[box cover]

The Drowning Pool

Paul Newman first portrayed detective Lew Harper in the eponymous Harper (1966), playing the main character originated — as Lew Archer — by writer Ross MacDonald in a series of popular private-eye novels. As legend has it, Newman asked that the character's name and the title of that picture be changed to Harper because he'd had such success in his one-word "H" movies Hud and Hombre, which sounds very silly but, hey, it's Hollywood. The follow-up caper, The Drowning Pool (1975) came nine years later, cobbled together by three screenwriters with wildly disparate styles — Tracy Keenan Wynn (son of actor Keenan Wynn and writer of The Longest Yard and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman), Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (A '60s TV veteran who went on to script Papillon, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor) and writer/producer/director Walter Hill. The picture has all the hallmarks of a property that was passed from hand to hand before it went before the camera — it's confusing, messy, and inconsistent. This time around, Harper leaves his California digs to take a case in New Orleans, working for an old girlfriend (Joanne Woodward) who's been stepping out on her creepy oil baron husband (Murray Hamilton). She wants Harper to find out who's been blackmailing her — in typical MacDonald fashion, every twist of the plot puts Harper in a little more danger as the case gets more and more complicated. Along the way he encounters the usual skeezy detective-novel types and finds himself the object of the amorous intentions of his old flame's sexpot teenage daughter (Melanie Griffith) and the wife of a crooked oilman (Mavis Strickland). Director Stuart Rosenberg previously worked with Newman on Cool Hand Luke and the abysmal WUSA, and he doesn't have a gift for detective pictures — everything's too big, too bright, and he's too in love with his Louisiana locations to bring the intimacy to the story that it needs. Not that it doesn't look pretty — cinematographer Gordon Willis's camera actually finds too much beauty for such a down-and-dirty story. Overall, it's the script that's a mess, with Harper running around from place to place with little information to motivate him, getting punched in the face repeatedly at every turn, and ultimately losing the viewer because it's simply too difficult to follow the plot. Newman is, of course, marvelous, given what he has to work with, and his chemistry with his real-life wife Woodward is delicious. Still, not a great title in the Newman oeuvre. Part of Warner's seven-film "Paul Newman Collection," the DVD release of The Drowning Pool offers a very good anamorphic transfer in its original Panavision aspect ratio (2.35 :1), which features a clean and crisp source-print with surprisingly good color and deep, rich blacks. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (in English or French, with optional English, French, Portuguese or Spanish subtitles) is very good as well, showcasing a delightful ragtime-flavored score by Michael Small (The Stepford Wives, Marathon Man). Also on board is a promo featurette (10 min.) made at the time of the film's release, and the theatrical trailer. Slimcase in the box set.
—Dawn Taylor

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