Paul Newman played private detective Lew Harper twice but the two movies are so far apart in tone and spirit that it’s hard to fathom that they centre round the same character. Both movies were adaptations of novels by Ross MacDonald featuring the detective Lew Archer. (Newman reportedly had the detective’s name changed to Harper due the success of other movies in which he played characters with a name beginning with H.) 

The first of the two movies – “Harper” (1966) – is very much a film in and of its times, the Swinging Sixties, with Newman playing a wise-cracking but down-on-his-luck gumshoe. At times, his performance comes very close to hamming, with exaggerated gestures and over-the-top exchanges with the other actors.

Paul Newman in "Harper"

The film has one of the finest openings seen in a private eye movie – Harper waking up in his cramped office (his wife, played by Janet Leigh, has separated from him and thrown him out of their home) and making a cup of coffee from the previous day’s grounds scrounged from the dustbin.

Harper is hired by wealthy socialite Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall) to find her missing husband, though she doesn’t seem very concerned about the fact that he might have been kidnapped. Harper is put in touch with Mrs Sampson by family lawyer Albert Graves (Arthur Hill), who has a thing for her daughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin).

Paul Newman in "Harper"

Harper’s search for the missing man brings him in touch with a bunch of colourful characters – the Sampsons’ pilot Allan Taggert (a very young Robert Wagner), over-the-hill movie starlet Fay Estabrook (Shelley Winters), her nasty husband Dwight Troy (Robert Webber), Betty Fraley (Julie Harris), a night club singer with a drug habit, and fake spiritual guru Claude (Strother Martin), who runs a human smuggling ring from a “temple” on a mountain top property that was given to him by Mr Sampson.

William Goldman’s script fleshes out the characters very nicely but is light on plot. Face it, this movie is all about the characters and not really the search for the missing Mr Sampson. The movie channels the vibe of the detective movies of the 1940s but is too brightly photographed by Conrad Hall to pass off as film noir. 

Nine years after “Harper”, Newman returned to the character in “The Drowning Pool” (1975), a very different film directed by Stuart Rosenberg from a script by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple Jr and Walter Hill. An altogether darker and grimmer sequel, it almost seems as if Harper has grown up and realises the gravity of the deadly serious stuff he’s usually mixed up in.

This time out, Harper (portrayed by a very fit-looking 50-year-old Newman) jets off to a small town in Louisiana to take on the case of a former girlfriend, Iris Devereaux (played by Newman’s real-life wife Joanne Woodward), who is being blackmailed for her philandering ways.

Once again, Harper’s attempt to get to the bottom of things brings him up against a set of colourful characters – Iris’ man-hungry daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith), the Devereaux family’s former chauffeur Pat Reavis (Andy Robinson of “Dirty Harry” fame), local police Broussard (Anthony Franciosa) who has a mysterious connection with Iris and Schuyler, Richard Jaeckel as a crooked cop, and Kilbourne (Murray Hamilton), an eccentric oil baron who breeds pit bulldogs and will stop at nothing to get the Devereaux’s land as it has large oil deposits.

Paul Newman and Gail Strickland in "The Drowning Pool"

Harper’s search for the blackmailer leads to murder, conspiracy and the “drowning pool” in the title – a hydrotherapy room in an asylum where Kilbourne was once a patient and which features in the suspenseful climax of this movie.

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