Monday, July 17, 2017

Paul Newman Gets Wet in "The Drowning Pool"

Harper arrives in New Orleans.
It probably sounded like a good idea at the time: Send Paul Newman's California private eye Harper to New Orleans and get him involved with a former flame, corrupt cops, a devious oil man, a dangerous young woman, and a whole lot of water. It took three screenwriters--typically a sign of trouble for a movie--to try to combine these elements into a coherent mystery. "Try" is the operative word here and, to the defense of the writers, I don't think Billy Wilder could have made a decent movie out of The Drowning Pool--though his version would have been more fun.

Newman first appeared as Lew Harper in the 1966 boxoffice hit Harper. That film was based on the Ross MacDonald novel The Moving Target, which featured private eye Lew Archer. There are several stories explaining the name change from "Archer" to "Harper," but--whatever his name--audiences loved Newman in the part. Still, sequels weren't as common in the 1960s as today, so it was something of a surprise when Newman decided to revive Harper nine years later in The Drowning Pool.
Joanne Woodward as Harper's client.
This time around, the easygoing detective goes to The Big Easy at the request of an old flame (Joanne Woodward) who has received an anonymous blackmail letter. Harper has barely walked into his motel room before a young woman (Melanie Griffith) tries to entrap him and he's arrested by an overprotective police detective (Tony Franciosa). He spends most of the film asking questions and getting beat up. There are two murders and a suicide along the way, but, to his credit, Harper eventually figures out the identity of the killer.

The Drowning Pool is a sluggish affair peppered with dull characters. It's hard to fault the actors. After all, Newman, Woodward, and Franciosa all appeared in another Southern drama, The Long, Hot Summer (1958), and that turned out marvelously. In The Drowning Pool, though, even Mr. and Mrs. Newman don't seem to have any chemistry in their scenes. It doesn't help that their tender moments are inexplicably underscored by a sappy instrumental version of "Killing Me Softly With His Song."

Newman and Gail Strickland in the best scene.
As for the title of The Drowning Pool, that brings us to the movie's best scene. Murray Hamilton, sporting a stylish red, one-piece jumpsuit, strands his wife (Gail Strickland) and Harper in a hydrotherapy room in an abandoned mental institution. Not wanting to face Hamilton's goons the next day, Harper decides to flood the room so he and his companion can float up to the ceiling and escape. It doesn't work as planned, but Harper still breaks free.

Of course, it could also be that The Drowning Pool refers in some esoteric way to the films's characters who are emotionally drowning in a swamp of apathy. Frankly, though, I think it refers to the angst experienced by unfortunate viewers who sit through this vapid mystery for 109 minutes.


  1. The most rational explanation for the name change was that the studio's research found that "Paul Newman IS Archer" elicited thoughts of Merrie Men.I don't remember there WERE any explicit ads that mentioned this was a Harper sequel. Despite the nine-year gap, the original was remembered and played constantly on the tube.

  2. Thanks for the advisory, Rick. This sounds like a sluggish film, and summer is way to short for that. I really enjoyed your review, though! :)