Private detective Lew Harper (Paul Newman) of Los Angeles investigates a threat in Louisiana bayou country against an old flame of his, Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward). Iris is worried that her ex-chauffeur will tell her husband that she has been cheating on him. The story also involves Iris' daughter Schuyler (Melanie Griffith) and Iris' mother-in-law Olivia in several interesting sub-plots.
Harper is caught up in a power struggle between Olivia, the owner of the valuable, oil-rich Devereux estate, and oil tycoon Jay Hue Kilbourne (Murray Hamilton), while local police authority Broussard (Anthony Franciosa) has a personal interest in the family and wants the private eye gone.
At one point, the complicated plot has Harper and Kilbourne's wife Mavis (Gail Strickland) locked in a hydrotherapy room, with the water rising to the ceiling, hence the film's title.
One scene features a corrupt cop, Franks (Richard Jaeckel), who eventually meets his end when Jay Hue spurs two male attack dogs on to kill him; the dogs leap onto Franks, killing him offscreen.Paul Newman as Lew Harper
Joanne Woodward as Iris Devereaux
Anthony Franciosa (credited as Tony Franciosa) as Chief Broussard
Murray Hamilton as Kilbourne
Gail Strickland as Mavis Kilbourne
Melanie Griffith as Schuyler Devereaux
Linda Haynes as Gretchen
Andre Trottier as Hydrotherapist
Richard Jaeckel as Lieutenant Franks
Paul Koslo as Candy
Joe Canutt as Glo
Andrew Robinson (credited as Andy Robinson) as Pat Reavis
Coral Browne as Olivia Devereaux
Helena Kallianiotes as Elaine Reavis
Producers David Foster and Lawrence Turman optioned the rights to MacDonald's novel The Drowning Pool (1950) for director Robert Mulligan. Hill was hired to adapt it. Hill later estimated that only two minor scenes in the film were true to his adaptation.
The movie was nominated as best picture of the year by the Edgar Allan Poe Awards.
A.H. Weiler of The New York Times said in the review: "Under Stuart Rosenberg's muscular but pedestrian direction, the script, adapted from (Ross Macdonald's) 1950 novel, transports our hero from his native California to present-day New Orleans and its bayou environs. ... Of course, Mr. Newman's Harper survives beatings, traps and a variety of enticing offers with quips, charm and inherent decency projected in underplayed, workmanlike style. If his performance is not outstanding, it is a shade more convincing than the characterizations of the other principals, who emerge as odd types and not as fully fleshed, persuasive individuals. ... Unfortunately, the performances and such authentic facets as Cajun talk, bayous, New Orleans and an imposing, white-pillared, antebellum mansion set amid wide lawns and ancient live oaks, serve only to make The Drowning Pool a mildly interesting diversion."
Roger Ebert gave the film a mixed 2-stars out of a possible 4 rating. He wrote that the basic premise of The Drowning Pool was "straightforward thriller material, and could have made a decent B movie. But since "The Drowning Pool" is a Paul Newman vehicle, it goes first class, and that turns out to be fatal. So much attention is given to making the movie look good visually that the story gets mislaid..."
The Drowning Pool was released on November 14, 2006, as part of the Paul Newman Collection DVD box set.