During the opening credits, Goldman shows us Harper (Paul Newman) getting up, presumably after a particularly wicked night. He stumbles about his darkened kitchen, looking for the coffee filters, and when he discovers he’s out, he pauses over the trash can for a moment, arrives at a tough decision, and then removes yesterday’s filter and grounds and puts them into the coffeemaker. When the “coffee” is ready, he pours a cup, takes a sip, and after a pause, with a rictus grin, he registers his “approval.” With that very human demonstration of Monday morning desperation, Goldman’s audience was hooked. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, considered such a thing? We identify with Harper completely. The moment resonates within us. He is one of us. And so, we care what might happen to him during the events ahead. Our hopes and fears are invested in him. All achieved in a single opening moment.
The great films and film-makers have always used behavior to reveal a character’s innermost thoughts, but, until more recently, it hasn’t been routine since the heyday of the silent film. Today’s films routinely reveal interior thinking through behavior, mostly through throwaway kinds of actions noticed only by us, the audience, showing what a character really thinks about something as opposed to what they might have just said. But in Harper’s era, other than in films by people like Billy Wilder, and certain top-level comedians like George Burns and Bill Cosby, for example, this kind of thing was just emerging as a standard mainstream narrative device. This freshness is why the opening received its HUGE laugh. Audiences were un-used to being given real truths in their popular entertainment.
Despite the success of Harper, Newman did not want to make another in the series. Only when his career was starting to power down, nine years later, did he finally agree to do another turn as Harper in The Drowning Pool. Goldman’s own career was flying high, and the script he had written to follow Harper (from another of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels, The Chill) was not used, probably because of Goldman’s price. The Drowning Pool wasn’t as good as Harper, but it wasn’t bad, either. They moved the poorer novel from its setting in Southern California to New Orleans, and improved the somewhat convoluted plot a good deal. The writers, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Tracy Keenan Wynn, managed to bring it off fairly well. But it was too late. The P.I. genre in films was winding down already (as evidenced by its saturation across the mid-1970’s television line-up – the same thing happened with westerns during the ‘60’s).