Review: The Drowning Pool

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

First Artists’ logo appears at the beginning of The Drowning Pool, and the first artist to think about most of the way through the film is Paul Newman, for whom the production has been conspicuously tailored even if the cut is ultimately unflattering. Newman scored a hit with—and by his own testimony “had a ball” making—Harper, the 1966 retooling of an early Lew Archer book (The Moving Target). If director Jack Smight and screenwriter William Goldman observably strained to maintain an illusion of wry deftness, they were still clever and remained rather ingratiating about the whole thing; and Newman, cracking wise with just the right degree of collegiate selfconsciousness, seemed like a dream older-brother. Newman is almost a decade older now and his Lew Harper has moved cinemagenically closer to the Lew Archer of later Ross Macdonald novels (although The Drowning Pool happens to be an early one). As Harper brought onscreen a divorced wife who was only mentioned in the novels, The Drowning Pool has been adjusted so that the lady who calls the private eye to come to her assistance in Louisiana bayou country (a location change from the Southern California of the books, doubtlessly for the sake of fresh scenic resources) is the same slightly fading flower who shared a cozy week with him while vacationing in his territory some years earlier. Aside from permitting the husband-and-wife team of Newman-Woodward a screen relationship more satisfying to their fans, and lending new kinkiness to the play the lady’s adolescent daughter makes for Harper, the alteration serves no good purpose.

Ironically, the younger Newman/Harper, jockily threatening to give Pamela Tiffin the roll she’d been teasing for, or throwing up his hands in exasperation at the pointlessness of turning old pal—and impulse murderer—Arthur Hill over to the law, came nearer the existentially earned tenderness of Macdonald’s latterday hero than the guy in this movie. The Drowning Pool‘s Newman divides his time between spurious dumb-guy routines and stalking into Panavision setups that have no purpose but to celebrate his indispensability to this project—and also an indecently well-preserved physique that no man in his fifties has a right to. But without him—and he is just about impossible to dislike—the film would be a complete disaster. In retrospect, a rich supporting cast and the lowdown background experiences of writer Donn Pearce had a lot more to do with the success of Cool Hand Luke (1967) than TV-conditioned director Stuart Rosenberg. Rosenberg went on to direct Newman and Woodward in WUSA, a numbingly simplistic attempt to plumb reactionary Southern politics for a cinematic horrorshow that one can only hope had a satirical point (even the press release for Drowning Pool goes so far as to concede WUSA was a “semi-flop”). “When in doubt, be arty” must be Rosenberg’s motto, and with three screenwriters credited for this shambles of a continuity, he had to be in doubt most of the time. Every performance is overdirected—Murray Hamilton’s ecologically irresponsible oil tycoon would have found friends in WUSA; in comparison, his work as the one-dimensional mayor in Jaws begins to seem a triumph of behavioral beauty. Here and there we can observe Rosenberg’s literal, 1:1 endeavor to realize something akin to the infinitely resonant structure of Chinatown: Harper finds a snapshot of his client’s problem teenager in a murder suspect’s pad, and one of those gaudy lamps that seems to be composed of tubes of bubbling water shines over his shoulder and drops a big fat clue about the relationship between that young lady and dead bodies in swimming pools and family lands whose pristine, if overgrown, naturalness is jeopardized by the oil deposits underneath.

Perhaps the saddest thing about The Drowning Pool is that the incompetence-cum-artiness of Stuart Rosenberg has subverted the talent of the usually redoubtable Gordon Willis. Joined in force with a Pakula or Coppola who has a rich sense of the power and ambiguity of cinematic form, Willis proves an invaluable collaborator (Klute, The Parallax View, Godfather II); teamed with sensitive actors’-directors like Ashby and Kershner, he contributes visual grace notes that enable the director’s feeling for character and nuance to reverberate within the dimensions of a frame, the spaces and overlays between scenes (The Landlord, Loving). But Willis’s own tendency toward artiness, pictorial ingenuity for its own sake, has been encouraged by his director here, and fatally, so that we get sequence after sequence built on asymmetrical compositions whose emptiness of any logic (save, occasionally, the most self-importantly singleminded) almost devalues Willis’s considerable talent for framing fine shots. The other vision notably, if helplessly, compromised in this film is that of the novelist, Ross Macdonald. Partway through the movie I remembered having noticed that his name didn’t appear in the opening credits, and began to wonder if he’d wanted it that way (it did show up at the end). The Drowning Pool is not among his best but, like all the Archer novels, it’s based on a sound structure of character, event, and the relentlessness of genealogy that restores a meaningful sense of sin to the perfunctorily sordid genre in which he works. It is entirely characteristic of the mishandling of his work here that The Drowning Pool—the movie—while culminating in the same actions and revelations with which the novel ended, concludes by turning the anguish of Harper/Archer and one of the few survivors into a graceless joke. And at this point we come back to the question of “first artists,” because it’s difficult to tell whether the director was trying for the anguish by way of absurdity and just botched it, or the star started mugging to play safe for his hip fans.

RTJ

THE DROWNING POOL
Direction: Stuart Rosenberg. Screenplay: Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Walter Hill, after the novel by Ross Macdonald. Cinematography: Gordon Willis. Production design: Paul Sylbert. Music: Michael Small. Production: Lawrence Turman, David Foster.
The players: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Melanie Griffith, Anthony Franciosa, Murray Hamilton, Gail Strickland, Linda Haynes, Coral Browne, Richard Jaeckel, Andy Robinson, Paul Koslo, Richard Derr.

Copyright © 1975 Richard T. Jameson