Article: A Not-So-Golden State The detective stories of Ross Macdonald


Andrew J. Bacevich has written an interesting and informative article on Ross Macdonald and his character Lew Archer over at The Baffler.  Ross Macdonald was born 100 years ago today! Take the time to read Bacevich’s article on the history of Ross Macdonald and the parallels between the writer and the character, Lew Archer, you won’t be disappointed.  Read the full article here:

Review: The Drowning Pool

The Drowning Pool is the sequel to Harper, both starring Paul Newman as our lead detective. This film was made in 1975, 9 years after the original. I recently reviewed Harper here:

Where Harper was a commercial success, The Drowning Pool was a box office failure. I’m not sure why this was, as Paul Newman was coming off of two of his biggest hits, The Sting and The Towering Inferno. Some of the reasons I would say this film didn’t do as well as Harper are:

  1. The supporting cast on this film are nowhere near as strong as the first. Harper had Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters and Robert Wagner, while The Drowning Pool’s supporting cast had Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward as the only real standout at the time of release. Melanie Griffith has a pivotal role, but being only her second film after Night Moves, she wasn’t a box office draw yet.
  2. For some reason they moved the location to New Orleans. As the original book and first film take place in Los Angeles, I’m not sure why they moved it to New Orleans. Though I liked some aspects of the film for this reason, I miss the flash and style of Los Angeles. This may have kept some Lew Archer fans away from the film.
  3. 9 years may have just been too long to wait for this film for the movie going audience at that time. Now with cable, DVD, On Demand, Netflix, etc. a film can live a lot longer in the people’s conscious. Harper was probably out of circulation quite awhile after 9 years, with a possible viewing on television every few years.

Just because this film was a flop back in the 1970’s doesn’t mean neo noir fans won’t enjoy it today. Like the first film, this is also based on a Ross Macdonald book.

We also still get Paul Newman playing the same Harper we loved in the first film. The story is good and well executed. Harper is brought out to New Orleans on a case, when he is hired by an old girlfriend. She asks for his help because she is being blackmailed. She has married into a wealthy family and when her mother-in-law is found dead, the case really takes off.

Though this sequel maybe inferior to the first film in a number of ways, it is still a good film worth watching. It is a bit darker than the first film with some grittier story points, making it more interesting in some ways. I watched this and Harper back to back and feel they do make a great double feature on a weekend afternoon. This movie is worth watching for fans of Newman and fans of Harper.

Favorite Tidbit: This is Melanie Griffith’s second film at only 17. Here first film released earlier in 1975 is also a classic neo noir, Night Moves. I reviewed this film earlier here:

Re-Watching the Classics: Harper

Harper is a neo noir from 1966 directed by Jack Smight. When a producer asked writer William Goldman to find him a script with a harder edge, Goldman recommended Ross Macdonald’s Archer books. He was asked to write a screenplay and choice the first book in the series “The Moving Target.”

This movie was Goldman’s first solo screenplay writing credit and started the career of one of the greatest screenwriters in history.

So why is this movie called “Harper” and not “The Moving Target” or “Archer”? Well I have found three possibilities for this change of title in my research. I will call these theories since I do not know which one is right. One is Paul Newman wanted the name change to continue his streak of hits starting with H, including The Hustler and Hud, Hombre would come out a year later. The second theory is the film rights were for the story only and the rights to the Lew Archer name was not included in the deal. The third is the Macdonald estate was not pleased with the idea of a film and would not allow the use of the Archer name. Hard to say what really happened here, but I suspect theory two or three is true and they named it Harper because of theory one.

Either way, we got a throwback film in the vain of a classic film noir revolving around a private eye. This must have been an exciting film for fans of noir that didn’t really have a lot to choice from in the 1960’s. Fans of film noir also got to see some familiar faces from some of their past favorites. They got three of the best actresses from the classic film noir era making appearances in this film, Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, and Shelly Winters.

Paul Newman plays Harper as a wise cracking, tough as nails, street smart private detective, just like we like them. Harper is a little more wise than some of our detectives in the past, for instance all three of our female legends try to use their feminine ways on our hero in various ways, but all fall in the end. In fact he uses his charms on them to get what he wants more than the other way around. Harper may not have a lot of money, but he does have great taste. For instance I think his car tells much about the man. He has a Porsche, but it is a little beat up and in need of a tune-up and he has no money to do the proper repairs.

We do have a femme fatale or two in this film. Our first femme fatale is played by Pamela Tiffin who is a bit of a Lolita to Harper’s friend and the lawyer who got him this job, played by Arthur Hill.

Tiffin’s character also has a thing for pretty boy Allan Taggert, played by Robert Wagner. The thing is Taggert already has a femme fatale that is revealed later in the film.

This film is a twisted kidnapping case where Harper is hired by Bacall’s character to find her missing husband. As Harper tracks different leads, he discovers more strange characters. Will Harper find the kidnap victim before it is too late?

The first time I seen this, I was already a huge fan of Bacall and Newman and found the film good, but not great. On watching this again, I really found I enjoyed it much more. The wise cracking humor is very good and not over the top, especially Winters’ character. I think if you are a fan of hardboiled P.I.’s like Marlowe, Spade and Hammer you should give Archer…I mean Harper a try.

Favorite Tidbit: Frank Sinatra was offered the lead, but turned it down.