A while back I caught -for maybe the fourth time- the 1966 Paul Newman detective film Harper (you can read my full review of the film here). Based on the Lew Archer detective stories by writer Ross Macdonald, Harper is considered a great second generation version of the old hard-boiled detective movie genre.
Ross Macdonald, to me, was a great writer who wrote many great novels and his Lew Archer books are high up there on my list of re-readable works. Having said that, it is also clear Mr. Macdonald (actually a pen name for Kenneth Millar), was very much mimicking the Raymond Chandler detective novels, even as he was doing a magnificent job at it. I can see where some might find it difficult to admire Mr. Macdonald’s work because it owes so much to Raymond Chandler, but, again, his works are so damn good it eventually doesn’t matter.
One of the more interesting bits of casting in the movie Harper was having Lauren Bacall in it as the matriarch of the screwed up family Harper (Paul Newman, reportedly, wanted the Archer name changed because in the 1960’s he was on a roll with movies featuring characters whose name began with an “H”. I’m not kidding) is investigating. This bit of casting was especially satisfying as one of her classic roles had her co-star, with husband Humphrey Bogart, in the Raymond Chandler novel adaptation The Big Sleep (1946), which as I stated above was mimicked so well by Ross Macdonald in his novels.
Harper, to me, is a damn good movie thought I don’t feel it quite reaches the level of The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon or Murder, My Sweet. It feels over-long and, sadly, the near cameo role played by Janet Leigh (who is quite good in the film, nonetheless), could have been clipped without affecting the movie much at all.
Nearly ten years later and in 1975 a sequel to Harper was released entitled The Drowning Pool. Returning to the role of Lew Harper was Paul Newman.
I’d seen the film a while back and didn’t think all that much about it. In general, most critics felt this film was an inferior production, though like Harper it was based on, and adhered to, the Ross Macdonald novel.
A few days back I noticed it was being played on a cable channel (TCM?) and decided to give it another look. I set the DVR and, a couple of days afterwards, sat down and gave the film a look.
And I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.
Don’t get me wrong, The Drowning Pool is not as good a film as Harper. The plot kinda rolls along and there’s plenty of talk but not a whole heck of a lot of action.
Yet the movie intrigued me and -I won’t lie- I found myself immersed in it.
Paul Newman, as noted, returns to the role of Lew Harper. When the movie opens, he’s flown into New Orleans and meets up with Iris Devereaux (played by Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward). Mrs. Devereaux, it turns out, was an old flame of Harper’s and is now married and living in an old Plantation house. She was, and its implied still is, something of a wild child and has apparently had a fling or two on the side. A recently fired chauffeur, it appears, is sending blackmail notes to her demanding money or her affair(s) will be revealed.
Because Mrs. Devereaux lives under the steel thumb of Olivia Devereaux, the mother of her husband and a woman who supposedly keeps everyone in the household in line, she fears that if this information is revealed she’ll be cut off from the family and its fortune and sent packing. Worth noting is the implication her husband, the barely seen in the movie James Devereaux, is heavily implied to be a closeted homosexual whose marriage to Iris is a sham and therefore her fears are very real.
So Iris Devereaux calls on Harper to find the chauffeur and make him stop sending the notes and Harper agrees to do so while getting involved in the machinations of the Devereaux family and people who know them.
He soon encounters Iris’ daughter, the angry and even wilder-child Schuyler (Melanie Griffith in one of her first movie roles) as well as the chief of police Broussard (Anthony Franciosa) and his very hot tempered deputy, Franks (Richard Jaeckel). In time, Harper will also bump into J. J. Kilbourne (Murray Hamilton), who may be pulling several strings behind the scenes.
Interestingly, much as I liked the movie Harper and still feel it is a superior movie, I came away feeling The Drowning Pool more effectively captured the tone of the Ross Macdonald novels, and for that I have to give the film a huge plus.
Again, The Drowning Pool may not be a superb film but it is a pretty damn good one and like Mr. Macdonald’s novels it unravels in a slow yet satisfying way, giving you time to sink your teeth into almost every character and realize how it is they interact with -and against!- each other.
Ross Macdonald’s Archer novels tended to feature complex -and very screwed up- family interactions and this movie gives it to us in spades. The ending is shocking, sad, and leaves us wondering what could have been, another familiar theme present in the Archer novels.
In conclusion, its nice to revisit a film you didn’t think all that much of and find it a better experience than you thought. While today’s ADD audiences might find the movie too slow to sit through, I enjoyed soaking up the ambiance and characters present in The Drowning Pool.
The embedded trailer below, alas, cuts off some 1:15 seconds in. No matter, its not a terribly good trailer for the film and makes everything look more tongue in cheek than it was…