Harper (1966) / The Drowning Pool (1975) Blu-ray Reviews: Newman's Own Detective Series

The Warner Archive Collection brings us two excellent transfers of two contrasting tales starring the great Paul Newman.
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Lew Harper is back on the case ‒ twice over ‒ in these two new Blu-ray releases from the Warner Archive Collection. Adapted from Ross Macdonald's literary adventures of Lew Archer (because who in their right mind could take a character named Archer seriously, especially now?), 1966's Harper brings us a misadventure of a modern-day Southern Californian private investigator. Seemingly inspired by every classic detective from books to film alike ‒ and every bit as cynical, to boot ‒ the role was brought to magnificent life on-screen by the one and only Paul Newman (The Hustler). Nine years later, Newman reprised the role in a long-awaited (if poorly-timed) sequel, The Drowning Pool.

Arriving in cinemas at a rather propitious point in time ‒ when detectives weren't in terribly high demand ‒ Harper opens with Newman's disillusioned, disheveled character in the midst of a bad stretch. Were the fact he's out of coffee not bad enough, his wife (Janet Leigh, Psycho) is also divorcing him. But even those two life-altering blows pale in comparison to the strange case he accepts from disabled socialite Elaine Sampson up the coast ‒ as played by legendary film noir icon Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep) ‒ whose hubby has vanished without a trace. Not that she's pining for the missing man; in fact, it's quite apparent she would rather see him dead.

Also on Harper's case here is an assortment of character actor greats, led by Arthur Hill as the attorney friend of Lew's who recommends him to Mrs. Sampson for purely personal reasons: so he might try to marry the family's young, spoiled flirty step-heiress, Miranda (Pamela Tiffin, State Fair). Alas, Miranda is currently (and barely, at that) wearing out a freshly-famous Robert Wagner (Beneath the 12-Mile Reef), who plays the disappeared Sampson patriarch's personal pilot. Shelley Winters (The Big Knife) plays a former actress who has since become dependent on food and drink, and grumpy Robert Webber (S.O.B.) is her combative husband.

But of all the familiar faces cast in this fun neo-noir, the great Strother Martin takes the cake here as a kooky cult leader with an ever-present pet falcon. Ripe with equal amounts of twists, turns, and laughs, Harper also features Julie Harris (The Member of the Wedding), future Clint Eastwood regular Roy Jenson (Dillinger), and the always wonderful Harold Gould (Love and Death). Screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) brings Ross Macdonald's 1949 novel The Moving Target (which also became the film's title when released in the UK) to life with director Jack Smight (The Illustrated Man), cinematographer Conrad Hall (American Beauty), and M*A*S*H composer Johnny Mandel.

By the time Paul Newman agreed to return to the screen as Lew Harper in 1975's The Drowning Pool, detective movies and TV shows all but dominated screens, leaving audiences craving more than just standard crime dramas. Thus, Newman's notable revisiting of the impossible-to-dislike character went somewhat unnoticed, all but Drowning in the foaming wake left behind by a recent, industry-changing monster named Jaws. Worse still, this adaptation of Ross Macdonald's 1950 book of the same name inexplicably relocated the Southern California settings to the Deep South of all places, paving the way for not only a bad "fish out of water" analogy, but equally disappointing detective follow-ups like Fletch Lives.

Once again, Mr. Newman is surrounded by a venerable selection of greats, including his famous off-screen wife Joanne Woodward, and the real-life couple's former The Long, Hot Summer co-star, Anthony Franciosa (Web of the Spider). Here, Ms. Woodward portrays a now-married ex-lover of Lew's ‒ calling him into action after her former chauffeur threatens to spill the beans regarding certain recent infidelities. She may not be in the movie very much (despite second-billing; I mean, she was Newman's wife, after all!), but she does a damned fine job when she's on-screen. Tony Franciosa, on the other hand, practically phones it in as a local police authority who has a hard time holding onto his indeterminate Louisiana accent.

The highlight of this convoluted yarn is an eponymous death trap with Newman and Gail (The Man in the Moon) Strickland, wherein the pair are locked in a flooding hydrotherapy room. "The Mayor of Shark City" himself, Murray Hamilton (Jaws), also stars, with a young Melanie Griffith (in a remarkably similar role to her teenage temptress in Night Moves), The Green Slime's Richard Jaeckel, and Dirty Harry's Andrew Robinson. Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) directs this passable time-waster from writers Tracy Keenan Wynn (The Longest Yard), Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Flash Gordon), and Walter Hill (The Warriors). Frequent Woody Allen collaborator Gordon Willis (The Godfather) provides the photography.

Both Harper and The Drowning Pool arrive on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection via all-new 2K scans of the same interpositive prints previously used for the titles' SD-DVD releases, and neither of the two MPEG-4 AVC 1080p encodes could look better. In fact, they're damn gorgeous all the way through; a perfect fit for two movies starring so many handsome and beautiful entertainers. Each film is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio with DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono soundtracks which are just as marvelous to behold. English (SDH) subtitles, which are mostly in annoying all-caps, are included, and both titles include their respective theatrical trailer, gloriously remastered in High-Definition for these individual releases.

Both of these Warner Archive Collection Blu-rays also feature their own indigenous bonus item. In the instance of Harper, we are treated to screenwriter William (The Princess Bride) Goldman's audio commentary, initially recorded for the 2006 Warner Bros. DVD. Included with The Drowning Pool is a classic promotional behind-the-scenes featurette entitled Harper Days are Here Again. All in all, there's plenty to keep Paul Newman (and, to a lesser degree) Ross Macdonald enthusiasts afloat here (yes, that was an intentional pun), as these classic neo-noir crime dramas have aged remarkably well and are ripe for rediscovery amongst contemporary audiences who have grown bored with modern, gritty TV shows.

Highly Recommended.

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