Updated: May 17, 2019
BLU-RAY REVIEW /FRAME SHOTS
“HARPER: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION"
Blu-ray; 1966; Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: Only one; a commentary by screenwriter William Goldman
“THE DROWNING POOL: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION"
Blu-ray; 1975; Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: Only one; “Vintage Featurette: Harper Days are Here Again”
MOST modern, wisecracking gumshoes and their authors owe a lot to Philip Marlowe and his creator, Raymond Chandler.
Robert B. Parker, The Dean of American Crime Fiction, and his soft-hearted, hard-fisted Spenser, is a prime example. Parker even penned an authorized sequel to “The Big Sleep,” “Perchance to Dream.” He finished “The Poodle Springs Story,” now simply titled “Poodle Springs,” used Chandler’s initial four chapters. A late blooming author, Chandler died before he could finish it.
Ross Macdonald followed the trail, too, with 18 books and an anthology featuring his hardboiled P.I. Lew Archer. Macdonald, who wrote under variations of “John Ross Macdonald,” also owed a debt to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (“The Maltese Falcon”). Spade and Marlowe have been portrayed in film by actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery and Elliott Gould; Robert Mitchum was an outstanding Marlowe in “Farewell My Lovely” (1975) and “The Big Sleep” (1978), recently released in a fine remastered Blu-ray double-feature from Shout Select.
Paul Newman played Macdonald’s Lew Archer – who became Lew Harper onscreen – in “Harper” (1966) and “The Drowning Pool” (1975) and are now available in terrific 1080p transfers. These are color-rich and well detailed, with “The Drowning Pool” making great use of its Louisiana locations: New Orleans, Lafayette Parish, Lake Charles and Lake Pontchartrain. “Harper” is set in the detective’s home territory, Los Angeles.
There wouldn’t have been a “Harper” without Paul Newman, who wanted to do the script. It was written by screenwriter/novelist William Goldman (“The Princess Bride,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) and based on Macdonald’s “The Moving Target.” Harper answers a summons from Elaine Sampson, a rich paraplegic played by Lauren Bacall (Bogart’s wife, no less). Her husband, Ralph Sampson, is missing. Elaine is even more hardboiled than the detective; she just wants Harper to verify Ralph is dead. She looks forward to being a rich widow.
Locating Ralph isn’t an easy job, and Harper soon becomes immersed in a heap of trouble. Tracking a photo of Ralph’s former girlfriend, Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), he meets Betty Fraley (Julie Harris) musician and heroin addict, a bizarre cult leader (Strother Martin) and various thugs. He’s aided by the Sampson pool boy (Robert Wagner), who Harper calls “Beauty,” and Ralph’s equally beautiful daughter (Pamela Tiffin). Drugs, illegal immigrants, kidnapping and murder all fall into the mix.
Excellent commentary from Goldman, filled with stories of his career and relationships with Newman, other actors and directors, confirms that “Harper” is dated. MTV honed the “quick cut” technique, he says. There’s a slow progression in the film as Harper plies Fay Estabrook with booze and schmooze to get her talking. In a modern film, the audience would see Harper pick up the bottle and the girl, then cut to her drunk and talking.
Goldman also talks about how Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” changed movies forever, along with more filmmaking history. He talks about stumbling in to writers block, and how the short novel he wrote to help him out was mistakenly considered a screen treatment. He went with the flow and another movie was made. In a way, this ported bonus feature is better than the film itself.
There are two great scenes from “Harper” that stick with us, both created by Goldman. The opening credits in which Harper wakes up to find himself out of coffee and has to improvise. It was Goldman’s first opening credit scene. Later, Harper walks out on his soon-to-be ex-wife (Janet Leigh, “Psycho”) while she’s making breakfast for them. You might get lost in the old-style plot artifice, but you’ll remember these two moments. They hold up against Harper’s obnoxious gum chewing.
Color is brighter and images clearer on the new 1080p transfer. Although some detail is lost, the picture looks better; scratches and dirt have been cleaned away. Comprehensive sound arrives from a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, another upgrade. The score is by Johnny Mandel of the 1970 “M*A*S*H” and “The Sandpiper.”
“THE DROWNING POOL”
Despite “Harper’s” success, it took Newman 9 years to return to the character. Stuart Rosenberg, who directed him in “Cool Hand Luke,” reunites with Newman for “Drowning Pool.” The story’s complexities are richer, with a similar depth and emotional darkness found in “The Big Sleep.”
It opens with a “Harper” shout-out à la Goldman as the detective struggles with a car rental’s seat belt. Again – authentic with just the right touch of humor. Harper has been called to Louisiana by a former lover, Iris Devereaux, played by Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward. Depressed, alcoholic and living in the southern gothic manse that created it, Iris is being blackmailed and wants Harper to find out who it is before her mother-in-law – a nasty piece of work – learns of it. Harper also meets Iris’ indifferent husband (Richard Derr) and troubled 17-year-old daughter, Schuyler (Melanie Griffith).
He’s also quickly introduced to the local police department headed by Chief Broussard (Anthony Franciosa in a fine dramatic portrayal different from his usual comic roles), and bad cop Lt. Franks (Richard Jaeckel). Local oil tyrant J.J. Kilbourne, played to the hilt by Murray Hamilton (Mayor Larry Vaughn, “Jaws”), also pops up with a deal of his own. That intro takes place at Kilbourne’s bayou mansion, where his men are training pit bulls to fight.
Everyone wants to know why Harper is in town, and why he supposedly met with the Devereaux family. And if they can’t find out, they want the P.I. gone or dead. Proceedings are every bit as convoluted, menacing and heartbreaking as anything Chandler wrote, without the lyrical execution. The story, adapted by Tracy Keenan Wynn (“The Longest Yard”), Lorenzo Semple Jr. (“Three Days of the Condor”) and Walter Hill (“The Warriors,” “48 Hours”), holds up well, better than “Harper,” which was a hit at the time of its release.
A Digital Interpositive was scanned at 2K creating a very satisfying 1080p transfer (2.40:1 ratio). Color is well-saturated and natural, with good depth and contrast. Better initial technology strengthens the restored detail seen in complexions, costumes, and settings. The original mono track was cleaned and upgraded to DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound. Dialogue, effects and score by Michael Small (“Marathon Man”), featuring “Killing Me Softly,” already a hit by Roberta Flack prior to the movie’s release, are quite good. Surround sound during the dog training, city scenes, moments in the Devereaux atrium and an interior flood scene is very effective.
There’s only one bonus feature, “Harper Days are Here Again,” a vintage featurette promoting Newman’s return to the role, Rosenberg, other cast members and Ross Macdonald. “Harper is a simplified version of Paul Newman, you might say,” Macdonald says (without batting an eye). “He’s a man of action with a certain flair, a certain self-conscious dramatic sense of what he’s doing.”
Both releases come with the original trailers, a good example showing how well WAC technicians restored the films.
- Kay Reynolds