Between 1949 and 1976 Author Ross Macdonald wrote a series of novels that featured his private eye character Lew Archer. The first two novels in this series “The Moving Target” and “The Drowning Pool” were both adapted into motion pictures with Paul Newman in the role, however a few concessions were made as “The Moving Target” was translated to the big screen for 1966’s “Harper.” When Newman was cast in the role he requested the name change from Archer to Harper. The story goes Newman didn’t want to break his streak of having successful moves with “H” names like “The Hustler” and “Hud.”
Newman’s Lew Harper is a private eye who lives in his office and is quick-witted. Harper is married, but the marriage fell apart and his estranged wife, played in the film by Janet Leigh, is constantly annoyed he can never turn up for divorcee proceeders as he’s constantly chasing after a case. This time Harper’s been called 90 miles up the road to the lush estate of a worried wife (Lauren Bacall) who wants Harper to find her missing husband—who has a nice value of about $20 million. Along the way, the simple missing person case evolves into a kidnapping, and Harper interacts with a number of characters played by a wonderful cast that includes: Robert Wagner, Shelley Winters, Arthur Hill, Julie Harris, and Strother Martin.
“Harper” is an incredibly entertaining movie that I enjoyed the hell out of. It has one hand in the Noir tradition of private eye flicks of the ‘40s, including the ones that starred Bacall’s husband Humphrey Bogart, and also has one hand in the modern era of the Swingin’ Sixties. “Harper” also plays fair with the audience, if you pay attention you can solve the mystery. Frankly, it’s one of the most enjoyable detective films I’ve ever seen. Audiences at the time thought so too, and perhaps showing Newman’s desire to “H” titles to be true, “Harper” was a big box office hit.
Nine years later Newman returned to the role for 1975’s “The Drowning Pool” which kept the name of the novel it was adapted from. Newman not only returned to the role, but brought his wife, Joanne Woodward along for the film, and reunited with “Cool Hand Luke” director Stuart Rosenberg. “The Drowning Pool” also shows just how much film had changed in nine years. Unlike “Harper,” “The Drowning Pool” is not nearly as light touched and is more in style with being a neo-noir. Harper still has his moments of barbs and jokes, but the film is more guttural than its predecessor.
In “The Drowning Pool” Harper has been called to the bayou outside of New Orleans by an old flame (Woodward) who is now an oil heiress with a blackmail note she doesn’t know what to do with. As Harper begins to investigate he finds himself quickly dealing with the cops keeping tabs on him, and a trail that leads him deep in over his head into a world of ruthless oil business and political payoffs.
“The Drowning Pool” is a good movie, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did “Harper.” Newman is surrounded by a fine cast that includes Murray Hamilton and in one of her first big screen roles Melanie Griffith. But overall it’s not quite as much fun as “Harper” though it is a very much an indication of how much Hollywood had matured since 1966. Audiences at the time must have felt disappointed, or maybe even had forgotten about “Harper” as “The Drowning Pool” was not a success.
Warner Archive brings both “Harper” and “The Drowning Pool” to blu-ray for the first time, both films feature brand new 2K scans made from original source material. If you’ve seen any of Warner Archive’s blu-ray releases before you know that they bring their A-game to every title, both films look great, with a slight nod to “Harper” being more dazzling thanks to being a fair bit more colorful than “The Drowning Pool,” though the latter film is VERY sharp in the darker scenes. Both films sport an English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio track, both tracks sound clear and sharp.
Bonus features are minimal, both films feature a trailer and “Harper” has an audio commentary by its screenwriter William Goldman, ported over from the 2006 DVD release. “The Drowning Pool” features a vintage behind the scenes featurette “Harper Days Are Here Again.” Though both films are welcome additions to the Warner Archive catalog, I must say I’d lean more towards calling “Harper” a must buy, and “The Drowning Pool” worth checking out before committing to a buy. But regardless how you feel about both films Warner Archive has done their usual fantastic job with these two titles. See you next week.