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.
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