Ross Macdonald is considered by many to be right up there with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Some even consider him better. Readers are most likely to be familiar with his private eye Lew Archer, who anchored 18 novels. However, only two of the Archer novels made it to the big screen.* And in an odd twist, Archer was renamed Harper in the films because, Paul Newman had been lucky with movies that began with the letter “H.” Archer on paper, Harper on celluloid.
Newman had them make another change. (If James Dean had made the movie as originally intended, it probably would have been called The Moving Target, the Macdonald’s first novel and the one the movie was based upon.) Newman insisted that the movie be called Harper (Think The Hustler and Hud). It was released in 1966.
Harper has significant parallels to Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Like Marlow, Harper is called to an elegant LA mansion, where he is hired by the wheel-chair bound owner to find a missing husband. In this case, the infirmed is Lauren Bacall, who was incidentally the, smart, sexy sister in The Big Sleep. Despite the larger-than-life presence of Bacall, the film is definitely Newman’s. Even so, the producers weren’t stingy with the supporting cast. You will enjoy Julie Harris, Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner (perfectly cast) and Shelley Winters. You’ll recognize many other supporting actors as well. Except or the moment when I felt embarrassed by how silly we looked when we danced in the sixties, Harper is a worthwhile private eye escape. The talented William Goldman wrote the screenplay.
Almost ten years later, Paul Newman does Harper again, this time in Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool (1975). They didn’t change the name of the movie, but Hollywood has a penchant for thinking it knows better than the person who wrote the book. They moved Archer, I mean Harper, from LA to New Orleans. Personally, I love New Orleans. That alone would get me to watch the movie. And I can’t help but think this setting makes a much more interesting backdrop. I also like the slightly more mature Newman, who (cliché alert), like a fine wine (or fine cheese, I guess) improved with age. Much like Harper, The Drowning Pool is also Newman’s film. But the co-stars are notable here as well. Joanne Woodward and Melanie Griffith are key, and Anthony (Tony) Franciosa gives a subdued and finely nuanced performance as the main cop. Again Harper is called to a mansion to get his assignment. But instead of a kidnapping and murder, we have blackmail and murder.
Apparently Ross Macdonald didn’t mind the Hollywood interference. Not only did he go along with The Drowning Pool switch from L.A. to New Orleans, he also approved of Paul Newman playing his famous protagonist. Many authors had been disappointed in Hollywood’s choices. I think it’s difficult not to approve of Newman, especially as a P.I. His late-in-life performance in the minor masterpiece, Twilight, was perfect, for example.
If you are considering libations for the evening, you might consider the Ramos Gin Fizz or a Hurricane, the official New Orleans cocktail. If the heat wave is dominating your part of the world, you might try a Mint Julep. And Absinthe might not be totally out of the question.
* Macdonald’s The Underground Man was filmed for NBC as a pilot in 1974. It featured Peter Graves as Lew Archer and had an all-star cast — Celeste Holm, Jim Hutton, Vera miles, Dame Judith Anderson and Jack Klugman. It isn’t available on Netflix. Also, according to the Thrilling Detective web site, there were six, hour-long episodes broadcast in 1975 called “Archer,” starring Brian Keith. I’ve also read that there might be a new series in the making.