Directed by: Frank Perry
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule
I’m not sure if The Swimmer would be best described as a dream or a fantasy, either way it’s stylized, mesmerizing and haunting. Burt Lancaster wearing nothing but a pair of navy blue trunks swims his way through a sea of upper middle class friends and neighbors on a epic journey home in this film based on a John Cheever short story.
The movie opens up on bucolic scenes of a late summer Connecticut suburb, well the liner notes describe it as a suburb but it’s the type of upper middle or lower upper class suburb where each house sits on it’s own multi acre estate with pools, horses and tennis courts. There are deer and rabbits jumping around and even an owl hooting in a tree. Out of the trees comes a figure in blue shorts jogging along game trails and hoping over the limestone rocks jutting out of the ground like they were sculpted. The trees part onto a small courtyard containing a pool which Ned, the guy in the trunks, runs up to and jumps in. He immediately swims a few laps only to be lured out of the water by a tumbler filled with ice, a piece of fruit and something clear and intoxicating. Ned athletically hauls himself out of the water, accepts the drink from his benefactor and they amiably exchange pleasantries, obviously old buddies. His host insists he walk over and say hello to the missus. They do, the journey isn’t far, just the other side of the pool. They continue to talk about nothing but there is a strange tension to the conversation as if there is something very big and important that everyone is too polite to bring up.
The pool over looks a valley and Ned is distracted by the handful of houses that dot it. Ned realizes that he could go from pool to pool neighbor-to-neighbor and swim his way home. He christens his imaginary waterway the Lucinda River in honor of his wife. Once the idea has come to him he cannot be swayed and takes off barefoot across the county swimming his way home. As Ned works his way across the county pool-to-pool little details are slowly revealed. Ned seems to be ignorant of some unfortunate events that have happened in his life over the last several years. But when these events are mentioned Ned seems to brush them aside as if he’s avoiding the truth more than ignorant of it. The more unpleasant the accusations the more puzzled Ned appears. The closer Ned gets to home though the bleaker the truth gets and the more hostile his acquaintances. Even the weather seems to turn against him as the sky darkens and the temperature drops.
Burt Lancaster turns in an amazing performance as Ned Merrill. In his blue swim trunks he is the picture of middle age virility. The only other large roles are played by Janet Landgard from The Donna Reed Show who plays a baby sitter that Ned used to employ to watch his two girls. She has blossomed into a very beautiful young woman who Ned entices into swimming up the Lucinda River with him for a while. Then there is Janice Rule who portrays a bitter former lover who for a moment cracks Ned’s denial. A lot of the other faces and voices are familiar even if you may not quite be able to remember the names. The performances start out stylized and almost stilted but as Ned swims closer to reality they become more and more natural. It’s rather amazing how smoothly the film transitions from beginning to end seeing as the director Frank Perry was fired after the first cut was put together and has claimed that less than half of what he shot was included in the final film. Frank’s wife Eleanor adapted the John Cheever short story and Marvin Hamlisch provided the swelling melodramatic score that adds so much to the surreal feel to the movie.
The Swimmer is an enigmatic tour de force that leaves you with no resolution, no answers and no hope. Which begs the question why watch? Okay, that’s not an easy one to answer. It is an interesting look at the human condition, but for me the biggest appeal of The Swimmer is just the sheer mastery of story telling it exhibits. The story, direction, acting and score all come together to make a nearly perfect movie
The 1080p video is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and Grindhouse has done a marvelous job presenting a clean transfer. The only video that does not look suburb is a small bit where Ned is crossing a busy highway and maybe the crew were using smaller 16mm cameras or just shooting on higher speed film but it is just not a vibrant as the rest of the film. The fact that you can tell they were using a different film stock to me just emphasizes how good the transfer is. The leaves are green and the pool water is that special chlorinated aqua that only pool water looks like. Grindhouse has certainly done the movie justice.
The audio is presented in the original mono soundtrack, but there is a stereo score only track that is a unique way to experience the film. The aural landscape of the film is quite sophisticated. The gurgle of the water and ice tinkling in a glass add to the surrealism of the tone. Mixed in with this is Hamlisch’s score which waxes and wanes but never steps on the dialog. There are Subtitles in English, Spanish and French. It may seem odd rating non-surround sound audio this high but the mono soundtrack is a fantastic reproduction of the original.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
Grindhouse has really put together an amazing release. The Blu Ray and the included DVD come in a standard blue tinted Blu Ray case. The love Grindhouse puts into these releases is amazing, for instance the FBI anti-piracy warning has a gurgling and shimmering chlorine blue background. The artwork is fantastic and there is six-page booklet with an essay by Chris Innis A.C.E (the editor of The Hurt Locker) Innis also provided an extensive documentary of the story behind The Swimmer, which was a troubled production. There are outtakes and trailers and a still gallery and a recording of John Cheever reading the short story the movie was adapted from.