Grindhouse Releasing has a Bluray of Frank Perry and Burt Lancaster‘s The Swimmer (’68) streeting on 3.11. A strange, sterile adaptation of a John Cheever short story that appeared in The New Yorker in July 1964, The Swimmer is easy to admire but all but impossible to like. It has a decidedly cold and spooky vibe. It was shot in the summer of ’66 in Westport, Connecticut — just a town over from Wilton, the leafy hamlet where I was living and half-suffering at the time. I’ve only seen The Swimmer once, but not just because of my own associations — vaguely unhappy memories of failure at school, living under my parents’ rules and regulations, my father’s alcoholism. It’s also that corroded Cheever atmosphere.
Lancaster’s character, a tortured suburbanite who decides to swim across a string of swimming pools in Fairfield County on a journey to his home, is spirited but bluffing — you can tell there’s some kind of tragic history he’s suppressing or hiding from. Like Don Draper he’s all about presenting a “front”, but at least he’s open-hearted and flashing that Lancaster grin. And he looks terrific for a guy of 52 (Burt was born in 1913), wearing only a speedo and looking like a trim 35 year-old.
But with the exception of a blonde teenage girl (Janet Landgard) he befriends and roams around with, the people Lancaster runs into — his “friends” — are ghouls. Their fiendish manner and way of speaking is so curiously “off” that the film gives you a Stepford headache after a half-hour or so. I’ve always regarded The Swimmer as a kind of subtle horror film — a portrait of the stilted values of the World War II “striving class” generation and the alcoholic regimentation that seemed to define suburban affluence back then (similarly portrayed in Ang Lee‘s The Ice Storm and Sam Mendes‘ Revolutionary Road). But The Swimmer is too chilly and creepy — not just lacking in humanity but oxygen.
I’m nonetheless going to buy the Bluray (or somehow wangle a freebie) because it contains a five-part, 2 and 1/2 hour “making of” documentary by Chris Innis featuring chats with Landgard, costar Joan Rivers, composer Marvin Hamlisch, film editor Sidney Katz, Joanna Lancaster, Marge Champion, assistant directors Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachary, etc. It’s highly unusual, to say the least, for a 150-minute documentary to be included on a Bluray about an all-but-forgotten 45 year-old downer that wasn’t all that great in the first place and has never inspired much enthusiasm, even among nostalgic cineastes. And I’m saying this as a Frank Perry fan (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Play It As It Lays, Rancho Deluxe).
The longest behind-the-scenes doc I’ve ever seen is Laurent Bouzereau‘s “Making of Jaws” (’95), which runs 125 minutes. And that was quite a tale with the malfunctioning fake shark and the threats of disaster hanging over Steven Spielberg‘s head, etc. What could have possibly inspired Innis to go two and a half hours? I have to find out.
The Swimmer was a troubled production. It wasn’t released until May ’68 — nearly two years after principal photography. Producer Sam Spiegel (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) removed his name from the film. Lancaster and Perry “did not get along,” the Wiki page says, “and Perry was fired by Spiegel after the first cut of the film was screened, officially due to ‘creative differences’. Less than half of what Perry shot appeared in the film. The studio brought in other directors to finish the film, including Lancaster’s good friend Sydney Pollack, who shot the scenes with Janice Rule, whose character was originally played by Barbara Loden — her scenes were uncompleted when Perry left.
“According to Lancaster, when the film needed an additional day of shooting, he paid $10,000 for it out of his own pocket.”
“The Swimmer is like the last helicopter out of hippie-swarmed Saigon. Burt swims backwards like a sperm whale who realizes there’s a prophylactic fishing net ahead. But there’s no going back, oh paragon…your day of slapping polyester asses and drinking the world into a hazy welcome mat is over. Swim to the sea, Cheever of Men, if it will have you, but know there’s lots of other sharks fighting over every last late-night co-ed summer-break swimmer, and for far too long you’ve coasted in a sea of spoonfed chum.” — from an Acidemic Journal of Film and Media essay.
A New Yorker summary of Cheever’s short story: “On a midsummer Sunday Ned and Lucinda Merrill & Donald & Helen Westerhazy sat at the edge of the Westerhazy’s pool in the hot sun talking about how they had drunk too much the night before. Ned thought of his house in Bullet Park, 8 miles south, his 4 daughters at home & it occurred to him that he could reach home by water. In his mind he saw a string of swimming pools, a quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county & he knew that he would find friends along the way. Changes in the neighborhood & comments of people at their pools made him wonder about his memory. One couple sympathized with his misfortunes: that he had sold the house, and his poor children. Others assumed he’d come to ask for money. It was night by the time he arrived home exhausted, to find the house locked & empty.”