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March 20, 2014

The Swimmer

the swimmer poster.jpg

Frank Perry - 1968
Grindhouse Releasing BD Region ABC / Region 0 DVD Two disc set

More films like this and Grindhouse Releasing may need to change their name to Arthouse Releasing.

There will be others, hopefully smarter than me, who will offer their analysis about The Swimmer. For those still unfamiliar with the film, Burt Lancaster plays a man, wearing nothing but his blue swim trunks, who decides that he can virtually swim his way from one Connecticut neighbor's house to another, winding up at his own home. But the film is more than that. Adapted from a short story by John Cheever, it's both a story about one man's disconnection with the truth about his life, and a look a wealth, class and tangentially about race in America.

Deliberately, there a several uninsured questions. The character played by Burt Lancaster, Ned Merrill, seems to appear out of nowhere. When asked where's he's been, the reply is "here and there". As the story progresses, inconsistencies in Merrill's talk about himself and his family appear. The various friends, neighbors, and others familiar with Merrill seem to know things or think they know things that are either unmentioned or barely hinted at. Nothing is spelled out. It's up to the viewer to connect the dots and draw their own conclusions.

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The Swimmer might be said to contain the essential Burt Lancaster performance, a display of both his physical prowess and acting abilities. Running a race with a horse, jumping hurdles, initially a show of over-confidence, to revealing increasing personal vulnerability, the effect is of watching a summery of a career in one performance.

No studio would make this film now. And the film almost wasn't made back in 1966, There;s a set of supplemental interviews that are longer than the film, that tell much of the making of this film, in some ways more dramatic than The Swimmer itself. If there is a hero, it's probably a heroine, the tenacious Eleanor Perry, while the villain could well be Sam Spiegel. Eleanor Perry seems to have managed to keep involved with a project she initiated, even after Spiegel took the film out of Frank Perry's hands. How much of the film is Perry's and how much was the reshoots by Lancaster hired gun Sydney Pollack is a matter of dispute as Perry claims about half of the film, while Pollack downplays his contributions. One of the more interesting twists is that Sidney Katz, the editor hired by Spiegel to "save" The Swimmer subsequently went on to edit Frank Perry films from Last Summer through Rancho Deluxe.

What is missing is the testimony from the most important players to the making of The Swimmer, the Perrys, Lancaster, Pollack and Spiegel, all deceased. There are quotes from interviews, and from surviving correspondence. What video interviews are presented here are informative of both personal experiences in making The Swimmer, as well as recounting the various twists and turns from initial conception to the final released version. The interview is Katz was done before his death in 2009. Also interviewed is Marvin Hamlisch, whose lucky break came when a friend offered him a job to play piano at a party hosted by Spiegel. The Swimmer was Hamlisch's first movie score, and he was only 22 at the time that Frank Perry was filming. Joan River's tells of being caught in a tug-of-war between Frank Perry and Burt Lancaster in how her scene was to be filmed. A personal friend of the Perrys, River's one scene was written specifically for her.

One interesting quote from Lancaster has him suggesting that The Swimmer might have been a better film had it been made by Federico Fellini or Francois Truffaut. The second filmmaker, maybe. There is a scene where Ned Merrill observes an empty tennis court, while we hear the sound of a tennis game as well as the laughter of the girls playing. There is the similarity to the end of Antonioni's Blow Up, which makes me wonder if this scene as played was part of the original script, or part of the lengthy post-production tinkering. The Swimmer does share thematic concerns with some of Antonioni's films, particularly the trajectory of an alienated man on a simultaneous inner and outer journey in an increasingly hostile environment.

Would The Swimmer be a better movie had Spiegel given the Perrys the support he original promised? Judging from the evidence, author John Cheever had enough faith in the Perrys to appear in a party scene, and in one shot with Eleanor Perry. I don't know if there are any plans, but I would love it if Grindhouse Releasing could do something similar with another film produced by Sam Spiegel, the Arthur Penn directed The Chase. It's worth noting that both films were taken from their respective directors, and that both films reflected some of the cultural shifts in America in the mid-Sixties.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 20, 2014 07:21 AM