Nether Regions 11.23.10: The Swimmer
Posted by Chad Webb on 11.23.2010
Burt Lancaster swims home using all the pools in town as a path in this overlooked gem from the late 60’s.
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, and Janice Rule Directed By: Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack Written By: Eleanor Perry (based on the short story by John Cheever) Running Time: 94 minutes Release Date: May 15, 1968 Missing Since: 2003 Existing Formats:OOP Region 1, VHS, Amazon VOD Netflix Status: Not on DVD, but available on "Watch Instantly" Availability: It's hard to buy, but not to watch.
It is a beautiful sunny day, and Ned Merrill has decided to take a dip in some friends' pool. He chats with them and takes a look at the view of his affluent Connecticut suburb. An idea occurs to him that he could visit a string of houses and conceivably "swim" to his own home by swimming at numerous places along the way. It's a fabulous activity for a nice day. Some people think it sounds fun, while others don't quite understand. At the beginning of this journey, Ned is a seemingly successful, handsome, upbeat, and likable middle-aged man. By the time his day is over however, a much different person has emerged.
Ned kisses Helen Westerhazy's feet. That's how he rolls.
The Swimmer might take place in one day, but for the viewer, we observe an entire life. As Ned travels from pool to pool, each offering unique surprises, we learn more about his existence prior to that day. It is an allegory, a fact that is easier to detect as the plot progresses, but that discovery is not a jarring one. We rapidly envisage what the story is driving at, and indeed it suits this wonderfully consuming drama. The set-up alone is intriguing enough to lure us in, but execution is so glorious to absorb. It is akin to a riveting mystery. What exactly happened to this man?
This is based on a short story by John Cheever, first published in The New Yorker and eventually in a collection called The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. The dialogue reflects that disposition. The delivery isn't as quick and snappy as in a play, but also not as basic or general as a regular movie script. The supporting cast truly does deserve praise as a group because there is never a moment when they fail to play the substance as if a dark and shattering past still lingers. Burt Lancaster's brilliance as Ned could only have been possible if the people he stumbles in on were believable in suggesting that previous events did happen and shape the town. The Swimmer keeps the audience on our toes and proceeds to dish out a series of knockout blows as the story wraps up.
The DVD cover
Frank Perry directed the majority of the picture, and his wife Eleanor Perry penned the screenplay adaption, though they collaborated on both to a degree from what I've researched. This pair also made the marvelous David and Lisa from 1962, and many others which I have not seen, but want to soon. Sydney Pollack ended up finishing the film because Perry left due to "creative differences." If this had happened today, rumors would have swirled on the Internet and the production would have been torn to shreds, as many would have assumed it was terrible. However, the episodic nature of The Swimmer makes the directorial change difficult to notice. Had it not focused on a man simply going to various pools (in ground I might add), the flow and tone could have easily been disrupted.
At the center is Ned Merrill, a supreme physical specimen that walks around barefoot in nothing but a pair of tight swim trunks. Burt Lancaster has been accused of playing "Burt Lancaster" in too many roles, but his resume is filled with compelling and unforgettable turns such as Sweet Smell of Success, Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Leopard just to name a few. Ned Merrill should be added to that list, but it is a character that is not nearly as charismatic, and of course, age has caused him to fade into the background, but indeed this is one of Lancaster's most precisely tuned portrayals. He must find the balance of Ned, and convey his natural persona without allowing his secrets to be overly obvious or too obscure. As each segment passes by, Lancaster sinks Ned deeper into darkness, and it's an amazing transition over 94 minutes.
Ned adds to his adventure by running beside a horse.
Many have cited the empty pool as the crucial juncture of Ned's day. That after that point, his encounters change drastically. It may be partially true, but it seems that Ned's enthusiasm and energy begins to dissipate, not to mention the greetings he receives from others, once he twists his ankle. Then as the afternoon arrives, the temperature drops and the pools begin to get colder. Ned starts shivering, and the vigor in his strokes weakens. He is a tragic hero yes, but he is also a man, and it is important that we notice that no human being is chiseled, perfect, and loved by everyone. What makes Lancaster's turn so great is that he presents Ned with equal parts subtlety and virile passion. By the end, the audience has formed an enduring bond with Ned and the inhabitants of this suburb. It's almost as if we could move there already knowing the ropes. It is a complete depiction.
It is a credit to John Cheever's story for sure, but also the writing and direction of the Perrys that the neighborhood is so detailed and adeptly outlined. Symbolism is rampant throughout The Swimmer, and what is so refreshing is that so much backstory and history is unveiled without it feeling forced from the characters. I tend to ask myself if these people would really talk about all these things in such a manner, but that never became a nagging issue during this film. I wouldn't label it organic necessarily, but not artificial either. It is Lancaster's nuanced acting that aids David L. Quaid's bright cinematography. This is a gorgeously photographed tale, but never misconstrued as blatantly optimistic because Lancaster's abilities, possibly the way Perry (and Pollack) capture his weary smiling face, and Marvin Hamlisch's excellently affecting score faintly imply that something is "off".
The VHS cover.
The objective was that Lancaster's Ned controls the film, and this requirement was met to the point that Barbara Loden was cut from the film and Janice Rule replaced her as Shirley Abbott because Loden's performance overpowered Lancaster's. Ironically, that is the portion Sydney Pollack directed, and is easily the strongest exchange, not only because of Pollack, but because Lancaster and Rule establish such innate chemistry in that span of time. Janet Landgard is convincingly sweet and innocent as Julie Ann Hooper as well. Landgard's career didn't stretch too far after this, which is a shame. She reminds me of a young Cybil Shepherd in many ways.
Burt Lancaster committed diligently to the role of Ned Merrill, and it shows. He had a strict exercise regimen daily. He would also call The Swimmer his best and favorite film. That might sound odd considering all the towering performances he afforded moviegoers over the years, but in Ned lies Lancaster's versatility, charm, conviction, and yes his superstar looks. This film is about the American Dream, and the reality of what striving to attain that means. Ned's town is one comprised of flaunting money, material items, and acquaintances that only act sincere to him. The Swimmer possesses so many noteworthy moments that it's hard to elaborate on one without wanting to touch on all of them. It is sometimes funny, poignant, suspenseful, and even unsettling.
I would really love to see this have a proper DVD release someday. Still, you can view it on Netflix's "Watch Instantly" feature, which is better than nothing. The previous DVD release had no extras on it, in case anyone was curious. On a side note, if any of you do decide to see this, look for a very young and unrecognizable Joan Rivers in a brief role at one pool party. She and Ned swap some flirtatious dialogue.
- To my faithful group of readers, I am not going bi-weekly on this column. Last week, I fully intended to deliver a review of Monte Walsh (1970), which got released the next day on DVD, but a series of events prevented me from writing on time. Specifically, I got free tickets to Old School WWE Raw, which was great fun. Hershey is not a very rowdy town for pro-wrestling, but I enjoyed myself. I just wish they dug up some legends we didn't expect. I got to see Daniel Bryan perform though, which was very cool.
- I also went to see Roger Waters and his band perform The Wall in its entirety. That was a spectacular show, and I do mean show. I admit I wish other Pink Floyd hits were played, but this was as much a stage musical as it was a concert. Watching the huge wall crash down was just fantastic.
- I've been continually picking up new CDs lately. Elton John and Leon Russell's The Union is one of the best albums I've heard this year. Neil Young's Le Noise grows on you quickly, but it all depends on how much you enjoy Neil. I listened to Weezer's Death to False Metal, which was average, but not the Pinkerton Deluxe Edition yet, which sits on my shelf. Bad Religion's The Dissent of Man was pretty good. Joe Satriani's newest, Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards is easily one of his finest in years. I still have a bunch on my plate. Tis the busy season.
- As for movies, I still see plenty in the theater, but on DVD I have been attempting to catch up on my own collection. I saw Oliver Stone's Nixon finally, and liked it, but it is certainly Stone's most one-sided political effort. I've been educating myself on UFC and MMA lately with The Ultimate 100 Greatest Fights. Joe Rogan and I are now best buddies.
- This past weekend was very chill, which was long overdue for me. I'm not sure how many more of them I will get. It was mainly a Harry Potter-themed couple of days. I can hum the entire score to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as my wife has played it all weekend with the repeat button on. The movie is good by the way, much better than the crappy Half-Blood Prince.