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.