The Swimmer is a cinematic oddity that ended up being a passion project for its star, Burt Lancaster. The film basically came and went in 1968, and while over the years The Swimmer has gained a devoted cult following, it still seems to be underseen. The film also flies in the face of auteurism due to the firing of director Frank Perry well into the production and Sydney Pollack coming on to take over. Pollack probably should’ve gotten a directing credit for the film, but you could also make a strong case that Burt Lancaster was the driving creative force after beating out the likes of William Holden and Paul Newman to be cast for the role.
Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a middle-aged man who realizes at a certain moment that he could “swim his way home.” That’s essentially the film, but it’s a rarity in the sense that it’s an allegorical film made by a Hollywood studio with one of the premiere stars of the day. Let’s just say that the ’60s were a wild time. Ned is clearly some kind of local legend, probably a WW2 hero, but almost instantly you get the sense that there is something deeply wrong in Ned’s life. The full picture is only revealed at the end. It’s an extraordinary takedown of the American Dream and a man who is struggling to accept that his class and patriarchal privileges are collapsing.
The film was shot for the most part in 1966, which was still an optimistic point in the ’60s. That is partly why the film is so particular, because it feels so much like a film commenting on the rot at the end of the ’60s, with Altamont, Manson, and the DNC convention in ’68. The only film I can really compare it to is John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, which is a similar story about middle-aged masculinity in crisis, although more in a science-fiction fashion. Both Seconds and The Swimmer could easily have fit as episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery, but would’ve lost so much as 25-minute-long episodes. I really consider The Swimmer to be a horror movie: the oppressive sense of dread from the outset and the film’s final moments are more disturbing than the vast majority of horror films you will ever see. The title of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ debut album “The Scream” is a reference to the film’s ending.
Lancaster probably was able to navigate the changing shape of American filmmaking better than most movie stars of his generation, with his willingness to work in Europe with directors such as Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci, and with the younger generation of New Hollywood filmmakers, like Robert Altman, Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack. The Swimmer remains one of the highlights of his long career, which spanned from 1946’s The Killers to 1989’s Field of Dreams before a stroke forced him to retire—not bad for a former trapeze artist. Lancaster often claimed that The Swimmer was his finest performance, and if it’s not, it’s certainly up there.
The release from Indicator comes eight years after Grindhouse’s US Blu-Ray release. Both have unique extras but there is some crossover. The big omission on the Indicator release is nearly two-and-a-half-hour making-of documentary found on the Grindhouse version, which is as in-depth as that running time suggests. It’s a shame, because if it was included, the Indicator offering would be the definitive release. The new extras include a commentary track from Frank Perry biographer Justin Bozung, a video appreciation from Richard Ayoade, and Illeana Douglas’s Trailers From Hell. The extras ported over are Allison Anders Interviews Marge Champion, Cheever reading the short story, title sequence outtakes, a whole host of trailers and TV spots, isolated score and image galleries. You also get an 80-page book with a new essay by Sophie Monks Kaufman, a profile of writer John Cheever, extracts from interviews with Frank Perry and Eleanor Perry on the making of the film, and an overview of contemporary critical responses.