While not especially memorable, the 1966 private-eye flick Harper has its charms, mostly stemming from the synchronicity between star Paul Newman’s affable personality and the smartass vibe of William Goldman’s screenplay. (Newman and Goldman reteamed, to classic effect, on 1968’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Sadly, Goldman was not recruited to participate in The Drowning Pool, an unnecessary sequel to Harper released nearly 10 years after the original film. Cobbled together by screenwriters Walter Hill, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Tracy Keenan Wynn, The Drowning Pool is bland and turgid, moseying from grim murder vignettes to lighthearted dialogue scenes, with drab interludes of sleuthing in between. Inexplicably, the producers kept the title of a novel by Ross MacDonald, whose Lew Archer books provided the basis for the Lew Harper movies, but then ditched most of MacDonald’s storyline.
The Drowning Pool’s Louisiana locations add a measure of novelty, and world-class cinematographer Gordon Willis photographs the film with more style than the material deserves, but it’s hard to stay engaged through all of the picture’s 109 minutes. As a result, The Drowning Pool disappears from memory even more quickly than Harper did—which, presumably, explains why Newman never played the character a third time. When the picture begins, easygoing detective Harper (Newman) travels to New Orleans at the behest of ex-lover Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward), who is now part of high society by marriage, but is being blackmailed with evidence of infidelity. While tracking down the facts about Iris’ tormentor, Harper uncovers a conspiracy related to ownership of oil-rich land. Somewhat in the mode of old Humphrey Bogart movie, The Drowning Pool features mysterious informants, nefarious suspects, romantic intrigue, and various near-death encounters during which Our Intrepid Hero outsmarts potential killers. (The title refers to a sanitarium chamber that figures prominently in the picture’s death-defying climax.)
It’s a shame the story of The Drowning Pool isn’t stronger, since the movie includes a handful of tasty performances. Melanie Griffith exudes precociousness as a teen temptress, Murray Hamilton delivers the requisite oiliness in the role of a crude developer, Richard Jaeckel wobbles nicely between cockiness and cravenness while incarnating a second-banana cop, and Gail Strickland has vivid moments playing a woman trapped by circumstance. Newman, of course, is Newman, effortlessly cool even when he’s got nothing to do. In short, everything about The Drowning Pool works except the core, so it’s possible to derive a measure of superficial enjoyment simply by grooving on the movie’s textures.
The Drowning Pool: FUNKY