Among American crime novelists of the past 50 years, two of the best were both named MacDonald (albeit with different capitalizations), and both were well-translated into film — Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald. I can’t recommend enough the original series of books by both writers. They are among the best in the genre.
Between 1949 and 1976, Ross Macdonald wrote a series of 18 novels and three collections of short stories featuring Lew Archer, a private investigator whose most familiar milieu was the “means streets” of Southern California. Along with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Archer is the embodiment of the California gumshoe, soiled but honorable. From 1964-’84, John D. MacDonald wrote 21 novels about Travis McGee, a self-styled “salvage consultant” whose prowling grounds were mostly South Florida. Not an investigator as such, McGee was something of a tarnished knight (with a profit motive) trying to right wrongs outside the law. Each McGee novel was distinguished by a color in the title, as in Darker than Amber, written in 1966 and filmed in 1970.
Sam Elliott played McGee in a 1983 TV movie based on The Empty Copper Sea, but it was the Australian actor Rod Taylor who scored big in Darker than Amber, currently available only on YouTube. Adhering closely to MacDonald’s novel, the film shows McGee and his financier buddy Meyer (Theodore Bikel) locking horns with a formidable sadist (William Smith) after rescuing one of his intended victims (Suzy Kendall). Fast-paced and violent, Darker than Amber concludes with one of the best fight scenes (between Taylor and Smith) in movies of the ’60s and ’70s, right up there with the tussle between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love. The Florida ambiance is also perfect, as is the filmmakers’ depiction of McGee’s famous houseboat, The Busted Flush.
Lew Archer (last name changed to Harper for the films) has appeared in two good movies, each featuring Paul Newman as Ross Macdonald’s hero. Harper was a big hit for Newman in 1966, cementing his status as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. Based on The Moving Target (1949), the first of the Archer novels, the movie closely follows the book’s complicated plot of kidnapping, murder, drugs and illegal immigration. Featuring an all-star cast (Lauren Bacall, Robert Wagner, Shelley Winters, Janet Leigh), the movie is slow on action but big on characterization. Most of all, this is Newman’s show, with the accent on “wry” and “cool.” (It was rumored that the actor/producer had the character’s name changed to Harper because of the huge success of Hud and The Hustler, but this is just another Hollywood myth.)
Newman returned to the role nine years later in The Drowning Pool, based on the second novel in the Lew Archer series. Apart from moving the setting to Louisiana from California, the plot is again faithful to its source, Harper embarking on a case involving blackmail, murder and dark family secrets. Newman, joined by real-life wife Joanne Woodward, is even better here, and so is the film, with a particularly good action sequence toward the end.
Three fine movies featuring legendary characters from two great series of novels: The stories are definitely worth both a second read.