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Cheever's short masterpiece becomes a cult classic
Loves: Cult films, psychological dramas, stories of behind-the-scenes chaos
Likes: John Cheever, Burt Lancaster
Dislikes: Tales of tragedy, WASP-y troubles
Hates: Artists being abused by businessmen
The first time I really connected with something I was assigned to read for school, it was John Cheever's short story The Swimmer. Perhaps it's my love for Twilight Zone-style tales of morality with twists you don't see coming, but this brief tale really hooked me. The story of Ned Merrill, a man who gets the odd idea to travel home across a Connecticut county by swimming through his neighbors' pools, has the kind of unusual concept I love, while the way the piece unfolds is brilliant, dropping hints and clues, letting you experience the journey alongside Ned. The atmosphere of suburban malaise Cheever creates served to amplify a piece that belongs to a time mostly forgotten and a culture most have never experienced.
In the mid-1960s, director Frank Perry and his wife, screenwriter Eleanor Perry, a promising husband-and-wife team, decided to make a film from Cheever's complex, challenging short story, and what began as essentially an art-house film, eventually became a studio picture when superstar Burt Lancaster, who liked to challenge himself, became attached to play Ned. It was rather impressive casting, as Lancaster, who at the time was 52, fit the bill, a middle-aged man of impressive physical stature with a cocktail party-ready persona that would be required to properly portray the titular swimmer. Lancaster's presence also helps to situate the film in its timeframe, when men were men and the world was a simpler place, but on the verge of real, lasting change (not unlike Ned.)
The real star of The Swimmer is the white-bread suburban world Ned is attempting to navigate by pool, as it's so foreign to the reality most people live in. This society, where everyone's partying to excess, judging success by the cost and complexity of their swimming pools and focused on social status, is a spiritual Nutmeg State-sibling to the world of The Ice Storm, which explored somewhat similar social constructs, but with less of a near-magical quality. As Ned makes his way from backyard to backyard, pool to pool, the reception he receives changes, and what was once a ennui-disturbing lark transforms into something much different, with each stop revealing more about Ned and the people he meets. A epitome of stoicism, Lancaster does an incredible job of showing the effects of the trip in slight, effective ways, while never losing the core of the character.
It's hard to get into what makes The Swimmer so entertaining without ruining it for those new to the film, but suffice it to say, this is in no way a traditional Hollywood film, right down to the ending, despite the presence of such a name-brand Hollywood leading-man. There are so many ideas explored that are close to the core of the ideal American life, even though society no longer reflects the same experience. To make an awkward and possibly ill-fitting comparison, it might be the Fight Club of its time, in many different ways. Interestingly though, watching it without knowledge of the plot is enjoyable, but a second viewing (or watching it after reading the short story) is a different, yet also entertaining experience, as knowledge of what is going to happen changes everything, including how you may feel about Ned. Either way, it's a movie that holds up very well decades later as a head-trip that audiences today are likely far more ready to embrace it.
The Swimmer is delivered in a two-disc set (one Blu-ray, one DVD), which are held in a standard-width Blu-ray keepcase with a two-sided cover and a booklet. The disc features an era-appropriate animated menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the set-up and check out the extras. There are no audio options, but subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
The 1.85:1, 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is taken from a newly-restored 4K scan, and it looks simply incredible. Though not perfect, as the quality of the image doesn't maintain a consistent high (mostly like a flaw in the source materials), at its top-end, there's almost nothing out there that competes with the visual quality of this film, nearly 50 years after it was released in theaters. There are moments where you will be stunned by the vivid colors, the razor-sharpness and the level of detail (often in the scenes shot by Pollack.) Overall, the crayon box was put to exceptional use in this transfer, and there are no notable issues with dirt or damage nor compression artifacts, though a few scenes exhibit some shudder (again, perhaps a source problem.) The close-up shots of Lancaster, with the rugged detail in his face and the dazzling blue of his eyes, and a straight-on of Landgard that makes her look like a true goddess, will astound you, as will the vast majority of this film. Even when it's not as good as its best, its still well ahead of the pack.
The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is beautifully powerful, delivering the dialogue crisply, while giving solid weight to composer Marvin Hamlisch's first-ever score, a set of instrumentals that are certainly of the era, and thus fit the film like a glove, guiding the viewer through the film's emotional transitions. With just one channel, there's obviously nothing dynamic about the mix, but the clarity and separation between elements is top-notch. More than anything, getting the score just right makes this a hyper-effective presentation.
A commentary featuring some academic analysis of the film would have been appreciated, but instead we receive an astounding five-part documentary, The Story of "The Swimmer", which checks in at nearly 139 minutes. Created by Oscar-winning editor Chris Innes (The Hurt Locker), it's a unique creature, focusing largely on the chaos behind the scenes, which occasionally spills over in front of the camera. Featuring interviews with assistant directors Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachary, Landgard, Joan Rivers (who made her feature debut in The Swimmer) and Marge Champion, along with Hamlisch, editor Sidney Katz, Lancaster's swim coach Bob Horn and Lancaster's daughter Joanna, the film takes you into the strange power struggle between the film's producers, Lancaster and the Perrys, which ended up involving both Pollack and Elia Kazan, while future Oscar winners were driven away from the film, characters were recast after shooting and Rivers was forced to perform scenes in multiple ways in the same shot. The only issue here, if any, is the piece takes a bit to get going, as it starts off focusing on Lancaster in the first two parts, before diving into the terrible behavior of the producers, drawing mainly from Eleanor Perry's extensive production notes, while getting a star-turn out of Rivers. That said, the story that Innes tells here is as fascinating as the one in the feature itself (or perhaps even more so.) Hearing what went on, you start to wonder how this movie ever made it over the finish line (and become thankful that it did.)
Though Champion is heard from in the documentary, we get to spend almost 18 more minutes with her, as she is interviewed at the TCM Classic Film Festival, from April of 2013. Director Allison Anders (Border Radio) sits down with the actress to chat before an audience that had just watched a screening of The Swimmer. The film isn't really a major part of the discussion, as the talk instead focuses on her own history as part of the movie industry (such as her role as model for Disney's Snow White) but she's a delightful woman and she does obviously touch on the film they had just enjoyed.
If you are new to the story, this release includes an audio reading of the original short by Cheever himself. Over the 25:41 that it takes him to spin his yarn, it becomes very clear from listening to his voice that this was a world he knew quite well. Afterward, you might find you want to grab your favorite ascot and head on down to the country club with Buffy. This is a wonderful addition to enhance the completeness of this release.
There are some outtakes from the shooting of the film's title sequence, which establishes the woods as a location. These four minutes of nature photography include a lot of trees, a nervous deer and a rabbit, whose treatment is unlikely to be approved by PETA. This is one of the more unusual elements in this set, and its presence speaks to an effort to include every piece of ephemera possible.
Continuing the theme of raiding archives, we get the film's trailer, along with five TV ads for the movie, some of which are exceedingly short, focusing on the tagline "When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?" It's interesting to see how movies were promoted back in the day. There are also seven still galleries, which offer up a set of 15 storyboards, 140 production stills (in color and black and white), 35 shots of Janet Landgard, 47 stills from an unused scene with Barbara Loden, 56 pieces of U.S. promotional material (including posters and ads) and 28 pieces from international promotional campaigns, mostly from Germany, as well as Japan, Britain and Spain. There's some great photos and art here, but the shots of Landgard and Loden (the latter of which include some minor nip slips) are the most interesting, mainly in light of what's learned in the documentary, so save these for later.
Considering this is the first feature work of a future master, it was only proper to give Hamlisch's creations a chance to shine, and that's exactly what the isolated score track allows. Right out of the gate, the maestro really nailed the emotion of the film with his music, and this presentation lets you appreciate its effect (though you'll want to jump through the large score-less moments.)
Three text filmographies, one for each of the Perrys and one for Landgard aren't all that interesting, though Landgard's includes a trailer for Land Raiders, a western she made with Telly Savalas. It's a nice touch that justifies the inclusion of these screens. There are also six trailers from other Grindhouse Releasing films, which are must-watch clips considering Grindhouse's eye for interesting release..
The set includes a DVD copy of the film, which carries over most of the major bonus content, including the great documentary, along with some DVD-ROM material exclusive to this disc. Up first is a PDF of the 1966 script, the third revision, which features notes and doodles, followed by seven pages of notes about the film's score, courtesy of music historian Gergely Hubai, who analyses the film's cues. The real motherlode though is "The Shallow End," a collection of 49 pages of Eleanor Perry's notes and correspondence related to The Swimmer. These are the observations and thoughts referenced throughout the documentary, and they are fascinating to read through, for insight into the darker side of Hollywood (though it would have been great to include other memos mentioned in the documentary, like Cheever's thoughts on the script.
A 12-page booklet wraps up the package, with an essay on the film by Re-animator director Stuart Gordon, featuring his theories on the meaning of the film, and a detailed history of the film's creation from Innis, as well as a list of chapter stops. Both pieces are excellent reads, best approached after watching the film.
The Bottom Line
I've long been a fan of Cheever's unconventional short story, but the movie stands on its own as a tremendously entertaining exercise in psychological drama, that could have possibly been so much more if not for the interference of the producers. A fascinating film, it's been matched by a tremendous presentation, both in terms of the audio/video quality and the depth and quantity of the bonus content, especially the hugely enlightening documentary. If you have a favorite cult film, you should only hope that it gets on Grindhouse Releasing's radar, as they have done exceptionally well by The Swimmer.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.