More Than Meets The Mogwai

Friday, August 15, 2008

2 x Lew Archer: HARPER (Jack Smight, 1966) / THE DROWNING POOL (Stuart Rosenberg, 1975)

Ross MacDonald’s series of Lew Archer novels span almost three decades, from 1949 to 1976, but his wiseacre private eye wouldn’t make it to the screen with that surname.

Paul Newman, brought to the attention of the property by producer Elliot Kastner (who would later fire up the Raymond Chandler-Robert Mitchum rehashes of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY and THE BIG SLEEP in the seventies), legendarily decided, if for no other reason then because of his then-recent slew of H-titled successes ([THE] HUSTLER; HUD; HOMBRE), to rechristen him Harper. William Goldman, who had suggested MacDonald to Kastner in the first place, would have no qualms over the matter (as he would no doubt say, you must cater to the Star in such incidences), and he genially constructed an adaptation, translating MacDonald’s colorful prose and tale of Los Angeles corruptibility as feasibly as could be done in pre-CHINATOWN Private Eye-dom (for instance, Julie Harris’s Betty Fraley, who majors in drug addiction with a minor in S&M in the book, was noticeably toned down). The plot, like just about every other MacDonald-Archer book, has Harper investigating the disappearance of a man/woman (with the many combinations thereof providing variety: an inordinately rich businessman here, a runaway teenager in another, etc., etc.) The stupendous cast includes Lauren Bacall (in a cheeky in-joke, slyly modernizing for Newman her former husband’s own no-nonsense P.I.) is laid up in a wheelchair throughout, while Robert Wagner, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Janet Leigh, Strother Martin, Robert Webber, Harold Gould, and a belly-dancing, raven-haired knock-out Pamela Tiffin enliven a labyrinthine plot that, in one way or another, indicts just about everyone for doing something sinful in the city of Angels.

The often-celebrated introduction to Newman’s character, prized by Goldman on the commentary track and inside his “Adventures of the Screen Trade”, feels, in retrospect, to be too easy of a character identifier, one used since in countless forgettable sitcoms and direct-to-video fare, and I have a feeling it was already a cliche then (for the record, Newman, fresh out of filters for his coffee-maker, roots around in the trash-can for a used one, brewing it before the requisite grimace at the filthy taste; the thing is, Newman’s undeniable twinkle as a Star betrays the notion that Harper has been weathered and anchored down by experience and bad luck. (Goldman’s commentary, as heresy as it may be for me to say it, is a bit on the self
congratulatory side, with the writer making some absurd claims -- I really doubt, for instance, that Wagner’s tearful confession of recrimination was the first time that a Leading Man stayed to offer actorly assistance to a supporting player.

Ten years later, and Harper’s sequel, THE DROWNING POOL (co-written by Walter Hill when director Robert Mulligan was on board, with the terse, “muscular” retorts being his unmistakable contribution) is a good deal better. Lethargically directed by Newman go-to-guy Stuart Rosenberg, the film, the second book in the Archer series, has Harper in New Orleans (changed from the stale L.A. in the book) helping out an old flame (Joanne Woodward) from being black-mailed. The familiar period character faces and young ingénues are many (JAWS’ Murray Hamilton, Paul Koslo, Gail Strickland, Melanie Griffith), with the titular set-piece of a mental hospital flushed with water – Newman and Strickland stuck in the center - containing reverberations of the seventies-era disaster flick (let’s not forget, Newman made two: THE TOWERING INFERNO and the better-forgotten WHEN TIME RAN OUT). Newman’s brusque breakdown due to Woodward’s death and subsequent realization of her secretive lover (Anthony Franciosa) is also choice stuff to behold, the oblivious subtext of Newman forced to play a scene with his real-life wife’s body as a corpse providing the most genuinely painful scene of the picture.

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