“Oh sometimes I do better than others.”
Paul Newman is the quintessential movie star. Some were more iconic, or more quotable, perhaps, but no actor has managed to compete with Newman’s impeccable blend of good looks, talent, and longevity. He came from the mold of classic Hollywood in the 1950s, and yet helped to break the mold of the New Hollywood movement in the 1970s. He was nominated for an Oscar in five different decades, including three nominations (and a win) after he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985!
This is all worth noting because Newman’s single greatest talent, more than good looks or longevity, was his adaptability. The actor never fell into a slump for long because he could always recognize when he needed to change up the characters he played or the filmmakers he worked with. As such, these slumps can be hard to pick out. They were often introduced and corrected within the course of a single film, and the film that exemplifies this best is 1975’s The Drowning Pool.
The film, based on the Ross Macdonald novel of the same name, is a Newman outlier for several reasons. It was the only sequel he appeared in during his lifetime, and it marked a crucial transitional moment in the midpoint of his career. The end result isn’t terrible so much as it is messy, and incongruous in terms of what the story is trying to achieve.
The origins of the film are muddled as the scripted mystery. Newman had scored a major hit with the first installment in the series, Harper (1966), which cast him as the heir apparent to Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946). Harper’s screenwriter, William Goldman, quickly penned a sequel, but Newman’s busy schedule was prioritized and the franchise was shelved. The character of Harper (changed from “Archer” in the novels) was revived in 1973 when Walter Hill was hired to direct an adaptation of The Drowning Pool.
Initially, the Harper role was to be recast, and Hill, a burgeoning talent, was to strip away the silliness of the original film for a tougher approach. It was the age of Dirty Harry, and the plan was to put “a little more muscle” behind the private detective. The producers were eventually scared off by the new direction and Hill walked, but the sting of his departure was leavened by the fact that Newman agreed to reprise his role. Newman’s return bolstered the profile of the film, and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. was brought in to rewrite Hill’s script.
Semple was an accomplished wordsmith in his own right, with credits including the classic thrillers The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). He relocated the setting of the novel from California to Louisiana in an effort to distinguish the film, and at one point considered changing the name of the Newman character to Dave Ryan. The latter suggestion was vetoed, though only a few weeks before production. The overriding narrative is that all were eager to distinguish the film from Harper, which is ironic given how similar the two films are when viewed in tandem.
The Drowning Pool has a nearly identical plot to the first film, which sees Harper get dragged into the tangled web of a wealthy family. There’s another aging matriarch (Joanne Woodward), another vivacious daughter (Melanie Griffith), and another suspect male (Anthony Franciosa) who may or may not feed into the family’s criminal dealings. All of the story beats involving the characters play out the way they did in Harper, save for the matriarch character; who strikes up a deeper bond with the detective than her predecessor.
Newman and Woodward’s chemistry should come as no surprise to fans who’ve seen them together, and it stands out as one of the film’s subtle highlights. There’s a weathered quality to their dynamic compared to other detective-client relationships, and while largely unspoken, it gives The Drowning Pool a forlorn quality that was perfect for the Watergate era.
The other standout component of the film is Newman’s performance. The actor is repeatedly teased for being too old in the film, and the moments where he confronts (and mocks) his age quietly introduces a new trope in noir storytelling. There have been dozens of over-the-hill detectives since, but Harper, with his graying hair and grizzled pace, was the first of his kind (Robert Mitchum’s senior turn in Farewell, My Lovely arrived a month later).
These tonal innovations are what make the script so frustrating. There are traces of Hill’s original draft in the scenes involving Louisiana henchmen and the main set piece (which involves a literal drowning pool), but they clash with Semple’s intimate, expository conversations. Both writers have a distinct vision for the story, which they’d go on to perfect in later films, but here, fused without a sense of harmony, they sabotage one another. Harper is too vulnerable to be an action hero yet too deadly to be an aging detective. He feels disconnected from the man he was a decade prior.
The frustration ratchets up further when one considers the source material. Ross Macdonald started off as a Raymond Chandler knockoff, aping the verbiage and tone of his idol in an attempt to develop his own style. The Moving Target (the basis for Harper) and The Drowning Pool were Macdonald’s first two novels and therefore the most derivative. When one looks at later efforts like Black Money or The Chill, however, it’s clear the author distinguished himself as a master in his own right. These novels were rife with aphorisms and inventive structures, and would have made for more thoughtful sequels had Warner Bros. adapted them instead.
The direction by Stuart Rosenberg does little to help the structural shortcomings. Rosenberg had proven himself a capable hand for Newman vehicles like Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Pocket Money (1972), but he had fallen on hard times and was reportedly “desperate” for the gig. Sources later claimed that director Jack Garfein was being coveted for the film before Newman made the push for his longtime friend.
Rosenberg does manage to evoke the intrigue of his Louisiana setting, and the decision to filter most of the scenes through a muted green color palette actually proved to be influential on the neon noir wave that followed (spearheaded, fittingly, by Hill’s The Driver). The biggest knock against Rosenberg here is that he fails to drum up any real tension.
The predictable beats are made all the more predictable by the fact that the director mounts them in the most straightforward manner possible. When compared to something like Cool Hand Luke, which prioritized character, one has to wonder whether Rosenberg’s commitment to plot stifled his eye for presentation. He delivers a hollow, albeit handsome product.
The Drowning Pool barely made a splash upon its release. The response from critics was muted, and the box office returns weren’t much better. Newman seized upon the elements of the film that worked (the aging, the reflecting) and transitioned, without missing a beat, to older roles in Slap Shot (1977), Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981), and The Verdict (1982). The Drowning Pool is little more than a footnote today, but it remains a fascinating pivot point between Newman the superstar and Newman the elder statesman.
TRIVIA: Newman, Woodward, and Francoisa had previously appeared together in The Long, Hot Summer (1958).
-Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.