There’s never been a really satisfactory filmed version of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels. In the past, I’ve blogged about Paul Newman’s performances in Harper, The Drowning Pool and Twilight (here and here). Less well known are the TV movie and short-lived series based on the character, produced in the 1970s.
Peter Graves (Jim Phelps in Mission: Impossible) took the part of Archer in a 90-minute adaptation of The Underground Man in 1974. Tom Nolan’s biography of Macdonald records that the author was impressed with Graves’ interpretation.
“In thirty years of writing about Lew Archer, I never thought much about how he looked,” Macdonald told the LA Times. “Except that he was Californian, tanned, athletic. Then one night a few years ago, I saw Peter on Mission: Impossible and thought, ‘That’s Lew Archer; that’s the way he looks.’ It was really quite eerie when I was told Peter was playing Lew, because I had nothing at all to do with the casting.”
However, NBC showed no interest in picking up the pilot. Those who’ve seen the film tend to criticize Douglas Heyes’ screenplay, which fiddled with Archer’s character and compressed the plot. Macdonald later observed, “Paramount spent a lot of money on it, and hired some good actors, but the script seemed rather obscure and hysterical.”
Still, on the evidence of the video below, it looks like an interesting failure. It has an outstanding guest cast: Dame Judith Anderson, Vera Miles, Jack Klugman, Celeste Holm and Sharon Farrell are all actors I like to see onscreen. Though it’s difficult to get much sense of Graves’ performance from this clip, he seems to be playing Archer as a quiet, thoughtful listener. Much closer, then, to the character of the novels than Paul Newman’s cocky Lew Harper.
Most of all, I like the melancholic tone set by Marvin Hamlisch’s score. It’s a haunting, wistful melody that very effectively conjures the sense of yearning so distinctive to Macdonald’s work. Twenty-four years later, Elmer Bernstein would write a similar theme for Robert Benton’s Twilight, an Archer film in all but name.
I’m going to have to get hold of a copy of The Underground Man to satisfy my curiosity. There seem to be a few DVD-Rs knocking about on the net (though sadly, none of Brian Keith’s six-episode series Archer, which I’d also like to see). When I do get a copy, I’ll be sure to review it for Squeezegut Alley. Until then, if any of you remember this film, do get in touch!