Revisiting the private-detective character he created for "Harper" nine years before gives this Paul Newman vehicle some interest, especially as the man was then at the apex of his stardom. It makes for a sweet showcase for his ineffable charisma, yet lacks in other key departments.
This time Lew Harper is in Louisiana's Bayou Country to help an old flame through a potentially messy blackmail case. Before you can say "You're out of your depth" (which someone does to Lew, sure enough), Harper discovers a hornet's nest of intrigue involving big oil money, local corruption, and murder.
Newman does look terrific, even more for the "little gray over the ears" that gets pointed out by the old flame, Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward). Woodward was of course Newman's real-life wife and frequent acting partner in romantic dramas, though you don't get as much of them together as you - or Harper - might like. She's more the fly in the ointment who somewhat unwillingly presses Harper to dig into the ugly guts of the case, as well as a bit unreliable as she lapses into Southern-matron airs and too much drink.
"The Drowning Pool" has less attitude and more likability than "Harper" did: One wishes that they worked out the story before the casting. It's a great cast, which in addition to Newman and Woodward include Murray Hamilton as the creepy oil man Jay Hue Kilbourne, Anthony Franciosa as the somewhat honorable lawman Broussard, Richard Jaeckel as Broussard's less honorable deputy Franks, and Melanie Griffith as Iris's rebellious, jailbait daughter Schuyler, all but busting out of her crochet bikini. None are great, but all like Lew have their moments.
"Don't you think I'm kind of...sexy," Schuyler asks Harper, who's interested but (rightly) wary.
Like "Harper," "The Drowning Pool's" chief flaw is a plot with too many spinning plates and not much of a through-line. We get a lot of lumbering exposition, with everyone telling Harper what's what up front through a swampy first half. Harper's still a cut-up, though the jokes furnished by the writers and director Stuart Rosenberg comes off as a bit labored. "Harper" opened with a famous scene of Newman digging a used coffee filter out of the trash for some needed java; this time we open with him struggling with a rental car's safety belt. Couldn't he just get another rental? Nah, that would be too easy, and nothing comes easy for Harper.
Except for the story, which sort of happens with him in the role of wry bystander. "It's quite a zoo you got here," he tells Schuyler, indicating the indoor aviary her grandmother keeps but meaning the world around it as well.
The movie's big finale involves Newman and an unhappily married woman played by Gail Strickland trying to escape imprisonment in a shuttered sanitarium by filling a room full of water and making for the skylight. It's an involving sequence, for a few minutes, but moves as slowly as the rest of the film before ending somewhat implausibly, if not stupidly like "Harper" did.
I liked watching "The Drowning Pool" in parts. Like jc-osms said in his September 2010 review, there's a kind of relaxed "Rockford Files" vibe to the whole thing, with Newman taking cues from his pal Jimbo Garner. If he was doing anything that important in this film, it might make for a better overall experience. Instead, the best you get here is Michael Small's rich Preservation Hall score and some fine-looking location scenics care of John C. Howard. Woodward assays a solid turn in her smaller-than-expected supporting role.
It's hard to believe what others say here, that this was one of Newman's own least liked films. Given that this decade also saw him in "Judge Roy Bean," "Macintosh Man," "Quartet," and "When Time Ran Out...," I'd say what you get here is approaching par for the man, who still shows some game. Go into it looking for Newman's charm, you won't be too disappointed. But he could do a lot better, and so can you.