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The Swimmer has been in home video limbo since its 2003 DVD drifted out of print.  Plenty of film buffs won­dered if it would make it to the high-def realm and, if so, who would do the hon­ors.  The Criterion Collection seemed a likely bet.  Few peo­ple would have guessed that Grindhouse Releasing, known for its high-class treat­ment of crit­i­cally dis­re­spected hor­ror and exploita­tion fare, would end up with this title.  However, they picked it up as part of a deal with Sony and have applied their usual high stan­dards of qual­ity.  The result is an excel­lent new blu-ray/DVD combo set that rep­re­sents a sur­pris­ing but wel­come mar­riage between the arti­est of Hollywood films and the most cultish of genre home video specialists.

The bonanza begins with an excel­lent new high-definition trans­fer of The Swimmer, pre­sented in both DVD and blu-ray for­mats.  The blu-ray was watched for this review and the trans­fer looks lovely in this for­mat: a vivid yet nat­ural color palette, plenty of crisp details to the image and a pleas­ing cel­lu­loid tex­ture.  The orig­i­nal mono mix is used for the audio and sounds robust, with a clear blend of dia­logue and sound effects plus a strong pres­ence for the lush Marvin Hamlisch musi­cal score. On the lat­ter note, there is also a stereo music-only track included: given that the music func­tions like a char­ac­ter in this film, this pro­vides a viable alter­na­tive view­ing expe­ri­ence for fans.

Swimmer-bluGrindhouse has also assem­bled an impres­sive ros­ter of extras for this set, an impres­sive achieve­ment when you con­sider that most of the key cre­ative play­ers on this film have passed on.  The cen­ter­piece of the extras is The Story Of The Swimmer, a quin­tet of inter­lock­ing fea­turettes that can also be played end-to-end.  Participants include 1st A.D. Michael Hertzberg, 2nd A.D. Ted Zachary, actress Janet Landgard and Joanna Lancaster (daugh­ter of Burt), who act as the anchors of the piece, with other cast and crew fil­tered in as the dif­fer­ent seg­ments require.  The whole she­bang runs two and a half hours and gives the viewer an inten­sive course in this his­tory of this unusual and mem­o­rable production.

The first part of The Story Of The Swimmer is enti­tled “Backstroke” and deals pri­mar­ily with the pre-production phase.  Fans will be inter­ested to hear that Burt Lancaster had zero swim­ming skills at the out­set of the pro­duc­tion and under­took exten­sive instruc­tion with swim coach Bob Horn, who is inter­viewed at length here. The next seg­ment is enti­tled ” East River Crawl” and gets into the tense power rela­tion­ship between Lancaster and Frank Perry while also touch­ing on sto­ries of script revi­sions and a few fun pro­duc­tion sto­ries, includ­ing a sur­prise visit from Paul Newman.

The third part of The Story Of The Swimmer is called “Beneath The Surface.”  A fun inter­view with Joan Rivers kicks it off, with her telling the story of how the Perrys cre­ated a part espe­cially for her and get­ting caught between Lancaster and Frank Perry’s duel­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of her scene.  From there, it gets into sto­ries of how the Perrys also bat­tled with pro­ducer Sam Spiegel and his emis­saries over script and pro­duc­tion issues.

The fourth part is enti­tled “The Deep” and is per­haps the most inter­est­ing of the seg­ments.  It deals with the pro­tracted and painful post-production and reshoot process that The Swimmer went through on its way to the fin­ished ver­sion.  There are tales of how Spiegel inter­fered in the edit­ing process and how Lancaster brought in his friend Sydney Pollack to shoot new ver­sions of four scenes, includ­ing the famous Janice Rule scene.  You’ll learn what famous person’s inter­fer­ence led to the removal of the scene with Barbara Loden and an inter­viewSwimmer-05 with edi­tor Sidney Katz reveals how he was brought in to sal­vage the film.  On a hap­pier note, Marvin Hamlisch chimes in with the story of how a chance encounter with Spiegel led to him writ­ing his first film score for The Swimmer.

The finale of The Story Of The Swimmer is “Shallow End.”  It closes out the tale of the film’s edit­ing process, which iron­i­cally led to a work­ing rela­tion­ship between Katz and Perry, and allows Hamlisch to go into detail about the why’s and how’s of his excel­lent sound­track.  All the par­tic­i­pants offers their ret­ro­spec­tive thoughts on the film and how its defi­ance of enter­tain­ment norms led to it becom­ing a cult classic.

All in all, The Story Of The Swimmer is engag­ing and, despite its length, fast-paced.  Two and a half hours might seem like a long time to spend on one film but this doc­u­men­tary is about more than that: it also tells the story of the chang­ing of the guard from the stu­dio sys­tem to the New Hollywood era — and the pain of being ahead of your time.  Director/writer/editor Chris Innis does a fine job pac­ing the doc­u­men­tary and draw­ing out insights from the par­tic­i­pants.  The result is some­thing any stu­dent of old Hollywood will enjoy watching.

There is an addi­tional inter­view piece in which film­maker Allison Anders, a fan of The Swimmer, inter­views actress Marge Champion after a screen­ing of the film.  The Hollywood vet­eran shares a few mem­o­ries of the film but her anec­dotes about being a child dur­ing the Great Depression are the most mem­o­rable part.  Fans of the film will be inter­ested to see the pro­duc­ers have included a record­ing of author John Cheever read­ing his orig­i­nal short story.  It pro­vides an inter­est­ing com­par­i­son to the film, illus­trat­ing how Eleanor Perry had to elab­o­rate on and restruc­ture the tale to make it a screenplay.

Swimmer-06The remain­der of the spe­cial fea­tures are devoted to pro­mo­tional mate­ri­als and cred­its.  A trail­ers area offers a mem­o­rable the­atri­cal trailer that sells the thought­ful nature of the film effec­tively plus an array of tele­vi­sion spots that draw on dif­fer­ent aspects of the the­atri­cal trailer. There are also a series of image gal­leries that cover on-set pho­tos, stills, promo art and even a gallery of pub­lic­ity pho­tos for Janet Landgard.  Fans will be inter­ested to see stills of scenes that didn’t make it into the film, includ­ing a full gallery devoted to the never-seen sequence with Barbara Loden.  The last inclu­sions are a set of fil­mo­gra­phies (look for a sur­prise trailer on one) and a set of disc credits.

However, that’s not all that the set itself includes.  The final extra is a liner notes book­let fea­tur­ing two essays.  The first is an appre­ci­a­tion of the film from direc­tor Stuart Gordon that com­pares and con­trasts the film with the short story that inspired it and makes an inter­est­ing case for it as an alle­gor­i­cal ghost story.  The sec­ond essay is by Innis who chron­i­cles the film from gen­e­sis to cult fol­low­ing.  It offers a lot of infor­ma­tion that sup­ple­ments The Story Of The Swimmer, par­tic­u­larly the intrigu­ing bio­graph­i­cal details about Eleanor and Frank Perry.

Simply put, this set is a stun­ner.  Grindhouse Releasing has proven they can step into Criterion ter­ri­tory with skill and style, deliv­er­ing a killer trans­fer and a set of sup­ple­ments that go deep into the film and the artis­tic tug-of-war that spawned it.  It’s an early con­tender for 2014’s best-of-year list and proof that Grindhouse has plenty of sur­prises up its sleeve.

To read Schlockmania’s film review of The Swimmer, click here.

Addendum 3/31/14: The ear­lier ver­sion of this review neglected to note the addi­tional bonus mate­ri­als included on the DVD-ROM por­tion of the DVD in this set.  It con­tains three sig­nif­i­cant inclu­sions, all wor­thy of study for the film’s fans.

The first is a copy of the film’s screen­play. To be spe­cific, it is the third revi­sion and dated 2/18/66.  It obvi­ously lacks the mate­r­ial from the reshoots, like the scene where Lancaster races the horse, but is oth­er­wise pretty sim­i­lar to the fin­ished film.  That said, close study will allow the reader to notice some dif­fer­ent dia­logue in cer­tain scenes and a few bits of busi­ness that were ulti­mately removed from the script.

The next inclu­sion is a seven-page essay by Gergely Hubai about Marvin Hamlisch and his musi­cal score for The Swimmer.  It tells the tale of how Hamlisch trans­formed a gig play­ing piano at a Sam Spiegel party into the oppor­tu­nity to write his first sound­track and then dis­cusses his approach to film scor­ing and how he learned about the trade on the job.  A cue-by-cue analy­sis of the score fol­lows, with the kind of com­men­tary you usu­ally get in the book­let of a good sound­track reis­sue.  Hubai also pro­vided sound­track notes on Grindhouse Releasing’s release of The Big Gundown and his work here is of a sim­i­larly high caliber.

The final inclu­sion is the juici­est: it’s a set of notes and cor­re­spon­dence writ­ten by Eleanor Perry regard­ing her expe­ri­ences on the film.  The first part is a pitch and a man­u­script for an unpub­lished arti­cle enti­tled “The Shallow End.”  It’s sub­ti­tled “How The Swimmer Drowned” so that should clue you in to the acidic tone of this pro­duc­tion chronicle.

The arti­cles is a grand “Hollywood night­mare” tale, packed with the all the bro­ken promises, bait-and-switch tac­tics and skull­dug­gery you would expect from such a story.  Despite her soul-crushing expe­ri­ences at the hands of Sam Spiegel and a few other indus­try types, Perry is able to bal­ance her with­er­ing view of their deeds with a won­der­fully dry sense of humor.  The results are a truly engross­ing read.

The last few pages of the nearly 50-page doc­u­ment are devoted to a few let­ters penned by Perry to Spiegel.  The first is a short, amus­ing chron­i­cle of pro­duc­tion super­vi­sor Roger Lewis’ mis­deeds on the set.  The sec­ond she co-wrote with hus­band Frank and it offers a six-page response to a ham-handed edit of the film pre­pared by Lewis and Joseph Manduke.  The Perrys’ defend their work ele­gantly and skewer Spiegel’s man­gling of it with a light yet inci­sive touch.  The let­ter leaves the reader with the impres­sion of how incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult it was try­ing to make “New Hollywood”-style work in the dying days of the stu­dio system.

In short, these DVD-ROM extras add a whole new layer to the already multi-layered set of extras on this set.  Fans of this film will be happy that Grindhouse went the extra mile to include them.