap, but can only respect a man who freely delivers as many as possible.

          And THEN we get back to BDP…[emoticon]

          • Todd Mason says:

            (So is Peck’ problematic…not much sanitized, no.)

          • Weeell, we’re entering into ‘yes, no, maybe’ territory here chum I think 🙂

          • Ah, the battle of the Gordons – Shaft meets the Godfather – that’s a slapdown I’d watch! I’m not really disagreeing with you about Peckinpah’s view but I would him on par with Bukowski – both poets, both have views on women I don’t share and feel to be largely retrogressive but, and this is the important bit for me at least, do accurately reflect a certain mindset – in Straw Dogs especially that is kind of the point after all.

        • His CV is pretty hard to beat – even William Goldman says he was the hero of All the President’s Men for instance.

  11. Todd Mason says:

    or even, you’re trying. Hm, to think English is my first language, too.

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  13. Jeff Flugel says:

    I think you’ve given THE DROWNING POOL a very fair summation here, Sergio! Compared to the wonderful HARPER, this sequel feels flat and, yes, sluggish – though the actual “drowning pool” sequence is a genuinely terrific, suspenseful setpiece. I can’t fault Newman for wanting to work with his wife in the film, but I must confess to not being particularly taken with Woodward as Iris. Melanie Griffith sure had a good year, though, didn’t she – between this and the excellent NIGHT MOVES, she cornered the market on troubled teenage nymphets. It’s been ages since I’ve read the novel, but remember it being a good story; the film version is only middling in the 70s P.I. sweepstakes, IMO. Great post as usual, mate!

    • Thanks very much Jeff – looks like we’re in complete sync on this one – in the end it’s a shame that it didn’t work out better because the actos a goo, the setting unusual and having Archer and Iris be old lovers for instance is actually a good idea – but not a lot is made of it, which is so annoying!

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  15. Jeff Cordell says:

    Good review. You’re right about the sluggish narrative. However I still purchased the DVD. I have a weakness for the PI films made in the sixties and seventies and I’ve always liked Paul Newman. I also like much of Stuart Rosenberg’s movies (Brubaker, Cool Hand Luke, The Laughing Policeman). I didn’t when I was a kid, but I’ve come to appreciate his gritty realism. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I’ve been a cop for eighteen years now and prefer the realistic approach to the supercharged heroics of others (thought I still like the Die Hard movies and the first Lethal Weapon). “Let’s Get Harry” being a notable exception and that movie isn’t good. I understand whey he gave the credit to Alan Smithee.

    • Thanks for the great comments and feedback Jeff. Rosenberg was I think Newman’s favourite director at the time. His work is on occasion, LUKE beong a big exxception, perhaps a bit too humourless, WUSA being the most egregious example of that.

  16. Jeff Cordell says:

    WUSA is just grim.

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