The Paul Newman Collection: The Drowning Pool Review

Lew Harper (Paul Newman) is out his native California and in New Orleans, hired by his old flame Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward) to find the man who has been blackmailing her. But Iris, and her daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith), are only part of it – throw in a land conflict between Iris’s mother in law Olivia (Coral Browne) and shady oil tycoon Jay Hue Kilbourne (Murray Hamilton), the involvement of local police chief Broussard (Tony Franciosa), and several locals ending up dead.

The Drowning Pool is Paul Newman’s second and final film as Ross McDonald’s private eye, following Harper nine years earlier. On the commentary of the latter film, screenwriter William Goldman repeats a story he tells in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. Harper begins with a no-dialogue scene during the opening credits where Harper gets out of bed, dresses, then makes himself a foul-tasting cup of coffee. Newman’s grimace – and the laugh it raised from the audience Goldman saw the film with – was a turning point. The audience liked the central character, and the film was on its way to being a hit. That was a valuable lesson to Goldman, whose first produced screenplay that had been, and who had previously been a novelist: in many ways dialogue is the least important aspect of writing for the screen. For The Drowning Pool, the three screenwriters (Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr and Walter Hill) don’t deviate from the formula: the credits roll over a sequence of Harper at the airport trying to get his hire car to start. Once the story is underway, it’s the mixture as before: nice character pieces as Harper does his rounds of questioning interspersed with bursts of action. Harper sustains fewer beatings this time – maybe because Newman was nearly fifty when he made this. The film’s big setpiece, in the “drowning pool” which gives it its title, is very well realised by director Stuart Rosenberg, and makes up for his rather languid pacing elsewhere.
Another big bonus on the crew side is the presence of a world-class DP. Harper certainly had one too, namely Conrad Hall. But The Drowning Pool has a different look, one not simply explained by the change of cities. Gordon Willis had made an impression with his work on the Godfather films and demonstrates his nickname as “the Prince of Darkness” with some superbly moody and sepulchral interiors.

Another bonus is the cast. Newman gives another star performance as Harper. The role fits him like a glove, and his ease playing the part is certainly seductive. But it would be nothing without a top-notch supporting cast. From this point of view, the best scene in the film is right after the opening credits, when Harper meets Iris. It’s not for nothing that Newman’s wife is cast as Iris: you can believe these two have a past together, and for about a minute it’s as if the film forgets to breathe. Tony Franciosa is dependably solid, Coral Browne makes the most of her one scene and Olivia, while Murray Hamilton steals his two and a bit scenes as Kilbourne. Also in the cast is Melanie Griffith, all of seventeen years old, in her first year in the movies not counting extra work. This and Night Moves the same year, gave her an early reputation for sexy nymphet roles. Fans of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces (not to mention Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka) will note Helena Kallianotes in a brief appearance.

The Drowning Pool isn’t quite up to the level of Harper, but it’s not too far short and is an enjoyable way to spend an hour and three quarters.

The Drowning Pool is the final DVD, chronologically, in the Paul Newman box set. Like the others, this NTSC-format disc is encoded for regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The DVD is transferred in the original ratio of 2.35:1. The picture is sharp enough, and shadow detail in the darker scenes is good, but colours are a little muted. Not having seen this film in the cinema, it’s hard to say if that’s an intentional effect of Willis’s camerawork or due to the DVD transfer.

The soundtrack – either in the original English or a French dub – is in the original mono and there’s nothing at all wrong with it, with dialogue clearly audible and well balanced with the music and sound effects. Subtitles are available in four languages. There’s an odd glitch in the English stream: twenty minutes in, it sticks at Schuyler’s line “I guess I have my daddy’s genes” and you can only reactivate the stream by turning off the subtitles and on again. This only happened with my TV set (it didn’t when watching on a PC monitor), but it did happen twice, so may be a bug with some players only.

Unlike Harper there’s no commentary on this disc, but as with The MacKintosh Man, we are treated to a vintage promotional featurette. Harper Days are Here Again, from the same makers, has the same mix of narration, film extracts and behind-the-scenes footage, but varies the mix by including an interview, with no less than Ross McDonald. The featurette is in 4:3 and runs 10:47. Also on the disc is the theatrical trailer, in anamorphic 1.78:1 and running 2:27.

And with that concludes my reviews of the seven films in the Paul Newman box set. Though not all are essential viewing (Pocket Money is the distinct weak link), most are worthwhile and some more than that – and only Harper is available separately. The UK release leaves out The Young Philadelphians and Pocket Money, so for that reason the US edition is recommended.

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out of 10

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