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The Drowning Pool

by Glenn Erickson Mar 13, 2018

 

‘Harper Days Are Here Again,’ reads the advertising tag line for this worthy follow-up to Paul Newman’s first outing as Ross Macdonald’s jaded private eye. The movie is certainly worthy, but how did the producers let the terrific song Killing Me Softly with His Song get away?


The Drowning Pool
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1976 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date February 27, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, Murray Hamilton, Gail Strickland, Melanie Griffith, Linda Haynes, Richard Jaeckel.
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Film Editor: John C. Howard
Production Design: Paul Sylbert
Original Music: Michael Small
Written by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr., Walter Hill from the novel by Ross Macdonald
Produced by David Foster, Lawrence Turman
Directed by
Stuart Rosenberg

 

Looking to make lightning strike twice, Paul Newman returned to his Lew Harper character in another adaptation of a Ross Macdonald tale. The star handles it very well, especially in the youthfulness department — Paul is a very trim fifty. But things have changed. Private eye television shows were legion in the 1970s and Lew Harper’s adventure this time isn’t all that much more spectacular than the average episode of The Rockford Files. The Drowning Pool is also darker and less humorous than the earlier film. Newman P.I. spends most of his time suffering from setbacks both professional and personal.

 

Lew Harper (Newman) is summoned to a Louisiana town by an old girlfriend, Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward) who is concerned about a blackmail note she’s received. Iris is trapped between a domineering matriarch Olivia (Coral Browne) and a writer husband (Richard Derr) who shows more interest in his male secretary than he does his spouse. There’s also Iris’ jail-bait daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffiths), who has been carrying on with the recently fired chauffeur, Pat Reavis (Andy Robinson). Putting pressure on the situation is the local oil developer Kilbourne (Murray Hamilton), who claims he’ll do most anything to obtain the oil rights to properties owned by the Devereaux family. And that’s not to mention local police chief Broussard (Anthony Franciosa), a charming but shifty guy who may figure into the picture as well.

A Los Angeles private investigator went to Dixie in another major 1975 movie, Arthur Penn’s much more edgy Night Moves with Gene Hackman. That show also stars young Melanie Griffith as a sexually provocative teen jezebel. The Drowning Pool is a good mystery in the tradition of ’round up the usual co-stars.’ The resonance with classic fiction even includes a missing chauffeur character, as in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Director Stuart Rosenberg generates a relaxed pace suitable for its setting, but also a mood that too often becomes grim.

 

Lew Harper mixes into the back-bayou intrigues of Louisiana, drumming up some local color by giving us a few scenic views and a close-up peek at a pot of stuffed shrimp. Otherwise it’s the usual tangle of double crossers and thugs. Harper gets beat up a lot less in this episode, which is good because we’re no longer willing to believe he can take unlimited punishment.

Stuart Rosenberg’s sober attitude to the material tamps down many of the expected genre thrills. Accosted by beautiful women, Harper remains chaste and true to his mission. His lady fair Joanne Woodward is barely given enough screen time to involve us in her predicament; she looks ready to wilt from scene one forward. The fact that it’s the wonderful Ms. Woodward helps somewhat, but her character already seems to have given up. When people start getting klonked on the head, shot and otherwise rubbed out, The Drowning Pool morphs into a standard body count thriller. Instead of interacting with Woodward’s Iris, Harper’s attention is spread among three other female characters.

 

The classy supporting cast keeps us glued to the story, however. Coral Browne and Anthony Franciosa are eliminated or marginalized for most of the picture and have only a limited impact, but there are meaty opportunities for favorite Murray Hamilton (a mad oil man who loves to breed killer pit bulls) and youngster Melanie Griffith. Gail Strickland gets a great turn as Hamilton’s terrified wife, as does the talented and little-used Linda Haynes, as a fair-minded prostitute. Oscar-nominated for Sometimes a Great Notion, Richard Jaeckel returns to menace Newman as a second-string baddie. The talented Andy Robinson, so strongly stereotyped from Dirty Harry, is a sympathetic bad guy / fall guy. Richard Derr (When Worlds Collide) and Helena Kallianiotes (Five Easy Pieces) carry smaller parts.

The big ‘drowning pool’ scene is a clever variation on a situation from Fritz Lang’s classic The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The hero and heroine in that 1932 film are left in a sealed brick room, unable to reach a bomb that will blow them up in a matter of hours. There seems to be no possible escape, until . . .

 

In this story (which I’m not suggesting has been copied) Newman and Strickland are locked into a similar sealed room in an asylum dungeon and have only a few hours to live. High-powered water sources abound, so they flood the room hoping to escape through the metal skylight at the top. The tiled dungeon becomes the deep pool of the title. Only when there’s little or no breathing space left do they discover they can’t open the skylight.

It’s a great scene, and we don’t mind that to make it work the writers have had to make Murray Hamilton’s Kilbourne into a lunatic. He bought the asylum in which he was once committed, and now can use it for private torture sessions. We should have been tipped off by Hamilton’s habit of cooking lavish gourmet meals, and then throwing them out, because his doctor won’t let him eat them.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Drowning Pool is a big improvement on WB’s earlier DVD, mainly because Blu-ray handles the dark, soft cinematography much better. Gordon Willis’ Panavision images are much more attractive now.

The big surprise in the show is hearing instrumental snippets of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel’s great top-40 song Killing Me Softly with His Song, which had already been a hit for Roberta Flack in 1973. And I mean snippets — only after a couple of part-repetitions do we recognize the tune. A Killing Me Softly music association would surely have done the movie a lot of good, had it been featured under the titles or used as a main theme to comment on Joanne Woodward’s character Iris. As it is, we never hear the full melody line nor any of the lyrics. Was there some kind of legal obstacle? It’s a missed opportunity — there are plenty of precedents for pop songs that helped pictures stand out from the competition.

Besides a trailer, The WAC gives us a making-of promo piece, Harper Days are Here Again, showing a bit of location filming.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



The Drowning Pool
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, featurette
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 10, 2018
(5671pool)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.