Crack open these (Blu-ray) cases with Paul Newman’s private sleuth, from Warner Archive
The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!
Based on Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer character who famously starred in a series of novels, Harper and The Drowning Pool carried on the tradition of Hollywood detective tales, but with the more modern sensibilities of the 1960s and 70s. Rather than being particularly noirish or hardboiled, Paul Newman provides a touch of whimsy and humor as Harper, intelligent and fast on his feet but not without his dopey moments.
Harper’s opening scene is a marvel of exposition, telling us everything we need to know about his character without uttering a word. He wakes up in what’s revealed to be his office, re-brews yesterday’s old coffee grounds, waves at a photograph of his estranged wife (Janet Leigh), and hits the road in his rusty Porsche. Every small detail or action seems to be a reminder of better times.
Harper is hired by wealthy socialite Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall, in a throwback of sorts to The Big Sleep) to find her husband who just went missing. Helping him in various respects are Elaine’s pretty daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin), pilot Allan (Robert Taggart) who was his last contact, and attorney Albert Graves, who is also Harper’s own friend who referred the case.
The string of clues leads Harper on a wild goose chase that has him romancing a has-been actress (Shelley Winters), investigating a hippie cult run by Strother Martin, and trying to reconnect with his frustrated wife who rightly blames him for choosing work over love.
The film strikes an unusual tone; it’s a mostly upbeat drama that feels like a comedy — without being particularly funny. The film isn’t overtly comedic and indeed a bit dark, but it’s frequently clever and has a subtle sort of humor to its freewheeling narrative, quippy dialogue, and hapless protagonist.
The Drowning Pool (1975)
Harper’s sequel followed nine years after the original. Harper is called to New Orleans by an old flame (Joann Woodward), who has married into a wealthy family, to investigate a blackmail case. But nothing’s ever simple, and soon that family’s matriarch is dead and Harper runs afoul of family politics, an unhelpful police chief (Tony Franciosa), and a powerful oil baron (Murray Hamilton) in a conspiracy where everyone’s a suspect.
In keeping with the times, the sequel does have a bit more of a 70s feel to it with it southern-fried atmosphere and a clear villain. It’s the more enjoyable film of the pairing, not only because it’s having more fun with the action and humor, but also in that Harper himself seems to have gotten better with age. He’s still the same Harper but a little older, a little wiser, and a little less of a cad.
Both Harper and The Drowning Pool were released (separately) on Blu-ray last year by Warner Archive. The packages feature classic key art and standard Blu-ray cases. While a 2-film set would’ve made sense, they are only available separate titles.
Special Features and Extras — Harper
Special Features and Extras — The Drowning Pool
Vintage featurette — Harper Days Are Here Again (10:46)
EPK-type video explores the sequel’s new setting and gives a preview and behind the scenes look at the setpiece that serves as the film’s title and climax.
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.