Nine years after his first screen outing, Paul Newman returns as Lew Harper, the private detective created by novelist Ross MacDonald. This time Harper is drawn into investigating a blackmail plot involving an old flame, Iris Devereaux (real life spouse Joanne Woodward) and her nymphomaniac teenage daughter, Schuyler (Melanie Griffith). Local police chief Broussard (Anthony Franciosa) seems jumpy over what long-buried secrets Harper might possibly uncover, while the detective is also caught up in the power struggle between the wealthy Devereaux clan and sleazy oil tycoon Kilbourne (Murray Hamilton).
Anyone who watches this second Lew Harper mystery back-to-back with its predecessor will immediately notice how much Hollywood filmmaking had changed over the intervening years. Both movies place fractured families at the centre of their labyrinthine plots, yet where Harper (1966) was buoyant and playful, The Drowning Pool is melancholy and introspective. Conrad Hall’s eye-popping Technicolor gives way to the moody chiaroscuro of Gordon Willis, arguably the most emblematic D.P. of the 1970s. Coupled with slow-burning direction by Newman’s old Cool Hand Luke (1967) cohort Stuart Rosenberg, this is less studio-bound than Harper, clearly set in a more recognisably “real” world.
Yet while emotions run deeper, somehow the world-weary, autumnal tone fails to ignite the imagination as powerfully as its peppy predecessor. Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and future director Walter Hill all contribute to the slightly schizoid script that has characters weave in and out of focus. Beneath the tangled plot threads the mystery isn’t all that deep, with one character’s murder precipitated by the guilty party stating “I could kill her”, long before the shock denouement. Though sadly not performed by Roberta Flack, that languid lounge ballad “Killing Me Softly” is woven through Michael Small’s score like a ghostly reminder of a painful past. And yet while Newman and Woodward play perfectly together as in past collaborations, their wistful romance never moves as much as it should.
However, the mystery remains gripping throughout and boasts its share of witty one-liners. Paul Newman is greyer, more rumpled, yet still exudes that mega-watt movie star charisma and brings a wry humour to events. Amidst a standout cast, Melanie Griffith does a dry-run for the jailbait act she perfected in the superior Night Moves (1975), while Jaws fans will get a kick out of seeing Murray “my kids were on that beach, too” Hamilton essaying an even greedier authority figure. Everyone’s favourite recipient of a Dirty Harry .44 magnum slug, Andrew Robinson crops up as a small-time hood; Richard Jaeckel plays an odious bully-boy cop whom Harper strong-arms into a game of Russian roulette; Linda Haynes (Jaeckel’s co-star in the delightful Japanese sci-fi adventure Latitude Zero (1969)) is quite touching as tart with a heart Gretchen, whom Harper rewards in the gently humanistic ending; and Gail Strickland is excellent as probably the sexiest femme fatale ever named Mavis.
The title proves both figurative and literal since the film’s most gripping set-piece finds Mavis and Harper trapped inside flooding room, their escape only slightly undermined by a reliance on coincidence over ingenuity.