Grindhouse Releasing broadens its horizons with their loving special edition of the "studio cult film" THE SWIMMER on Blu-ray/DVD combo.
Based on a short story of John Cheever written for the New Yorker, THE SWIMMER – adapted by director Frank Perry's (MOMMIE DEAREST) wife Eleanor (DAVID AND LISA) – has a rather contrived structure, unpeeling the layers of its protagonist through a series of encounters with his comparatively jaded friends and acquaintances, with his journey home revealing the devastating truth (although the audience may catch on long before the hero). One day towards the end of a Connecticut summer, a bathing trunks-clad Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster, CONVERSATION PIECE) decides to swim back home, carving a path upstream through the backyard pools of the suburban set back to his charmed life in his "Never Never Land" house on the hill. As he crashes the lazy afternoons hangovers, informal gatherings, and all-out pool parties of his neighbors, it becomes increasingly apparent that all is not quite right beneath Ned's joie de vivre attitude as he avoids the specifics of questions about his home and business and seeks to rekindle a relationship with a mistress (Janice Rule, 3 WOMEN) and nurture the childhood crush of his daughters' babysitter (Janet Landgard, MOONCHILD) despite his boasts of marital bliss. An un-nipped-and-tucked Joan Rivers appears briefly in the film's pool party scene along with Dolph Sweet (De Palma's SISTERS), Cheever himself as the dead drunk host of an earlier gathering, and John Garfield Jr. (THE SAVAGE INTRUDER) appears as the ticket seller at the public pool.
One of the Columbia titles Grindhouse acquired (along with CORRUPTION and THE BIG GUNDOWN), THE SWIMMER – previously released on barebones DVD by Columbia Pictures – has been restored from a new 4K scan and looks thoroughly spectacular with vibrant colors, wonderful detail in the suburban and woodsy settings and close-ups of the actors (particularly Lancaster whose age the camera seems to gradually emphasize more as the film progresses). What does unfortunately become more apparent with the increased clarity is the shakiness of David Quaid's (PRETTY POISON, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS) camerawork (the pre-Steadicam handheld shots of course but also a handful of crane and dolly shots, with the reshot scenes featuring smoother camerawork). The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is also in great condition (optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included). The rich score of Marvin Hamlisch (BANANAS) is available on an isolated track in stereo (in Dolby Digital 2.0).
Typical of Grindhouse releases, THE SWIMMER is stacked with extras starting with "The Story of THE SWIMMER", a documentary that runs significantly longer than the film itself, although it is broken up into five parts. "Backstroke" (24:36) introduces the principal commentators: assistant director Michael Hertzberg (BLAZING SADDLES) and second assistant director Ted Zachary (SHAFT), Lancaster's fourth daughter Joanna, actress Landgard, and UCLA swimming/water polo coach Bob Horn. This section covers mainly Lancaster's preparation for the role (he felt confident in his jaundiced view of the East Coast social set but was a terrible swimmer despite being otherwise athletic). In "East River Crawl" (25:39), we get the inklings of trouble with remarks about Perry's inexperience and indecisiveness as a director and his wife's contract stipulation that the actors were not to deviate from the script without her approval. Marge Champion (THE PARTY) – also the live model for Disney's SNOW WHITE – who plays the wife of one of Ned's "long time no see" friends, recalls that Perry wrote dialogue for her that wasn't in the original script (including the punchline to her scene).
"Beneath the Surface" (29:49) introduces Joan Rivers who was unknown as an actress at the time but had just made her first appearance on the Johnny Carson show. She became involved in the film through her husband's friendship with the Perrys, who added a role for her in the pool party scene. We learn more about Lancaster's faith in Perry as a director (Rivers says Lancaster re-directed their scene after they had rehearsed it with Perry), as well as producer Sam Spiegel's (ON THE WATERFRONT) manipulation of the cast and crew via "shirtless producer" Roger Lewis (SHAFT IN AFRICA) by playing Lancaster and the Perrys against each other by keeping the actor away from the dailies and re-editing the work done so far by the Perry's chosen editor Dede Allen (BONNIE & CLYDE) who he did not want to hire because she wanted a single card credit and he did not want to be obligated to grant that to other "cutters".
In "The Deep" (30:00), we learn that Perry was fired over the scene he shot between Lancaster and model Barbara Loden (wife of Elia Kazan who allegedly supported the Perrys to their face while telling Spiegel to destroy the scene behind their back). Herzberg and Zachary reveal that they were surprised when they saw the final cut that a handful of scenes had been reshot. The California reshoots were directed by Lancaster's friend Sydney Pollack (OUT OF AFRICA) and shot by Michael Nebbia (ALICE'S RESTAURANT). Loden (who was not paid for her work) was replaced by Janice Rule (who would end up also getting screwed over by Spiegel twice when he promised her Landgard's second billing and later an expensive painting as payment for her work). A scene with another suburban couple played by Sally Gracie (THE RAIN PEOPLE) and Larry Haines (THE ODD COUPLE) was replaced with a scene featuring Kim Hunter (Kazan's A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE) and Charles Drake (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE). A pregnant Landgard also had to reshoot her forest idyll sequence with Lancaster. We also are privy to a letter from Eleanor Parker in which she exclaims horror at the "happy ending" that Pollack shot for the film (but was ultimately not used if it was indeed filmed). In this part, we also meet composer Hamlisch (who was discovered by Spiegel when he subbed for a piano player at one of the producer's extravagant parties) – who recalls how strange it was to sit in with the producer determining music placement rather than the director – and editor Sidney Katz (CAFÉ FLESH) whose comments do suggest that the Perry's cut wasn't a masterpiece ruined entirely by re-editing (his 2009 death suggests Grindhouse has been working on THE SWIMMER for some time).
In "Shallow End" (28:37), we find the commentators struggling to interpret the overall meaning of the film. Lancaster's daughter finds the film difficult to watch her father as such a raw, degraded character (she and Horn also talk about Lancaster's disappointment with its reception and delight whenever he discovered people who did like it years later). Hamlisch discusses the meaning of his musical choices in the opening and in the closing sequence (where his score dominates the soundtrack for six minutes or so). We also learn that the Perrys – Frank fired and Eleanor let go since shooting was completed – sent laborious editing notes to Spiegel and that some of their changes were indeed reinstated. The Perrys divorced in 1971 but Katz would later collaborate with Frank – despite his work on THE SWIMMER – when he was asked to "fix" parts of LAST SUMMER which would lead to him working on seven more films for the director. The commentators are satisfied more with the experience than with the final film (and we get a quote from Lancaster saying that the film needed someone like Fellini or Truffaut to better manage the off-kilter atmosphere). Although it was shot in high definition, the documentary is framed at 1.85:1 (instead of 1.78:1) to match the framing of the clips.
Champion also appears in a separate interview (17:55) conducted by filmmaker Allison Anders (GAS FOOD LODGING) who hosted a TCM theatrical screening of THE SWIMMER. After Anders introduces the 9 A.M. screening, Champion comes up to the stage to sit down with her to discuss working with the Perrys, her prior acquaintance with Rule, and the film's balance of humor and tragedy. The original New Yorker short story (25:42) is presented as an audio extra read by Cheever that also appears in THE JOHN CHEEVER AUDIO COLLECTION: UNABRIDGED STORIES from HarperCollins (seemingly a different audio recording than the one he did for a live audience in 1977), while some outtakes from the title sequence (4:03) make up the only extra footage Sony scraped up from the vaults. Promotional materials on the disc include four galleries of production stills and posters (as well as four more galleries with Frank Perry's storyboards, stills of Landgard, and stills from Loden's deleted scene), the film's theatrical trailer (2:42) and five TV spots. The Blu-ray also includes filmographies for the Perrys and Landgard, disc credits, and trailers for AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL, THE BIG GUNDOWN, CORRUPTION, GONE WITH THE POPE, THE BEYOND, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (not quite as extensive as the trailer gallery on other Grindhouse discs but there was probably little room left on the disc). The DVD reproduces the film and all of the extras except for the title sequence outtakes and the Grindhouse trailers. Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR) contributes a twelve page booklet. Ultimately THE SWIMMER may not be entirely rewarding experience, but aren't you glad Grindhouse Releasing is around to give lavish treatment to films major studios might like to forget. (Eric Cotenas)
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