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The Evolution of Paul Newman's PI from Harper to Pool

Updated on October 20, 2008

"I ran a check on you, Mr. Harper. You are not stupid," J.H. Kilbourne (Murray Hamilton) said. "I have my moments," Lew Harper (Paul Newman) responded in 1975's The Drowning Pool.

The same can said about Newman's hardened private investigator which evolved due to professional experience and personal betrayals. Harper's private investigator followed the style of previous private investigators before him, among them Humphrey Bogart's Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Like previous film PI characters, Harper was a consummate professional who believed in completing his assignments regardless of the outcome. What was different about Harper was that he was portrayed as a flawed individual who left his loved ones behind for bigger and better cases.

The motive for exploring this character was based on the intriguing Pool and the plot's mystery. In terms of memorable Paul Newman characters, Harper wasn't the first character that came to mind. Filmgoers and critics usually mentioned such characters as Fast Eddie Felson, Butch Cassidy and Brick Pollitt before Lew Harper even appeared on the list. As Harper, Newman brought a sense of duty and his sparkling wit to 1966's Harper as well as in Pool. He shook up the film PI image to include someone who didn't have all the answers and trouble came more often than not. Harper fit Newman like a cinematic glove. Those detective films weren't Oscar material, but they were both fun to watch regardless.

Both films had great mystery plots, but it was Newman's Harper that brought everything in perspective for the audience. He was the character to root for amidst all the villains and wolves disguised in sleep's clothing. The character's history originated writer Ross Macdonald's The Moving Target and continued in The Drowning Pool. Due to Newman's success in 1963's Hud and Macdonald's estate, the PI's last name was changed from Archer to Harper. Let's examine both films and see how Harper evolved, or devolved, as his cases grew more complicated through actions, words and Newman's film performances for comparison.

In Harper, Newman's PI was portrayed most accurately in the film's opening credits where a hung over Harper slowly got out of bed and tried to function as he prepared to start his day. He poured a tray of ice and cold water into a sink to wake up. He also made a dreadful cup of coffee due to limited resources. The character was in a transitional period as his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) prepared to divorce her workaholic husband. Harper immediately lost his hang over stupor in order to accept a case from the wealthy and frigid Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall). He thought the case was a simple missing persons case to find Mrs. Sampson's husband, but it turned out to be much more than that. Harper was thrown into the middle of the Sampson troubles, legal and otherwise. Was Harper going to get to the bottom of the case before it got him? The answer was obvious from the start. Harper needed to live to solve more mysteries.

Newman's portrayal of a flawed PI with some level of integrity displayed his sense of humor as he strolled through the film's crazy character pool of potential suspects. Unfortunately, this version of Harper stumbled through some meandering 1960s clich├ęs with a slow pace in the first 30 minutes of the film. It took too long for the mystery to get off the ground and spent a fair amount of time catching the audience up. Supporting characters like Bacall and Robert Wagner were more caricatures than fleshed out characters, which was intentional to make them appear more sinister than they might've been. Harper explained the film's wide array of characters weren't the nicest bunch by saying "only cream and bastards rise."

This film also focused more on the Harper character himself than the mystery. The Sampson case was just a backdrop for Harper to have wild fun with everyone around him. An example was the prank call he made to Susan pretending to be someone else. Susan played along at first and then turned the joke against Harper to her advantage before hanging up. This film also portrayed the cruel side of Harper as he manipulated Susan into allowing him to spend the night when he had no intention of changing his ways. For a brief moment the audience saw Harper in a less than favorable light, until he went back to the case. The story ended with Harper being right where he started: alone to solve another mystery.

Nine years passed before Harper's fate was revealed at the start of The Drowning Pool. He arrived in Louisiana with a tone of seriousness as he entered his rental car. Gone were the days of the first film. Newman's hair was grayer and the first film's silly 60s tone left completely. This Harper's only purpose was to help his client/former girlfriend Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward) stop a blackmailer. What he didn't expect was to get thrown headfirst into a pool of murderous chaos with his client in the middle.

For his second go around, Harper was less attached to his demons from the first film. There was no mention of his soon-to-be ex wife from the previous film or anyone else for that matter. His only focus was staying alive long enough to solve the case. He didn't count on the growing number of people who didn't want that to happen, including his client. Harper's motive to solve the case went beyond simple truth. He wanted to help Iris find some type of peace in order live her life. Newman's chemistry with off-screen wife Woodward allowed for him to explore his connection to Iris whether it was love or simply friendship.

In Pool, Newman's Harper was older and somewhat wiser, but still carried the same level of mischief from the first film whenever he stumbled into trouble. The character's fear was often masked with his sense of humor through his one liner comebacks. One example was in a threat made against him by the film's noticeable villain J.H. Kilbourne "You wanna live, don't you? To a ripe old age?" Harper simply fired back with sarcasm, " I'd hate to think that I was making those Social Security payments for nothing." That moment illustrated Harper's sense of duty as he tried to defy Kilbourne even when he was put in much greater danger than ever before. Did he live to tell the tale and solve Iris' problems? Unfortunately, Pool took a surprising turn when it revealed a second unexpected villain steaming from another crime in the film that left everyone, including Harper, stunned.

Newman's performance in the sequel was true to the Harper formula, and his personal cinematic style. He was a rebel in the midst of conformity, which was a sight to behold every time his blue eyes sparkled with an idea. The film wasted no time with the mystery from the very start and the supporting cast, especially Woodward, was much more connected to the plot. The southern locale also helped give the story a more ominous feel than Harper's sunny California. It made scenes where Harper was either running from bad guys or the law more interesting. Woodward and a young Melanie Griffith, as Woodward's manipulative daughter, were the film's two standouts in the supporting cast. Those two characters added depth to the mystery and were involved in some of the film's more shocking plot twists. Griffith's interactions with Newman evolved from innocent flirtation to a more sinister tone as the story went on. Woodward's scenes with Newman were both flirty and serious which indicated something lingered beneath the surface. Unfortunately, their relationship was sidelined due to their joint past and the case at hand.

Ultimately, Paul Newman delivered a credible humanized version of a private investigator who got the job whether he liked it or not. Decide whether that's a safe assumption by checking both Harper films and solve each mystery with the PI.


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