Harper

Produced by Jerry Gershwin and Elliott Kastner; directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by William Goldman, from the novel The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald; cinematography by Conrad Hall; edited by Stefan Arnsten; music by Johnny Mandel; starring Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters, and Robert Wagner. Blu-Ray, Color, 121 min., 1966. A Warner Archive release.

The Drowning Pool

Produced by David Foster and Lawrence Turman; directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Walter Hill, from the novel The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald; cinematography by Gordon Willis; edited by John C. Howard; music by Michael Small; starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Tony Franciosa, Murray Hamilton, and Melanie Griffith. Blu-Ray, Color, 108 min., 1975. A Warner Archive release.

Reviewed by Jonathan Murray


Despite Ross Macdonald’s status as one of the most prolific and admired of all twentieth-century American crime novelists, his oeuvre remains largely untouched by filmmakers. One possible explanation for this fact is that, unlike major literary influences and peers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Macdonald created most of his work after film noir’s mid-century heyday, continuing to publish novels as late as 1976. Warner Archives’ Blu-Ray release of the two best-known Macdonald film adaptations, Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975), therefore shine light on the challenges of revisiting—let alone reviving—the Hollywood noir tradition during the two decades following its 1940s and early-’50s zenith.

Perhaps the first thing to say about these films is that they seem well aware of that conundrum. Like their late-1940s and early-’50s literary sources, Harper and The Drowning Pool are studiedly classical in narrative setup and development. In both movies, a hard-boiled private investigator visits a big house to accept a case from a wealthy but unhappily married middle-aged woman with a hidden agenda. He then tangles with the latter’s beautiful, aggressively flirtatious young daughter, becomes mired in a local web of moral and institutional corruption, fails to rekindle past romantic happiness, and displays a level of investigative acumen and ardour that ultimately proves pyrrhic as well as procedural in nature and upshot.

Miranda Sampson (Pamela Tiffin) is traditional Noir source of romantic intrigue in Harper.

Lew Harper (Paul Newman) ponders one of the many criminal mysteries that occur during Harper and The Drowning Pool.

So far, so noir-by-numbers. But Harper and The Drowning Pool also draw heavily and knowingly on the star image and persona of lead actor Paul Newman in his commercial and cultural pomp. In doing so, they attempt to come off both as respectful screen versions of noir novels and as novel versions of screen noir able to satisfy late-’60s and early-’70s audience expectations and tastes. Ross Macdonald himself noted these films’ unusually pronounced investment in Hollywood stardom’s cultural politics and pull. In a mid-’70s promotional featurette (included as an extra on the new Drowning Pool disc), he readily conceded that the films aim to reframe his original 1949 literary creation, P. I. Lew Archer (renamed Harper on screen), as their progeny, not progenitor: “a simplified version of Paul Newman…the man of action with a certain flair…more of a mind than a body.” No accident, then, that both Harper and The Drowning Pool open with narratively redundant opening title sequences during which central character/star amusedly and amusingly tackles a mundane logistical problem (making fresh ground coffee when fresh out of coffee grounds; disabling a hire car’s faulty security alarm) at considerable length. In this way, and as well as promising the classic pleasures associated with a quick-thinking celluloid gumshoe, Harper and The Drowning Pool cheerfully stake everything on the theory that there’s self-justifying pleasure to be had in watching Paul Newman do just about anything on a big screen.

Allan Taggert (Robert Wagner) personifies the symbolic color scheme of Harper.

Harper bears that thesis out to a considerable degree. Newman’s performance tries to make good its creation’s promise to be (as Harper puts it) a “new type” of screen Shamus via two contrastive strategies. Each significant in and of itself, their deliberate counterpointing is also indicative of his actorly self-confidence and range. The first of these is almost screwball in execution and intent. Newman’s Harper spends nearly as much time gum chewing (several scenes feature it) as gumshoeing. The consequently inferred motif of physically ceaseless and contorted forms of mouthing off assumes actively cartoonish form in two key sequences. During both, Harper/Newman playfully pulls off an exaggerated fake accent. In the first, he masquerades as a Texan out-of-towner in order to pump an alcoholic former Hollywood starlet—played by Shelley Winters in similarly broad comedic fashion—for information. During the second, he prank calls his estranged wife in a fleeting attempt at reconciliation. At such moments, the traditional laconic demeanor of the 1940s and ’50s Noir P. I. morphs into something much more nakedly ludic.

A significant source of technical excellence and viewing pleasure in its own right, Newman’s distinctive comic approach here also reflects the second way in which his acting (and William Goldman’s screenwriting) attempt to update screen noir’s traditional generic formula. Playing around with others just as readily as putting them down, Harper’s performance of his masculinity consequently comes to seem a more permeable protective carapace than that of a Bogart, Marlowe, or Spade—soft-boiled in places rather than hard all over. Similarly, and alongside standard-issue, self-denying tough-guy integrity, Harper also displays a degree of emotional and sexual vulnerability in his intermittent interactions with his estranged wife that was very rarely visible in ’40s and ’50s noir cinema. Indeed, the mere fact that Harper chooses to give its divorce-related subplot airtime in the first place speaks volumes in this regard. Granted, it would stretch things to say that the character of Harper is a prototype of the modern-day New Man. He is, though, a clear product of Newman, a signature creation of an actor whose contemporaneous role choices and approach to screen acting helped evolve concepts of the Hollywood male lead via an innovative emphasis on fragile interiority alongside more traditional ideals of virility, capability and self-sufficiency.

Betty Fraley (Julie Harris) and Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters) struggle towards the end of Harper.

Lastly, Harper also attempts to simultaneously revive and revise the classic film noir formula via a route so obvious it might be easy to overlook. Shot in colour (which by the mid-’60s had supplanted black and white as industry standard), this movie is consequently not Expressionist in cinematographic style. But it studiously maintains noir’s trademark commitment to color’s emotionally and thematically expressive potential. Yellow through bronze performs the heavy lifting in this regard. Most obviously, the naturalistically sun-bleached palate of Harper’s outdoor sequences (unlike its mid-century predecessors, much of this movie was shot on location) present its Californian settings in ostensibly attractive, picture-postcard fashion. More complexly, however, these shades’ recurrent presence is used to suggest various characters’ venality or duplicity, and the extent to which those personal failings are rooted in different aspects of the Sunshine State’s distinctive history and contemporary culture. Harper’s duplicitous female client is a devotee of tanning machines; a Sun God cult fronts an illegal immigrant smuggling racket; yellow lights and fittings adorn a succession of physically and/or emotionally dangerous narrative locales; a close-up of egg yolks being speared accompanies Harper’s wife’s bitter (but perhaps partly justifiable) description of her unreliable husband as “just an infinitely lingering disease.” In all of the ways outlined above, Harper represents an enjoyable and efficient attempt to resuscitate and reimagine elements of the classic film noir template in the cultural climate of the mid-1960s.

A decade later, The Drowning Pool, Newman’s second and final outing as Harper, repeated certain aspects of its predecessor’s carefully crafted formula while simultaneously ripping others up. As key continuities go, commitment to location-based shooting (and to a degree of location-based cultural commentary) is again to the fore. Jettisoning the Californian setting of Ross Macdonald’s 1950 source novel, the film’s opening image is an establishing shot of New Orleans International Airport signage. That sight flags The Drowning Pool’s preferred literal and figurative directions of travel. Echoing Harper’s interest in exploring/exploiting a pronounced sense of narrative place, abundant early location footage of the oil industry’s impact on the Louisiana landscape prefigures a central narrative preoccupation: oil money’s creation of widespread individual and institutional corruption within this part of the American South. In this regard, The Drowning Pool occasionally feels like a blueprint for much later American detective fiction such as the novels of James Lee Burke. If what drills down on the Californian landscape (sun) turns people bad in Harper, what people drill down through the Louisianan landscape towards (oil) performs a similar thematic function in The Drowning Pool.

  Lew Harper (Paul Newman) seeks out information in  The Drowning Pool .

Lew Harper (Paul Newman) seeks out information in The Drowning Pool.

Lew Harper (Paul Newman) gets a warm welcome to Louisiana in The Drowning Pool.

Oil’s narrative centrality also defines the terms of another major similarity between The Drowning Pool and Harper. Both films commit to an ostentatiously dominant, thematically expressive color palate. The oil stain that Harper finds stuck to the sole of his foot after swimming in a local lake soon after arriving in Louisiana is a disquieting omen in this regard. Once again deploying the ground-breaking cinematographic approach and aesthetic he had recently developed on the first two Godfather movies, Gordon Willis drenches The Drowning Pool in recurring slicks of black. He thus plays a major role in underscoring the film’s markedly downbeat tone. Pessimism characterizes both its portrayal of interpersonal relationships (as in Harper, Newman’s character once again struggles to salvage a severed romantic connection) and its perception of the blurred line between human self-interest and psychopathy (two central protagonists may be read in such terms—one from the outset, the other only belatedly).

Such considerations perhaps already suggest the main ways in which The Drowning Pool differs from Harper. The former’s more insistent pessimism is reflected in Paul Newman’s recalibrated approach to playing the main character. While not completely absent, the goofiness that marked elements of his performance in Harper is markedly dialed down. Both character and performance feel much more conventionally hard-boiled as a result. The film’s final line of dialogue (“You’re not such a tough guy after all”) possibly signals a degree of uneasy self-awareness regarding its retreat from the innovative performance style that defined its predecessor. More generally, The Drowning Pool also displays a markedly more earnest and extensive interest than Harper in the theme of dysfunctional family dynamics. While this element of the film is never less than sensitively written and played, it also renders the narrative’s final fifteen minutes a somewhat ungainly, narrative resolution-focused affair. In another possible note of climactic self-critique, Harper even goes so far during this interlude as to mock his professional-cum-personal compulsion to tie up loose ends. If The Drowning Pool is a more determinedly and conventionally serious affair than its predecessor, it is also a less satisfying film as a result.

Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward) hires Harper to investigate the mystery in the depths of The Drowning Pool.

Schuyler Devreaux (Melanie Griffith) taunts Harper throughout The Drowning Pool

The Blu-ray transfers of both Harper and The Drowning Pool are technically effective—and the latter film offers a welcome chance to revisit a lesser-known entry within a seminal cinematographer’s oeuvre. While relatively few in number, some of the disc extras are similarly valuable. Screenwriter William Goldman’s commentary on the Harper disc sheds light on the genesis of a highly influential creative career (this film was Goldman’s first major credit). Although much shorter than Goldman’s commentary, the promotional featurette included on The Drowning Pool package contains Ross Macdonald’s brief but thought-provoking ruminations on Paul Newman’s star image.

Ultimately, neither Harper nor The Drowning Pool will be reassessed as major films anytime soon. Unlike more ambitious poststudio era neo-noirs such as Night Moves (the Blu-Ray release of which was reviewed as an Web Exclusive in Cineaste’s Winter 2017 edition), Newman’s outings as Harper were broadly content to think through the pragmatics of how noir might be revived during the 1960s and 1970s, as opposed to the more substantial questions of why that might be a culturally and ideologically meaningful creative move to make at that time. Harper observes of himself at one point that “I am interested in truth…not the big philosophical stuff [but] the everyday things like who, why, when, where.” That self-deprecating assessment also applies to the two movies that contain him. But they’re rarely less than intelligently and capably made, not least because Paul Newman’s performances at their heart remind us of the charisma, ability, and innovation that characterize so much of his screen work.

Jonathan Murray, a Cineaste contributing writer, teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.

You may purchase the Blu-rays of Harper here and The Drowning Pool here.

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 3