The Swimmer (1968) Blu-ray Review: The Last Great Studio-Made Cult Film

Burt Lancaster delivers a performance that will positively send chills down your spine. And those blue swimming trunks sure won't help any.
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The very definition of a cult film is one that many (ahem) "scholars" such as myself can drunkenly argue amongst ourselves into the wee hours of the morning over copious amounts of scotch and Schlitz. In my humble opinion, setting out to make a cult film will grant you an unlikely chance of winning; one need only take a peek at the many kajillion so-called "cult" movies released to DVD via indie labels on an unfortunately, weekly basis. But if there's one thing many of us actually can agree on, it's that most major studios simply don't have the guts to release (or the very know-how to produce) a title that could amass an underground following.

Sure, you can bring up the fact that Fox has that overrated Rocky Horror Picture Show thing, as well as Brian De Palma's still-far-too-underrated-when-compared-to-the-aforementioned Phantom of the Paradise under their belt. And they do. But what you must take into consideration there is that, much like their later cash cow - something called Star Wars - those films were predominately produced independently, and the studio brand on the product is quite often, essentially, for the most part, just that. Rarely do the suits at the studio place their own money on the water - as they are notoriously afraid the old expression "sink or swim" will only result in the latter.

So what happens when a studio actually does make a cult film and is faced with the sink or swim option? Well, with corny analogy in hand, I can think of no better example to than 1968's The Swimmer.

Here, the one and only Burt Lancaster gives one of his most unsung performances as Ned Merrill, a successful businessman who pops up out of the blue one day in a neighbor's yard to use their pool. Clad solely in blue swim trunks (the lone article of clothing Lancaster wears throughout the entire film, save for a scene wherein he strips down to his birthday suit) Ned is greeted by his pals, but from the very get-go, it is apparent something is askew - especially once Ned devises a way to swim home that day. "Wait, how's that?", you ask? Well, you see, as it turns out, just about all of Ned's neighbors have swimming pools, and there's a trail that leads directly to the top of the lush green upper-class suburbia where Ned's adoring family and their plush estate wait. And today, as Ned so repeatedly throughout the film, is his day to swim home.

As Ned spends the entire afternoon walking from one house to another just to use their pool, that whole sunny paradise becomes darker and more distorted with each passing estate. Things change as each hour passes. People start to seem utterly surprised that Ned is even alive - let alone there. Old friends begin to greet our protagonist as an antagonist, often with fierce, unabashed animosity and hostility. It isn't until the final, disturbing frame that we are let in on something resembling the truth, and said frame is one that will linger in your mind for a long, long time afterward. Janet Landgard is the 20-year-old girl with a huge crush on the man she used to babysit for, and who accompanies Ned on a portion of his journey. Janice Rule is an old flame of Ned's, and owner of one of the final pools on his epic trip. Joan Rivers (in her film debut), Kim Hunter, Charles Drake, and Diana Muldaur are also featured.

Beget in 1964 as a short story by John Cheever, The Swimmer was produced by three-time Oscar winner Sam Spiegel - whose hits included On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia (two of which also have something to do with water, interestingly enough, while the other is completely devoid of such). Cheever's story was adapted by Eleanor Perry, which was in-turn directed by her husband, Frank - who shot the movie on location in 1966 in his hometown in rural Connecticut (is there an urban Connecticut, I wonder?) instead of in a dreary ol' studio, making use of the natural lighting and scenery - which gives the illusory film an appropriately outlandish "organic" feel.

As time went on, Spiegel removed his name from the film and fired director Perry, bringing in Burt's close friend Sydney Pollack to re-shoot certain scenes (in a studio, sadly) after the Perry's first cut of the film failed to impress his producer. One scene to be re-filmed in particular featured co-star Janice Rule, who was brought in to replace Barbara Loden, the original actress for the part, after her husband (Elia Kazan) reportedly objected to the nature of the footage - and allegedly had it not only cut, but burned as well! Interestingly, Lancaster was afraid of the water prior to eagerly signing on for this project (which he helped finance the re-shoots for directly out of his own pocket), and hired UCLA swim coach Bob Horn to personally teach him how to not only swim, but to swim like a pro just for the part.

As you may have already ultimately concluded, The Swimmer initially sank when it was originally released to a bewildered and confused audience in 1968 (after sitting on the shelf for two years), who either could not fathom or appreciate the disturbing, surrealistic nightmare of '60s suburban America that Lancaster and his fellow supporters anxiously helped to bring to fruition. Since its widely-ignored release, The Swimmer has surfaced on home video once or twice, but it is now, with the new Blu-ray/DVD combo set from Grindhouse Releasing/Box Office, that this - one of the last true studio-made cult films - can be truly appreciated in every respect.

Grindhouse presents us with an immaculate presentation all the way around here, from a sharp, clear, perfectly-balanced video transfer to a remarkably unspoiled 1.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. A second audio track features the work of the late Marvin Hamlisch (The Swimmer was his first film score, by the way), and is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. Optional English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles are also included in this release.

Additional special features for this set include an amazing five-part documentary by Chris (The Hurt Locker) Innis, which interviews many surviving cast and crew (including a discussion with Mr. Hamlisch, as recorded in 2010, who tells us how he got into the business, among other things), as well as Lancaster's daughter, Joanna. The entire documentary clocks in at just under two-hours and thirty-minutes, but the amount of information (to say nothing of anecdotes) contained therein is as fascinating as the feature film itself - and comes just as highly recommended. Another, standalone interview with actress Marge Champion (who has a small part in the film) is also included, as are extensive galleries of production stills, marketing materials, and more.

Wrapping up the selection of bonus goodies are a handful of silent opening credit outtakes, an audio selection of John Cheever himself reading his original short story (which is required listening unto itself), filmographies of select cast/crew, theatrical and TV trailers, and a ten-page booklet featuring essays on the film by Innis and Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon.

While the premise almost sounds about as interesting as testing out the waters of everyone's swimming pool in your own neighborhood (where applicable), rest assured that swimming has very little to do with The Swimmer - and that anyone who still has terrifying flashbacks of your average Esther Williams film will be surprised over the entirely different nightmare you will witness here. Perry (and I guess to some, very limited extent, Pollack) paints a hallucinatory image to remember for all time here, and Lancaster's own personal responsibility to the role can be felt with every passing scene. I simply cannot recommend this title enough - and my praise of the movie and its status in the annals of cult film history are two things that I will astutely argue amongst my contemporaries with over scotch and Schlitz in the wee hours of the morning until my dying days.

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