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Swimmer, The (Blu-ray Review)

14 Apr, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule. 

Imperfect as it was and admittedly still is, I saw this troubled adaptation of the deservedly famous John Cheever short story three times in its first-run engagement when my local run probably lasted just a week after production and post-production quagmires that saw a film shot in the summer of 1966 go unreleased until May 1968. The result is still haunting and not a little creepy — and if you love Burt Lancaster, there’s no way you can miss one of his major performances, though it’s an atypical role other than the essential physicality he brings to it.

Shot when the actor was still jaw-droppingly buff in his early 50s, it’s the story of a Connecticut-based New York ad man (which means he’s a Mad Man) who elects to swim home on a Sunday afternoon by utilizing the backyard pools of his hard-drinking suburban acquaintances — some of them happier to see him than others but most of them mystified by his presence. Releasing The Swimmer on Blu-ray (4K scans and all) is hitherto schlock specialist Grindhouse Releasing, which intros the movie with the same once cheesily familiar coming attractions not-quite-jingle that Quentin Tarantino himself co-opted for his own Grindhouse back in 2007. Ironically, The Swimmer is anything but grindhouse fare, though I suspect it ended up in 42nd Street theaters soon enough for the edification of Joe Buck (the other one) and Ratso Rizzo. It was, in fact, a major studio (Columbia) arthouse picture, albeit one produced by the yacht-dwelling maverick Sam Spiegel on a decidedly smaller budget than the ones he raised for The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

Almost the entire movie is ripe for spoiler intrusion, so suffice it to say that along the way, Lancaster’s Ned Merrill character meets an array of neighbors, including a fresh-faced teenager (Janet Landgard) who captivates him as much he ultimately frightens her. Landgard didn’t make many films, and by the time she was doing bathing suit reshoots she was four months pregnant — such was the tortured production history here. The key train wreck came when producer Spiegel started treating the married writer-director team of Eleanor and Frank Perry as something less than even hired hands, ultimately resulting in the firing of Frank and his replacement (for four scenes, including one really big one) by the young Burt buddy Sydney Pollack (The Scalphunters would soon follow). Also jettisoned in the aforementioned major scene was, as a former Ned lover, the late actress Barbara Loden — who, in a mystery that endures to this day, may have been so great that the clout-heavy Lancaster was thrown or was intimidated by lover and future husband Elia Kazan, who by one account hated her scene (and had pull with On the Waterfront’s Spiegel). Or neither of these. In any event, replacement Janice Rule is terrific, and her vignette with Burt (too fancy a word for the bile she exudes) is one of the movie’s best.

The Perry-Loden exits are examined along with a whole lot more in five exceptionally good featurettes running about half-an-hour each from Chris Innis, Oscar-winning editor of The Hurt Locker and Grindhouse booklet essay contributor (along with director/fan Stuart Gordon of Re-Animator fame). This is way above and beyond the call of duty, what with this release’s on-screen interviews with Landgard; Joan Rivers (her first film); dancer-actress Marge Champion (a small role); key assistants Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachary; the late editor Sidney Katz; the late composer Marvin Hamlisch (his first score and first big break; I bought the soundtrack LP in ’68); daughter Joanna Lancaster; and UCLA swim coach Bob Horn, who had to teach Lancaster to swim. (That’s right, jock that he was Burt couldn’t do anything more than what is termed the “East River Crawl”). We even get Cheever reading the original story on a separate audio track — and for that matter, in a screen cameo where his character is floating in an inner tube and probably snockered.

Overall, The Swimmer hangs together better than expected, though there’s some dreamy stuff with solar reflections and even a horse that suggest some cigarette commercial of the day. Also overall, it remains a grabber, with one of my favorite of all screen endings. And brother, was this movie ever ahead of its time, given the past half-dozen years.

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