Tuesday, July 24, 2007

From The Vault: The Swimmer

Director: Frank Perry
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Tony Bickley, Kim Hunter, Marge Champion, Michael Kearney, Joan Rivers
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: PG
Release Date: 1968


**** (out of ****)

I'm often asked what the scariest movie I've ever seen is. When I give my answer I get weird looks. It's not The Shining, The Exorcist, Jaws or any other film that would conventionally fall under the category of "horror." No, the scariest movie I've ever seen is a little known drama released in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster called The Swimmer and its scares come entirely in the form of psychological terror and atmosphere. I first discovered the movie late at night four years ago as I was flipping through the channels and stumbled upon a showing on American Movie Classics. As I watching I had no clue what to make of it as it was unlike anything I've ever seen before. When it ended I sat there in shock, unsettled and unsure of my opinion. The music, the cinematography, the pacing and the performances seemed like they were shipped in not just from another era, but another planet.

It's been compared by some to a full-length feature episode of The Twilight Zone and that comparison is accurate. You almost expect to see Rod Serling's name attached to the writing credits, but the screenplay (written by director Frank Perry's wife Eleanor) is adapted from John Cheever's well-known 1964 short story of the same title. The setting of Cheever's story is Westchester County, New York but was changed to idyllic suburban Connecticut for the film version. Most of it was shot on location in Westport with some scenes filmed in New Caanan and the beautiful setting of the film could be considered a character in and of itself. This is the kind of movie you almost have to train yourself to watch because it's so different from anything you'd expect to see from any film no matter its year of release. If it came out today, audiences would be equally perplexed. The only thing I was sure of by the time the film ended was that I saw something that was hypnotizing, frightening and unforgettable.

I didn't get much sleep the night I first saw it and by the next morning I was putting the wheels in motion to procure a copy of the film which, much to my surprise, was coincidentally first released on DVD a couple of months before I first saw it that night. It's hard to fully describe my initial thoughts of the film since I've seen it so many times now that each viewing seems to take on a life of it's own as I discover new details in the film I didn't notice the viewing before. Anyone's first viewing of The Swimmer is really just a run through. Then it sits with you for a while. It could be a couple of days, or a week, maybe even a month. Scenes stay in your mind and haunt you, as if the movie is just begging for another look. It's in those subsequent viewings that the pieces start to fall into place and what at first seemed like just a bizarre 60's head trip turns into a devastating masterpiece and a damning indictment of American suburbia. I've become convinced the only time to see this movie is during the summer and I've made it an annual ritual to do so, even going so far as to take my portable DVD player poolside to enjoy it. I get laughs at first until people see what I'm watching and become intrigued. It isn't long before there's a crowd looking over my shoulder transfixed by what they're seeing.
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The production and filming was plagued with controversy and creative difficulties to the extent that director Frank Perry actually walked off the picture and an uncredited Sydney Pollack had to come in and complete it. It proved to be great preparation for Pollack who a year later would go on to direct another 60's nightmare, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Perry clashed with the notoriously difficult Lancaster (who he never thought was right for the role) and sadly, after the film's poor reception, Lancaster himself began to believe, much like everyone else, that The Swimmer was a stinker. However, time has revealed it to be anything but, which should give hope to anyone hearing rumors about their favorite upcoming film being plagued by behind the scenes drama and creative differences. I'm not sure exactly what problems Frank Perry had with the finished product or what his perfect vision of the film would have looked like, but I can tell you that the version we have is not only an unsettling masterpiece, but possibly the most risk-taking motion picture I've ever seen.

That it bombed upon it's release in 1968 is no surprise given audiences couldn't have possibly prepared themselves for a movie that tackled issues so far ahead of it's time. That stands out as bizarre and groundbreaking in a year that saw the release of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is no small achievement. I'd even go as far to say this is just as important a landmark in American cinema history as Kubrick's film, regardless of how few people still know about it. Reminiscent in theme to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, the film revolves around the mystery of a man who's fallen from grace. Also, like that film, the how and the why is the story. However, unlike that film, this one doesn't exactly give you all the answers and you could argue that even by the film's final frame we're not completely sure what happened to the title character (although we have some damn good theories). While it's arguably ahead of its time in the thematic ground it covers, it's also quite dated from a technical standpoint, which only serves to increase its hypnotic appeal. There's no mistaking it's very much a film right out of the 60's. Whether intentional or not, the technical choices made by Perry in the film result in a bizarre viewing experience that may not be enjoyed by all. After what I've just told you, you probably have a good idea whether you're the type of audience for it.

On a gorgeous summer day Ned Merrill (Lancaster) emerges from the woods of suburban Connecticut clad in only a swimsuit to go for a dive in his neighbor's pool. When we first get a glimpse of Ned (or "Neddy" as his friends call him) he's in terrific shape and could be the poster boy for middle age exuberance, grinning from ear to ear. He's welcomed with open arms by his old friends the Westerhazys and it's very clear from their reaction that they haven't seen him in a while. The opening scenes do a good job of establishing the laid back cocktail era of the 60's (explored in Mike Nichols' The Graduate a year prior) and introducing us to a revered man who appears to be on top of the world. Establishing and sticking with that mood early is important because it will be completely shattered by the film's end. He flirts with Helen, (who confesses she "had too much to drink last night") and looks out into the beautiful landscape with the determined gaze of an explorer. Looking out he sees that his neighbor's pools form a river to his house. Today is the day Ned Merrill will swim home. He's going to swim the "Lucinda River," which he names after his beloved wife. She'll be there waiting for him. So will his two daughters. "They're at home playing tennis," he repeats to himself and others in almost a trance-like mantra throughout the entire film.

As Ned begins his journey it becomes clear something's just not right. At first we're not sure what it is, but as the journey progresses things slowly begin to come into focus. There's actually a strange uneasiness in Ned's encounters with his neighbors right from the start. As he swims from pool to pool it gets progressively worse and more obvious something's happened. What that "something" is remains a mystery. Everyone slowly become less welcoming and his encounters more disturbing. When he arrives at the his old friends' the Graham's house, he's welcomed but gets strange looks when he talks about his wife and daughters. At another pool an old woman screams at him that he's not welcome there ever again, though we have no idea why. Each pool and encounter brings with it new revelations and hints, requiring the viewer to pay careful attention to what is said and how. Every single line of dialogue and every acting gesture is important and I'm convinced you could watch the film 50 times and still not completely pick up on all of them.
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The movie also plays with time in a strange way. It's clear from the conversations that Ned's been gone a while, yet he seems oblivious to it. It's like he's operating in a completely different timeline at points. The most disturbing encounter of the entire film (and the one showcased in all of the film's print advertising) is when he arrives at the house of his daughters' now 20 year-old babysitter, Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard, who eerily resembles a younger version of Nicole Kidman). I don't want to give anything away here other than to say Ned misreads the situation terribly with disastrous results. An encounter with a former mistress (Janice Rule, who ironically had once appeared on an episode of The Twilight Zone) doesn't go much better. This dialogue-heavy scene is the one Sydney Pollack had to finish shooting after Perry abandoned the picture and anyone could reasonably argue it's slow and overlong. That's offset, however, by the powerful, brutally honest performances of Rule and Lancaster. I think it's actually one of the best, and most important scenes, in the movie. Another encounter with a little boy (Michael Kearney) selling lemonade mercifully doesn't go where we think it will, but is unforgettable in another disturbing way. He tries to crash a neighbor's party ( featuring with a cameo appearance by a young Joan Rivers, original face intact, as one of the guests), but doesn't end up getting anywhere close to the reception he expects. It's clear we're not watching a man swim home. We're watching the disintegration of his life right before our very eyes. Ned starts his journey youthful, virile and full of energy. How he ends it is far different.

I can't honestly claim the ending is a shock given the events that precede it but it sure is a powerful punch to the gut. The final image is a lasting one that answers many of the film's questions, but also raises many more. By the end we're still not completely sure what happened to Ned Merrill. Theories abound. I certainly have mine. I think the key line in the film comes when he tells the young boy selling lemonade that "if you believe in something hard enough, it becomes true for you." For me that line always symbolized what this film was about. Ned is offered drinks at each pool, but rarely has but a small sip of any of them. Was he an alcoholic? All the characters hint at some kind of disaster in his professional life yet we're left to fill in the details after many clues. That's not to say his personal life was any better and by the end we're led to believe something equally catastrophic affected that. As each scene and pool visit unfolds I picture a hand on a thermostat slowly lowering the temperature to the point where at the end it becomes unbearably freezing. It starts warm and friendly but finishes cold and sterile, leaving us, and him soaking wet. It's a reality check in the harshest sense.

Like most movies from the '60's this film is slow and deliberate, but never boring because Perry does so much to visually engage the audience. There's some bizarre (and I mean bizarre) soft focus and slow motion photography, including a trippy montage involving horses. Marvin Hamlisch's score for the film has been widely criticized as being schmaltzy and painfully dated (which it is) but no one could ever argue it doesn't fit the material. I remember reading a review claiming that this is the music they're probably playing in elevators in hell, which is an unintentional compliment since this man is supposed to be in his own personal hell. Hamlisch's eerily unsettling orchestration just hammers that home and embellishes the horror. It further cements the fact we're trapped in another time period and makes the viewing that much more unnerving.

The era is probably most reflected in Ned's interaction with the women he encounters and how the film portrays them. I usually don't like to quote other reviews in mine but having read just about every one ever written for this film my all-time favorite remains Lawrence Russell's of culturecourt.net who describes Ned Merrill's attitude as "post war sexist ass-slapping triumphalism." That description, besides being really funny, perfectly captures the title character's demeanor throughout the entire film. In a way, it can be seen as a mirror of the times. What's depicted on screen as harmless flirting on his part would probably be considered attempted rape by today's standards. Equally perplexing is the film's PG rating which just goes to show how wildly different the MPAA's standards were back then. While the film contains little if any violence, nudity or foul language the adult themes it explores are so heavy I don't know any parent who would be caught dead letting their child see it. In all fairness the film's promotional posters did bare the tag: "For Mature Audiences Only." If it were released today it would likely earn a PG-13 rating (which didn't exist in 1968), but part of me can't help but think this is the only movie that deserves an R rating solely on the basis of the thematically dark territory it covers.

While now it's commonplace for movies to criticize wealthy suburbia and the hypocrites who inhabit it, The Swimmer was there first. It's fingerprints can be seen all over more modern films like Ordinary People, American Beauty, The Ice Storm, and most recently, Little Children. I bet if you asked the directors of those films, I'm sure every one of them has seen it. The movie's supreme accomplishment is that it somehow manages to elicit our sympathy for a chronically unsympathetic character and much of that (aside from Lancaster's bravura performance) comes from the fact that his arrogant, clueless neighbors are worse than he is. Like Ned, they measure their success by the size of their swimming pools, the car they drive, or where their kids go to school. They fail to see Ned's downfall as a lesson on how on the surface someone could have everything, but in chasing it, actually attain nothing. Like Ned they're all shallow self-centered egoists who only think of him in relation to how he serves their interests and affect them.

I could go into great detail analyzing the performances, but really there's only one that matters: Lancaster's. This is a one-man show and he gives one of the most terrifying and emotionally complex performances in motion picture history. He'd go on to deliver other great performances that were more accepted by the mainstream (like his Oscar nominated turns in From Here To Eternity and Atlantic City) but he's never done anything like we see here. Much like Rock Hudson's dark and daring departure in 1964's Seconds, audiences were just not used to seeing Lancaster in a role like this, so they promptly rejected it. In doing so they missed the finest acting work of his career. He delivers all of his lines in such a creepy, robotic manner we know something's terribly wrong with this guy even if he doesn't have a clue. He's finds a way to make Ned somewhat likable and easygoing, while paradoxically portraying him as pathetic and delusional. At first the whole thing just seems like a vehicle to showcase Lancaster as a movie star, but as a serious, dedicated actor he had other plans. Plus, how many actors today in their 50's would agree to a starring role where they appear in just a bathing suit for the entire film? That alone takes guts.

The film's continued obscurity with mainstream audiences was not helped in any way by 2003's ill conceived DVD release which featured the ridiculous cover art you see below, making the film look like a cross between a soapy melodrama and a soft core porn flick. It's not the worst cover art I've ever seen, but it's certainly the biggest misrepresentation of a movie ever and shameful movie marketing. I couldn't blame anyone for not wanting to pick up the movie on the basis of that cover. The cover for the VCR version (seen above) featuring Lancaster's sinister grin and memorable images from the film is far superior and better captures the creepy mood. They should have used that instead. Even the film's original theatrical poster (as strange as it is) represents the movie well and would have been a better choice.

Unfortunately, the DVD is a bare bones disc with only a couple of trailers for special features. It's a shame because if any movie deserves a fully loaded Criterion Collection release it's this. Next year will mark the 40th Anniversary of The Swimmer and I can't think of a better time to give the film a brief theatrical re-release followed by a DVD set that does justice to this incredible film, complete with commentaries and documentaries. I'd love to hear Sydney Pollack's take on the controversial behind the scenes drama that went into the making of the film and caused him to step in to finish it. I'd also be curious to hear from some actors who were in it. Of course many have since passed on, but aside from Lancaster, the two most important ones (Janet Landgard and Michael Kearney) are still living. Also, as unpopular as she may be, it would be interesting to get Joan Rivers' take on the film.
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A couple of years ago a small production company called ContentFilm announced that they had purchased the rights to The Swimmer and were going to remake as a starring vehicle for Alec Baldwin. It stalled in pre-production and was called off. I wasn't quite sure whether to be disappointed or relieved at that, but I have a feeling it's just a matter of time before we see an updated version. At least someone in Hollywood agrees with me that this is a story that deserves to reach a broader audience so I really can't completely bash the idea (as unnecessary as it may be). If anything, it could bring some much-needed attention to the original film. It's ironic now that Baldwin was the choice to step into a role that sees the main character struggling with serious family issues and personal demons. Unfortunately, there's absolutely no way Baldwin can bring the same gravitas and innate charisma to the role that Lancaster did. No one can. Nor would it benefit a remake for any actor to attempt to duplicate his performance. One thing's for sure: Baldwin would have had to put in some serious time at the gym to get in shape for it. To be fair though, Baldwin is an underrated dramatic actor and it definitely would have been interesting to see where he would have gone with the role.

The risk you run in remaking this is the original is so specific to time and place that a newer version would almost be forced to completely change everything. Today, I could see them adding flashbacks to explain Ned's past since they think audiences are too stupid to attempt to figure anything out on their own. Rather than a remake I think a sequel actually makes more sense. The final image of the film left a lot up in the air and I think it would kind of be interesting to see a modern day investigation into what happened to Ned Merrill that hot, summer day in Connecticut 40 years ago and how his life was destroyed. Perhaps the young boy from the film (now grown up) can be the one searching for answers. You could cast Nicole Kidman as the daughter of the babysitter from the original film. Why film a remake when the original story still has so many unanswered questions and mileage left in it? Plus, the bigger mystery may have been what happened to him after the final credits rolled. Of course the original film is so obscure I'd probably be the only person who'd want to see this so I could understand the hesitation there. Whether or not we ever see a remake or a sequel is irrelevant since the original is a movie so bizarre and original it deserves to be seen by everyone and I can only hope that someday it gets the acclaim it deserves as one of America's greatest motion pictures. Judged by any standard, yesterday's or today's, The Swimmer is a haunting masterpiece that should never be forgotten.

4 comments:

zefal said...

The Graduate is copyrighted 1967 but was released January, 1968. This movie was released in May of '68. So they were only released 5 months apart. This is by far the better of the two. The Graduate minus Simon & Garfunkel wouldn't, IMO, have been a hit.

teethgator said...

Jeremy,
Nice review of very unappreciated movie. To watch Lancaster's character who is clearly delusional slowly come to grips with his reality is truly a joy . You see the "perfect" Lancaster with his million dollar smile at the beginning of the film full of confidence and looking normal then at the end he is a shivering totally destroyed man is beautify played out in 90 minutes.
Not sure what Perry and Lancaster differed on-can't seem to find out why- but the end result was still a good one. Burt seems to have this problem a lot. In the Train ( another unappreciated gem) he fired Arthur Penn-a truly great director-because again difference in vision. Penn wanted to concentrate on Scofields character too much. I think a train didn't appear till 1/3 of the movie was over so with his power Burt got another director-Frankenheimer no slouch he!- and made the movie Burt wanted. Like the Swimmer , it would be interesting to see both versions.
Personally I see no need for a prequel or remake to find out more of all the characters. It really doesn't matter. Like Hitchcocks Mcguffen all that matters is Burt's Neddie fall from grace. We get enough background to appreciate the layers of his life.
This is Burt's centennial year and I wish I was in Boston to see the Harvard Film Festival's year long tribute to him.
As an aside the Graduate is movie that defined a generation and while I love the music it is a classic.

Tiberius Ceasar said...

I first saw "The Swimmer" on late night television when I was maybe 11 or 12 and it has haunted me ever since. In college the short story was required reading and the images I had turning in my mind all fell into place. I have seen it twice since and each time found something new in the performances in a film that I must agree is one of the finest and most original I have seen. (I now will order the new bue-ray version.)

When I first saw it even as a child I felt extremely uncomfortable as it unfolded, particularly during the scene between Ned and Julie. The story maddened me as there seemed to be so much narrative missing and I thought that the film had been a victim of our local channel 7's hatchet men cutting out great parts of the film for time allotment. I knew that the final image if Ned at the door of his home, freezing in the rain and cold as he wept and the reverse shot of the interior meant something awful and I remember not being able to sleep well that night.

The film is perfect as it stands. I think it best to leave us each with our own version of what happened to Ned. The original story was a true allegory with the day growing dark toward the end and Ned wondering why the stars appearing int eh sky were in the wrong place for the summer and there were dried leaves and bare limbed trees. In that we learn that this journey is the symbolic fall. The film is more literal as it had to be and much richer in it's complexity and mystery. Much as I would love to see those mysteries explained I think it better left unseen and unsaid.

Mike Herbster said...

Your review is awesome. I used to have, "The Swimmer", on video cassette. I probably watched it hundreds of times, especially as Summers would come to a close. There was so much in that movie that reminded me of growing up in the 1960's as a child of the the cocktail party crowd. To this day I still love watching it even though I no longer have a VCR. It is only when I happen to catch it being played on TV, that I get to see it. Also, I do search the internet for tidbits of information about production and anything else that is out there.

In the mid 1990's I tried writing my own short story called, "The Swimmer Returns". Unfortunately, it never got published. It was inspired and based on somebody with similar issues as Ned Merril. I actually mention him within my story. I am still very proud of it to this day, but like the movie I would say it takes a certain mentality to appreciate it.

Thanks again for saying so many of the things I have thought about, "The Swimmer". Here's my e-mail if you ever wanted to talk more about it. Herbster919@yahoo.com