The Drowning Pool
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When Los Angeles based private eye Lew Harper is summoned to Louisiana on a case by Iris, a former lover who has married into a prominent New Orleans family, he finds himself drawn into a web of blackmail, extortion, crooked businessmen and murder. Based on a detective novel of the same name by Ross MacDonald (a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar), The Drowning Pool (1975) is a return to the dogged, world weary protagonist first introduced in Harper in 1966. In that film (based on the MacDonald novel The Moving Target), Paul Newman played the title role and tried to unravel a case involving the kidnapping of a wealthy heiress's husband. (Although Macdonald's famous detective is named Lew Archer in the novels, the last name was changed to Harper in the film versions because Newman reportedly considered the letter "H" a good luck charm after the success of The Hustler  and Hud ).
Although The Drowning Pool was made almost ten years after Harper, Newman's fondness for MacDonald's original creation had not diminished over time. "I simply adore that character," the actor stated (in Shawn Levy's biography Paul Newman: A Life), " because it will accommodate any kind of actor's invention...It's just lovely to get up in the morning, it's great to go to work, because you know you're going to have a lot of fun that day." At this point in his career, Newman had just scored a major box office hit with the big budget disaster film The Towering Inferno (1974) and his wife Joanne Woodward, whose film career was beginning to wind down, had recently completed Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973). Both actors were finding it increasingly challenging to juggle their film careers with raising a family and pursuing their hobbies - Newman with his passion for auto racing and Woodward with her love and patronage of ballet. The Drowning Pool offered the perfect opportunity for the couple to work together and have some fun in the process.
Even though The Drowning Pool was set in Southern California in the novel, the movie sets the story in New Orleans, which was also the location of the last film Newman and Woodward made together W.U.S.A. (1970). It also reunited Newman for the fourth time with director Stuart Rosenberg who first worked with the actor on Cool Hand Luke in 1967.
Produced by First Artists Production Company (a business venture for securing film properties that Newman formed with Steve McQueen and Barbra Streisand), The Drowning Pool was by most reports a happy working experience for all concerned though Newman almost suffered major injuries off the set while he was racing a Porsche at a New Orleans racetrack. According to Levy's biography of Newman, the actor and a passenger weren't wearing seat belts as the Porsche went out of control. "For a time we rode on two wheels," Newman recalled. "Then the car went on its side but we weren't thrown out. The windshield shattered. Fortunately it was European glass that breaks into powder on impact. We climbed out of the windshield. Neither of us was hurt. We hardly had our hair mussed. As I stood by the car, somebody slammed the door on my hand. Fortunately the door was sprung or I would have lost the tips of my fingers. "Open the door," I said quietly. When they did, I ran to the beer cooler and stuck my fingers in the icy water. I didn't even lose my fingernails."
Paul Newman's good luck streak didn't last when it came to the The Drowning Pool's reception. It was a box office disappointment compared to the earlier success of Harper. In some ways the atmospheric cinematography by Gordon Willis is the real star of the film and today the film serves as a time capsule record of the New Orleans area in the mid-seventies. There are scenes shot in the French Quarter, along the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, in nearby Lake Charles and Lafayette, and at the Oaklawn Manor Plantation in Franklin, Louisiana. There is even a scene set inside the warehouse that houses the Mardi Gras floats in the offseason.
Another bonus is the cast of The Drowning Pool which reads like a "who's who" of the cinema world circa 1975. Besides Newman and Woodward, who plays Iris, the ill-fated, blackmailed client, there is Anthony Franciosa as an interfering local city cop, Murray Hamilton in a scene-stealing performance as a sleazy oil tycoon named Kilbourne, Richard Jaeckel as a corrupt police officer, Melanie Griffith (only seventeen at the time) as Iris's scheming daughter, Coral Browne as the wealthy family matriarch, Linda Haynes as a hooker with a valuable secret and Gail Strickland in her feature film debut as the endangered wife of Kilbourne. You can also spot such familiar faces as Paul Koslo (who specializes in screen heavies in such films as Mr. Majestyk  and The Laughing Policeman ), Andy Robinson (who played the infamous Scorpio Killer from Dirty Harry ) and the exotic Helena Kallianiotes, who is best remembered for her scenes as a ranting, ill-tempered hitchhiker in Five Easy Pieces (1970).
With all of that talent involved and a screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and Walter Hill, The Drowning Pool should have been a bona fide hit but the film is highly uneven, working better as a character study of Harper than a mystery thriller. The scenes between Newman and Woodward, in particular, are the weakest and has little of the on-screen chemistry they generated together in The Long, Hot Summer (1958). An instrumental version of Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox's hit song "Killing Me Softly with His Song" is also repeatedly used to irritating effect as a love theme whenever the couple are onscreen together. Yet there are many effective moments as well such as a tense set piece where Harper and Kilbourne's wife are trapped in the hydrotherapy room of an abandoned sanatorium as rising waters threaten to drown them.
Typical of the reviews at the time was this response from Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times who wrote, "All of this is good, straightforward thriller material, and could have made a decent B movie. But since The Drowning Pool is a Paul Newman vehicle, it goes first class, and that turns out to be fatal. So much attention is given to making the movie look good visually that the story gets mislaid, and scenes that should create tension are photographed so painstakingly they only record it. There's a lot of careful framing and backlighting and things look so good we lose track of what's going on."
Despite the indifferent response to The Drowning Pool, Newman forged ahead with more ambitious projects on the horizon such as his next film, Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), while Joanne Woodward would give some of her finest performances in such made-for-TV movies as Sybil (1976) and See How She Runs (1978).
Producer: Lawrence Turman
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Screenplay: Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Walter Hill, based on the novel by Ross MacDonald
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Art Direction: Edwin O'Donovan
Production Design: Paul Sylbert
Music: Michael Small
Film Editing: John C. Howard
Cast: Paul Newman (Harper), Joanne Woodward (Iris), Anthony Franciosa (Broussard), Murray Hamilton (Kilbourne), Gail Strickland (Mavis), Melanie Griffith (Schuyler), Linda Haynes (Gretchen), Richard Jaeckel (Franks), Paul Koslo (Candy).
by Jeff Stafford
Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy (Harmony Books)