Sunday, November 01, 2015

186. US directors Frank Perry’s and Sydney Pollack’s “The Swimmer” (1968): Social satire on the typical WASP US male, an abstract morality tale, rewinding in time, presented with intelligence, rarely encountered in Hollywood cinema

Short stories have made interesting feature films. In the UK, short-story writer Alan Sillitoe adapted his short story The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner into a film screenplay to make a film classic—Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner (1962). A few years later, in USA, John Cheever’ s short story published in 1964 (in the New Yorker magazine) was made into a 1968 Hollywood  film directed by Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack called The Swimmer (1968). But unlike the British film, in the case of the Hollywood film, it was not the author Cheever who wrote the screenplay but director Frank Perry’s wife Eleanor Perry, a feminist, who did. Cheever merely played a cameo role in the film, probably to lend his tacit approval to the project. And happily for us Ms Eleanor Perry, substantively improves the Cheever story.  In fact this screenplay ought to be studied and appreciated by potential screenplay writers.

Having read the short story, one appreciates Cheever’s ability at writing thought provoking fiction and his engaging skill of keeping the reader hooked.  Then along comes Eleanor Perry who introduces more characters into the tale and develops the tale by changing the chronology of events and making the lead character Ned (Neddy in the short story) Merrill into a vain, WASP womanizer (played by Burt Lancaster). While the original short story begins with Ned’s wife Lucinda speaking a line about drinking too much the previous night, the film’s screenplay never includes her spoken words and never allows the film to show her physically on screen and only builds up Lucinda’s character by other women’s acidic comments about her.  One comment from Ned’s  friend  Shirley (Janice Rule) describes Lucinda as "an aging Vassar girl in an understated suit" (an Eleanor Perry add-on, not be found in the short story).

In the story and in the film, Ned swims an abstract river he calls the “Lucinda” river ("Pool by pool they form a river, all the way to our house," are the words of Ned/Neddy) where his wife Lucinda is waiting for him and his four daughters are playing tennis. The banks of this imaginary river of swimming pools are figuratively populated in the movie by all his neighbors, friends and acquaintances. 

Ned  (Lancaster) the ladies' man

The clever screenplay alludes to the temperature of the pools gradually changing from the warm water to the cold as the film progresses.  The cleanliness of the pools, the sophistication of the cleaning processes deteriorates pool by pool, until the last one is cleaned by mere excess of chlorine. And so does the wealth of the users, pool by pool in the screenplay, until you come to the pool used by shopkeepers and the working class.  (This final progression is absent in the short story.)   The sunny blue sky at the beginning of the film gradually becomes cloudy until the film ends in a heavy, cold downpour (all within a span of a day, film begins in the morning, ends in the evening). (In the Cheever short story, Ned encounters the storm midway on his strange odyssey.) The two writers agree on one fact though—while nature can be kind and lovely, it can be equally chilly and dirty. People, as well.

Now, dear reader, one would assume that most studios and producers would have been excited by the cinematic product.  The reality was just the opposite. Actor Burt Lancaster, who loved the role, was the only one who believed in the film but chose to butt heads with director Fred Perry, the husband of the film's praiseworthy screenplay writer Eleanor Perry. The rancor reached a level where director Perry who had almost completed the film was fired by its producer Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, On the Waterfront, etc) at Lancaster’s cajoling and replaced him with  newcomer Sydney Pollack, who reshot two key segments of the film, one with Janice Rule replacing the original actress. Sam Spiegel did not realize what a wonderful film was being made and voluntarily took his own name off the credits sensing it was a disaster! The studio, Columbia, responsible for the film, stopped financing the film towards the end. It appears that Lancaster put his own money in to complete the film, which doesn’t mention Sydney Pollack as a director in the film credits.  (The two segments unofficially attributed to Pollack as the director are the pool sequence with Janice Rule and the sequence with Ned running a race with a stallion.) While actor Lancaster probably is the one  who made the completion of this lovely film possible, a close evaluation of the Frank Perry directed sequences proves beyond doubt that those segments are equally commendable.

Today, as the film is gaining in appreciation worldwide, the Hollywood studio and Spiegel have been proved wrong in their initial assessment of the film's worth.

Ned (Lancaster) realizes that his lovely hot dog wagon has
been sold by his wife Lucinda, and he is thrown out by the owner
of the pool and wagon for being  a gate crasher

The film begins with an unforgettable credit sequence. Birds and animals scurry away frightened in the woods. We do not know why they are frightened. We hear sounds of an animal or human being. At the end of the credits, we realize the sound was created by a barefoot man wearing nothing save his swimming trunks.  By the end of the movie, the credit sequence takes a new dimension of our perception—did the animals and birds recognize the psychological state of the man? After the first swim in the first pool, Ned is served his gin and lime without being asked by a lady friend as he tries to climb out of the pool. The camera zooms in on Ned’s face partly obscured by the glass holding the drink. That shot gains importance for the viewer in retrospect. Similarly, the public swimming pool sequence where the financial condition of Ned is brought to light, Ned escapes the public frantically climbing the rock face like a lizard. The man who scared animals and birds at the beginning of the film seemed to resemble a reptile at the end. (Again, this sequence with all the colorful conversations at the public pool, was not part of Cheever’s story—it is a contribution of Eleanor Perry and possibly, Frank Perry.)

Shirley (Janice Rule) deflates the ego of vain Ned (Lancaster),
in a segment directed by Sydney Pollack

Screenwriter Eleanor Perry is the real heavyweight in the wonderful film. She contributed to the inclusion of Ned’s debtors in the public swimming pool sequence, never included in Cheever's story. She invented the humiliating forced cleaning of Ned’s feet before entering the swimming pool. She added on the hotdog cart element in an earlier swimming pool sequence, which was also not in the Cheever story. She adds on other vignettes to build the authenticity of Ned’s character. Ned is a whiz at rectifying engines that are out of sync, as he rectifies a golf cart’s engine without being asked, because his ears could pick up the fault. Eleanor Perry ensures the viewer realizes that Ned’s character (a WASP or a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) has a good knowledge of the Bible enough to quote from The Song of Solomon correctly. She builds up the character of Ned as a betraying husband, a bad father, an unreliable friend, and an uncouth neighbor. He is apparently a successful technocrat who has made a lot of money and is never ready to listen to advice from well-meaning males, but is able seduce a lot of women, who in turn idolize him due to their immaturity or for their devious personal desires. Ms Perry, a feminist, is plucking the feathers off a male peacock, as a once successful old man looks back at this past, his youth, his physical ability to nearly out-run a horse, with a large dose of vanity mixed in his cocktail drinks.

Ned comes across a swimming pool without water--and for once
speaks with concern for others, this time to a lonely rich boy

Eleanor Perry cleverly juggled the public swimming pool sequence to be the last pool in the “Lucinda” river of pools, while Cheever had inserted the public pool  in the middle. By doing so, she ensured, Ned’s worst unmasking was at the end of the film among the string of pools. She also ensured the gradual descent of the rich to the poor, pool by pool, among Ned’s neighbors, friends and acquaintances. After the rich pools, Ned comes, across an empty pool, where he meets a young boy. That is a single sequence in the film that allows the viewer to admire Ned’s concern for the lonely child. This again is an added contribution of the screenplay writer to Cheever’s tale—which merely makes a passing mention of an empty pool. Ms Perry balances the script well—it begins with swimming pools full of inviting clean water, moves on to a pool without water, followed by pools with poor quality water for which you have to pay, and finally cold rain lashing at a dirty house without a pool. In the Cheever story, a character Enid Bunker (included in the screenplay) speaks of just having spoken to Lucinda over the phone. In the film, (and Ms Perry’s script) Enid Bunker does not mention Lucinda at all. Others refer to Lucinda in the past tense in the film. The subtle change Ms Perry has made to Cheever’s story only strengthens it. Cheever's tale was a social satire. and Ms Perry, as a feminist, makes him the quixotic male chauvinist who lives in a world of vanity and, ultimately, make believe. Cheever's Lucinda was partly real, Ms Perry's Lucinda seems to be more unreal and more a female character inhabiting a disintegrating male mind. 

Ned reaches his home after swimming across all the pools in his neighborhood,
after slowly realizing the mistakes of his past vain and inconsiderate life

The couple Frank and Eleanor Perry had made Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) which was at best an above average work.  But Frank Perry had the courage to make Monsignor (1982) from Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay subsequent to Polonsky’s blacklisting by the McCarthy hearings in 1951.

Thanks to the Perrys, Sydney Pollack, and Burt Lancaster, we have a gem of a Hollywood film in The Swimmer.

P.S.  The Swimmer narrowly missed being included on the author’s top 100 films, which currently includes another Sydney Pollack and Burt Lancaster film Castle Keep made a year after this film. The Swimmer is the second film in which a rich actor influenced the making of an important film in the way we see it today. Actor Kirk Douglas influenced the acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick to change the ending of Paths of Glory (1957), reviewed earlier on this blog.