THE DROWNING POOL: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1975) Warner Archive
Despite its atmospheric mossy, crawfish and jambalaya bayou back staging, a la master cinematographer, Gordon Willis, and some slickness in the performances put forth by Murray Hamilton, as corrupt oil baron, J.J. Kilbourne, and, of course, our star - Paul Newman, in a reprise of the unflappable, shoot-from-the-hip, if slightly rumpled P.I., Lew Harper, director Stuart Rosenberg’s The Drowning Pool (1975) is a lost cause – mostly – winding its way like a carnival dark ride through a convoluted series of hairpin twists and turns as outlined in a screenplay cobbled together by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Walter Hill, very loosely based on Ross Macdonald’s 1950 novel of the same name. Difficult to pinpoint the picture’s most lethal misfire. Whether considering the rather cartoony performances by Tony Franciosa (as Police Lieutenant Broussard), Richard Jaeckel (as a pintsized corrupt cop, Franks), or Joanne Woodward (whose Iris Devereaux positively reeks of embalming fluid as a reincarnated Clara Varner – the pert young Miss she played opposite her famous hubby in 1958’s The Long Hot Summer), or the inexplicable lack of suspense, The Drowning Pool falls apart almost from the moment the credits depart and the central narrative, inside a lavishly appointed chandelier emporium in New Orleans’s Latin Quarter begins.
I suspect the real hurdle to be overcome herein is the passage of time. Nearly 10 years separate The Drowning Pool from Newman’s debut as Harper, in Harper (1966). It might just as well have been a century; the sixties modish gloss and laissez faire trappings (hold-overs from the golden era in Hollywood) traded for the more straight-forward and downplayed lugubriousness of the mid-seventies. Point blank: Harper was a byproduct of ‘old’ Hollywood; The Drowning Pool, a distinct foray to walk away from it. Despite Gordon Willis’ best efforts to lens the antebellum manor house Iris shares with her closeted homosexual hubby, James (Richard Derr), their teenage Lolita daughter, Schuyler (Melanie Griffith – quite good, actually), and, clichéd Southern/Gothic monster-in-law, Olivia (Coral Browne) – the real matron of this maison, the Tennessee Williams’ quality of this dysfunctional family unit lacks Williams’ perverse sense of humor. Had Harper - the franchise - like James Bond, progressed with a picture made every two years or so, the shift from sixties fluff to seventies frippery would have been less obtrusive. But transplanting Lew Harper from that aforementioned superficiality of the California hoi poloi, familiarized in countless movies before it, to the laid back and lazily swaying grassy knolls of the worm-wooded South, creates a genuine and unflattering shock to the system.
The Drowning Pool was originally slated for 1973; producers, David Foster and Lawrence Turman, giddy with excitement for having landed director, Robert Mulligan and screenwriter, Walter Hill to adapt it. Somewhere along the way Mulligan lost interest and bowed out, leaving Hill’s contributions further watered down by Semple and Wynn’s tinkering. Paul Newman’s participation ensured The Drowning Pool would be co-produced by First Artists at Warner Bros. There are some enjoyable vignettes to be had; Harper’s ‘cute meet’ with the unctuous Kilbourne on a remote wetland where the latter is training pit bulls for a ruthless and bloody dog fight, is fraught with aberrantly coquettish and sparring dialogue. Also, good: Harper’s harrowing escape from a flooding asylum hydro room; a real race against time as our bound hero struggles to free himself, along with Mavis (Gail Strickland), Kilbourne’s wife. Herein, director, Stuart Rosenberg exhibits a flair for building precisely the sort of tautness we would expect to find in most any good thriller. It makes some of his other ‘less than perfect’ attempts to do as much, scattered higgledy-piggledy throughout The Drowning Pool, less than exhilarating.
As example: there is virtually no build up to the scene where Harper is run off a narrow causeway by Kilbourne’s goon squad; Rosenburg, merely fading to black after Newman’s drenched P.I. has slithered into the murky/humid ether of night, despite a complete lack of camouflage miles from anywhere. Ditto for the jolted discovery of Olivia, face-planted and quite dead in her glass-enclosed bird-sanctuary/atrium – a mere cutaway followed by some very banal speculation between Harper and Broussard about the events that may have preceded it. The Drowning Pool treats most of these clues with interminable weariness. The genius of Harper – the movie – is that it dangles such suspicions with an elaborate evolution of the plot running in tandem. We see what our hero sees, and then, just a tad more to satisfy the amateur sleuth in us all. By contrast, The Drowning Pool makes mincemeat of its veritable smorgasbord in knotty plot points; the audience, never allowed to grasp the concept, much less indulge in the particulars of this thorny sideshow. The evidence doesn’t really add up until director Rosenberg wants it to, and not even then, when it is neatly dispatched with an off-camera suicide and another minor revelation briefly to follow it. In lieu of character development we get a lot of earsplitting action; as a substitute for suspense, a perpetually muddling of the linear narrative, merely to delay our making sense of the story.
And then, of course, there is the screenwriters’ artistic license to reconsider; the novel’s affluent Slocum family transformed into the fabulously uber-rich and chichi Devereaux’s; dowdy Maude becoming the glacial Iris, and, witty and demure Cathy, downgraded to the erotic nymphet, Schuyler (Melanie Griffith’s performance an obvious carry-over from her near carbon copy role in Night Moves, made and released this same year). Knudson – an amiable flatfoot in the novel – is reconstituted as the awkward Broussard. We also get a McGuffin – Kilbourne’s little black book of payoffs and bribes that the Devereaux’s ex-chauffeur, Pat Reavis (Andy Robinson) has lifted and passed on to his ‘girlfriend’ – hooker, Gretchen (Linda Haynes) for safe keeping. Given the explosive nature of what’s contained between these pages, Reavis’ rather idiotic faith in Gretchen – miraculously not mislaid, is an oversimplification to expedite the storytelling and keep this movie at just under the 2-hour mark. Obvious? Yes. Does it work? Yes.
The Drowning Pool begins in earnest with our hero’s arrival at a swank lighting boutique in New Orleans where he enters into a clandestine reunion with old flame, Iris Devereux. Iris is frantic. You see, she was unfaithful to her closeted husband, James. Someone knows because Iris has received a cryptic blackmailer’s ransom demand. Excavating Iris’ peccadilloes would surely oust la princess from her pampered Southern digs. Especially since the mansion’s matriarch, and James’ mother, Olivia, will not stand for even the appearance of impropriety, far less, its blatant abuse. So, Harper agrees to look into the case. But before he can, he is framed for ‘the corruption of a minor’ after Schuyler – wearing a little nothing of a knit bikini - worms her way into his motel room just as he is emerging from the shower. Harper orders Schuyler out. She belts him one across the cheek and he returns the favor. Little girls with attitude are really not Harper’s thing. Harper is arrested as he exits his motel room by Louisiana’s finest, taken into custody for a rendezvous with corrupt detective, Franks and Police Lieutenant Broussard, who will conduct the very brief interrogation. Neither Franks nor Broussard particularly care for Harper’s glib repartee. But Broussard knows he has nothing to make the charge stick.
So, at least for the time being, Harper is on approval. Alas, not for long as he soon finds a ‘reception committee’ working for bigwig oil baron, J.J. Kilbourne, and fronted by his numero uno thug muscle, nicknamed Candy (Paul Koslo)…because he’s so sweet…waiting for him back at his motel. Ushered by hydroplane to a remote location somewhere on the bayou, where pit bulls are trained to dog fight, Harper meets the head honcho himself. Kilbourne is eager to buy Harper’s services outright to ‘convince’ old lady Devereaux she should sell off her resplendent home and adjacent palatial grounds so Kilbourne can bulldoze everything and drill for even more black gold underneath. Harper is not interested. He makes a thinly veiled promise to think it over, thus allowing him a clean exit. Olivia suspects Harper to already be working for Kilbourne and orders him off her property immediately. Now, Harper is rather surprised to discover the man-hungry Schuyler is Iris’ daughter. Whoops, and thank heaven nothing happened back at the motel!
In short order, Olivia is murdered inside her bird atrium; Harper and Broussard speculating on the motive and list of unusual suspects. Both men simultaneously land on the same name, Pat Reavis (Andy Robinson), the Devereaux’s former chauffeur. Reavis may be a con artist. But is he a murderer? Harper wants to find out. He corners Reavis first, ordering him at gunpoint to drive them to the Devereaux estate. Alas, their car is run off the causeway and into the swamp by three masked and rifle-toting mystery men. One of them quickly dispatches with Reavis, leaving the blackmailer to float down river with a rather large hole in his chest. Miraculously, Harper manages to escape a similar fate, despite several crackerjack shots fired in his direction. He resurfaces the next morning, after hailing a school bus to drive him into town. Harper gets picked up again; knocked unconscious, only to awaken, straight-jacketed and bound to Kilbourne’s wife, Mavis inside the hydro room of an abandoned asylum. Kilbourne has Candy use a firehose on Harper to elicit answers to his questions regarding the still MIA black book. However, Harper isn’t talking. So, Kilbourne decides to let him stew a little overnight.
In the interim, Harper and Mavis manage to free themselves from their restraints. Too bad the room is bolted shut from the outside. So, Harper comes up with the idea to flood the hydro room. They can float up to the skylight and let themselves out through the roof. Regrettably, as the water rises, Harper discovers the skylight’s release mechanism is rusted shut; the glass, bulletproof and therefore unbreakable. As he has used his own clothes and Mavis’ dress to plug the floor drains it now appears they will perish together. As luck, and movie-land contrivances would have it, it has taken the entire night to flood the hydro room. Thus, as Kilbourne and Candy return to unlock the door they are met with a typhoon release of gushing tides inundating the hallway, sending loose furniture crashing all around. Candy is crushed to death beneath a metal locker and Kilbourne, wedged between a couple of metal chairs. Entrusting Mavis with his gun to keep Kilbourne at bay, Harper skulks off to the next room in search of a telephone only to hear gunfire erupt. Rushing back, he finds Mavis has murdered Kilbourne in cold-blood – putting a period to the tyranny that was their marriage. Harper returns to the Devereaux mansion to find Broussard already there. Iris has committed suicide from a drug overdose; Harper, witnessing her body, lying in atypically elegant rigor mortis in the middle of her four-poster bed. We also learn Broussard was, in fact, the mystery lover Iris was indulging behind her husband’s back; leaving him heartsore and speechless.
The loose Southern/Gothic appeal of these penultimate semi-tragic revelations is The Drowning Pool’s saving grace. Even so, the picture concludes on such a dour note of workmanlike efficiency, it is hard – if not impossible – to accept all the clumsy machinations gone before this neatly stitched together conclusion. Harper’s fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants adeptness to survive snares and enough bodily assault to have left any other merely mortal – or perhaps, one simply lacking his guts and chutzpah - bruised and battered, lends the character a sort of lovable super human quality that Newman, with his usual charm, walks through almost blind-folded. While the original Harper in this 2-movie franchise could be considered an ensemble piece (with the likes of Robert Wagner, Shelley Winters, Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris and Janet Leigh among its memorable cast), by comparison The Drowning Pool is Newman’s show from start to finish. The rest of the players amount to enfeebled cameos, particularly Joanne Woodward’s ill-fated/well-heeled, indolent and angst-ridden society gal. Given the entire plot hinges on her hiring Harper, we see far too little of Miss Devereaux shortly thereafter, and virtually none of the spark of Woodward/Newman chemistry that made them such an iconic coupling in Hollywood. The best characterization in the picture, after Newman’s P.I., is Murray Hamilton’s coarsely colorful and iniquitous oilman. Again, there are too few moments in the screenplay to showcase the malevolence Kilbourne harbors toward Harper. But when the writers allow, we get some infectious nastiness from Hamilton; deliciously served up as smug Southern ‘hospitality’ we implicitly recognize will turn out to be anything but.
Alas, the red herrings permeate – and, in some cases, populate – The Drowning Pool with a gumbo of pure Cajun crock. It’s all set against the white-pillared and long-departed age of genteel gentry. The picture is populated by its own basket of deplorables. Yet, it is their collective lack of follow-through on anything more wicked than a smirk that truly insults our intelligence. There is not a ruthless son of a bitch among this lot; just a lot of good ole boys playing at male toughness with varying degrees of success…or lack thereof. And yet, despite its shortcomings, The Drowning Pool has Paul Newman to recommend it. And, in some ways, this is enough to ensure renewable interest in the movie. Newman’s command of the screen is legendary. We do not permit stars of his caliber on the screen any more. Consider Newman, as the antagonistic Harper, barely has to lift a clenched fist or suckle an emotional response beyond a casual raised eyebrow or rather sheepish, and marginally sly grin for which he is justly famous…that, and without question, those piercing blue eyes, herein, registering grey/blue in color by DeLuxe, though just as conveying of some deeper meaning behind them. In the final analysis, The Drowning Pool is not a flop. On the flipside, it’s not exactly a winner either.
Warner Archive’s (WAC) Blu-ray release is simply wonderful. In 1080p, colors that were muddily resolved on the tired old DVD from 2006 truly come to life, capturing all the subtleties in light and shadow created by cinematographer extraordinaire, Gordon Willis. Iris and Harper’s ‘cute meet’ in the Orleans’s light emporium is subliminally spooky and unsettling; the brightness of day just beyond its windows offset by the dim glow of incandescent chandelier bulbs dangling everywhere. The green lushness on the Devereaux estate’s cultured lawns and gardens is contrasted with the reed-entwined brown/beiges of the swampy bayou. Flesh tones exhibit a reddish warmth indigenous to the deep South locales. Film grain is efficiently resolved and very natural looking. There are no age-related artifacts. The DTS 1.0 mono audio is a tad more limited but nicely cleaned-up and adequate for this presentation. The only extra is a vintage ‘making of’ with some nice background scenes showing Newman, Rosenberg and the rest of his cast hard at work. Bottom line: if you are a Paul Newman fan, there is nothing more to add. The Drowning Pool, while far from a perfect thriller, is, in fact, perfectly realized on Blu-ray from WAC. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)