BR: Swimmer, The (1968)

February 19, 2015 | By

 

Swimmer1968_BRFilm:  Near-Perfect

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Near-Perfect

Label: Grindhouse Releasing

Region: Blu-ray – A, B, C / DVD:  0 (NTSC)

Released:  April 4, 2015

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: Allegorical drama of crisis-ridden, middle-aged man who decides to swim home using his neighbours’ pools with increasingly unfriendly encounters.

Special Features:  Isolated Stereo Music Track / 5-part making of documentary “The Story of the Swimmer” (2 hrs. 29 mins.) / TCM interview with actress Marge Champion (17:58) / Author John Cheever reads “The Swimmer” short story (25:44) / Production and Promotional Still Galleries / Title Sequence Outtakes (4:05) / Theatrical Trailer / 5 TV Spots / Select Filmographies / 10-page colour booklet with liner notes by director Stuart Gordon and making-of editor Chris Innis / DVD version of Blu-ray.

 

 


 

Review:

More than 20 years after the release of Frank and Eleanor Perry’s adaptation of John Cheever’s short story,  Burt Lancaster was asked by an audience member during the taping of a Phil Donahue talk show of his thoughts on the film. The imposing actor paused for a moment, long enough for a smile to emerge, and he responded by saying he knew the film wasn’t going to be a box office, and yet it remained a special film within his extensive filmography, probably because he knew the role of pool-hopping Ned Merrill was a great part, and a rare character in a very atypical narrative, especially for a studio-financed picture.

In Grindhouse Releasing’s massive making-of documentary, daughter Joanna Lancaster validates her father’s regard for The Swimmer, adding that while it was initially a film the actor chose to forget – its production history was troubled, delaying its release by almost a year – and as the years passed, Lancaster was surprised when fans started to compliment and thank him for making what’s evolved into a cult film. For some, The Swimmer is baffling, threadbare, and too metaphoric, but to fans it’s a sublime little puzzle movie about the modern American middle-aged man vainly holding on to his material possessions and class status in spite of deep personal and economic troubles.

Perry seemed like an unlikely choice as director – an indie filmmaker with two prior theatrical credits (David and Lisa and Ladybug Ladybug, both penned by then-wife and longtime writing partner Eleanor) – but he delivered a film that’s moody, alluring, and puzzling in its construction; and a unique showcase for Lancaster’s acting chops. Known for roles that exploited is physical stature and strength, Cheever’s tale mandated a low-key performance because it helped mask the character’s delusion that at the end of the day’s journey he would arrive home to a wife and two daughters.

Ned’s goal is simple: he’s gonna swim pool-to-pool, eventually reaching home where everything is good, and although some neighbours and friends are puzzled by his curious quest, it’s just Ned being his charming, eccentric self, and most seem happy to see their social friend after having disappeared from the local party scene for a while.

Ned soon encounters more hostile hosts, a virtually abandoned estate with just a son killing time manning a homemade lemonade stand no one’s likely to pass that day, and eventually an old flame – stage actress Shirley Abbott (Janice Rule) – with whom he had a passionate romance during a brief stay in Toronto (!). When Ned finally reaches home, what he finds is the horror he’s refused to acknowledge, ending the film on a striking image that undoubtedly infuriated audiences expecting a the kind of hip, romantic, and trippy seen in the otherwise awful trailer.

 

Swimmer1968_poster_b

That’s the actual tag line used to promote the film in print, in trailers, and TV spots, which might make a bit of sense IF re-written as ‘When you talk about ‘The Swimmer’ will you BE talking about yourself?’ Translation: “Are you also a middle-aged man cracking at the seams? Then tell everyone to see ‘The Swimmer’ – It’s a ‘trip’ worth taking!”

 

Columbia and producer Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia) had a real quandary with The Swimmer, and as Grindhouse’s making-of doc details over its 2.5 hour length, the power struggles between a young director and its veteran star caused some tension in spite of the production wrapping without any delays or budget issues. Spiegel disliked Perry’s final edit, left the film on the shelf for an extended time, and even tried some drastic recutting, but it was Lancaster who put up his own money and hired Sydney Pollack for rehoots that included extra montages, trippy footage, a redo of a short scene between Ned and teen pool babe Julie (Janet Landgard), and the recasting of several small parts. The most drastic was dumping footage of Barbara Loden in place of new material with Janice Rule.

Composer Marvin Hamlisch made his feature film scoring debut at the behest of Spiegel, rather than Perry, so the latter must have found The Swimmer a surreal experience when it emerged on cinema screens two years after principle photography began, with different actors, transition montages, and a score sanctioned by the producer… and yet in spite of the seams within the film – Lancaster and Landgard’s reshot tummy-touching scene was clearly shot in a closed soundstage – the thing works. The cast of actors, including newcomers Landgard and Joan Rivers, are solid, and Hamlisch’s score remains one of his best, showing he had the right instincts for tackling characters bearing destructive, seething secrets.

Spiegel’s name isn’t on the film – just his company, Horizon Pictures – but it’s a beautiful cinematic oddity, and whether Perry’s original version would’ve worked is moot, since nothing but stills from the Loden shoot survive. (The doc also delves a bit into Loden, Elia Kazan’s then-wife, who later directed the indie drama Wanda in 1970.)

The Swimmer is haunting, elegiac, a little perplexing – Why’s this guy swimming home? – and the end circumstance of the hero is so stark, so visually powerful that the last shot is burned into the viewer’s mind, likely triggering a full re-watching of the movie whenever it plays on TV.

The fans who thanked Lancaster years after the film’s release where likely moved by the film from its regular rotation on TV, and although it enjoyed a release on tape and a now OOP DVD, it’s been in need of a special edition for a while, if not a full HD transfer to ensure this oddity is available for anyone to revisit, or gamble 95 mins. of their time.

Grindhouse’s BR makes use of a perfect HD transfer from Sony, with a solid audio mix plus a rare isolated score featuring Hamlisch’s superb music. (A soundtrack album was release in 1968, and Film Score Monthly reissued the album with additional music in 2006.)

Chris Innis’ documentary is clearly made by someone who adores this film – every surviving member’s been tracked down for an interview, plus rare stills from the shoot – and although exhaustive in examining every stage of its creation, production, release, and cult status, it’s also a bit too long. Innis kept a lot similar statements made by multiple interviewees – we don’t need to here more echoes of Lancaster being such a great guy, nor slightly different variations on the film’s fairly smooth production schedule from assistant directors Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachary – so its best to watch the 5-part documentary over a few sittings. That said, full credit to Innis for not letting any short comment not go by without any explanation nor supporting material, either anecdotal or through surviving correspondences from Eleanor Perry (which are quite amusing).

There’s also the issue of Frank Perry and Lancaster’s on set relationship, which is characterized as rather difficult by Rivers; and the small roles peppered with an assortment of actors, including Margie Champion (who also appears in a separately archived interview from a theatrical TCM Swimmer screening), John Garfield Jr., Diana Muldauer (TV’s Star TrekThe Other), Dolph Sweet (TV’s Gimme a Break), and cameos by Eleanor Perry and John Cheever.

Film music fans will appreciate composer Hamlisch (who passed away in 2012) isn’t reduced to a kind of mere mention figure making brief comments; it’s a proper interview on crafting the main theme, and discussing his favourite sections of the film, including the finale. The film’s co-editor Sidney Katz provides some insight into the film’s re-editing, and what significant improvements he reportedly brought to the The Swimmer. Katz later edited several of Perry’s films, including Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Rancho Deluxe (1975).

Also packed among the voluminous extras are John Cheever reading his short story, originally published in a 1964 issue of the New Yorker; production notes and stills; trailers; and trims from the main title sequence, including a non-cooperative bunny.

 

Postscript

Lancaster’s next project was Sydney Pollack’s Castle Keep (1969), a war film with a similarly odd tone where ennui kind of drives a band of American G.I.s a little crazy as they safeguard a castle filled with art treasures desired by roaming Nazis.

Although he sometimes dipped into TV productions, Frank Perry managed to enjoy a fairly steady career directing theatrical films,  but his best-known work remains the cult films David and Lisa (1962), The Swimmer (1968), and Mommie Dearest (1981).

Janet Landgard’s career never took off in spite of giving a very good performance in The Swimmer, and besides the film Land Raiders (1969) and Moonchild (1974), she retired from acting. (Grindhouse’s included a trailer from Land Raiders, an el cheapo western with George Maharis playing a Mexican in Brown Skin Makeup #12 who slaps her around a lot.)

Cinematographer David Quaid, whose work is gorgeous in this HD transfer, shot just a handful of films during what appears to be a 20 career in film and TV, including the cult film Santa Clause Conquers the Martians (1964) and the black comedy Pretty Poison (1968).

 

 

© 2015 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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