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The Swimmer (1968)

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this remarkable film.

“When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?”

From Wikipedia:

“On a sunny early autumn day, the camera runs along the autumnal forest of an affluent suburb in Connecticut. The running is that of Ned Merrill (Lancaster), a seemingly successful, appealing and popular middle-aged advertising executive, clad only in swimming trunks. We never learn where he has arrived from. He walks out of the woods and into the backyard of some old friends sitting by their swimming pool. He chats with them, then he has a sudden idea: he tells his friends he intends to “swim” home across the county by dropping in on friends’ swimming pools which form a consecutive chain leading back to his house. He dives into the pool, emerges at the other end and starts his journey.

At first Ned gets warm welcomes as he meets old friends. These are mostly upper middle-class, well-to-do people with homes in the upscale outer suburbs. However, there are hints that Ned has been away for up to two years, and he brushes off any questions about himself. Each stop brings him face to face with some aspect of his life. The first one is with his youth when anything was possible, while the last one exposes the current collapse of his family life and where everything seems lost.

As the day wears on and Ned sees those who have been closer to him more recently, the welcomes begin to sour. Ned’s proud boasts about his wife, daughters and home are met with strong mixed feelings, jeers, suspicion and even anger – especially from women. In one backyard Ned meets a 20-year-old girl who, years ago, had babysat his daughters. She leaves with him, at first thrilled to do so owing to an unspoken crush she had for him in her early teens. But when Ned rather clumsily tries to woo and kiss her, she flees. He carries on with his “swim,” dropping by the pools of sundry other friends as it slowly unfolds that his life has somehow gone quite wrong.

He crashes a party at one pool. While he is allowed in at first, Ned is thrown out when he has an outburst after spotting a hot dog wagon he had once bought for his daughters, but which had recently been sold in a white elephant sale. He then shows up at the backyard pool of Shirley Abbott, a stage actress with whom he’d had an affair several years earlier. She is still feeling bitter and hurt. When Ned tries to rekindle things, this poolside meeting ends very badly for both of them.

As the day ends, Ned winds up in a crowded public swimming pool where he runs across and is shamed by local shopkeepers to whom he still owes money for unpaid grocery and restaurant tabs. When some of them comment about his wife’s overall snobbish attitude and his out-of-control daughters’ recent troubles with the law, he doesn’t want to hear it and angrily flees. As the sun goes down, a shivering Ned at last staggers up a rocky hill, shoves open a rusted gate and walks through an overgrown garden with an unkempt tennis court. A thunderstorm begins as Ned knocks on the front door of a locked, dark and thoroughly empty house, whereupon he breaks down on the front stoop and weeps.”

Based on a short story by John Cheever, this deeply affecting film was shot in and around Westport, Connecticut, in the summer of 1966 when star Burt Lancaster was 52, and features Cheever in a bit part as one of Ned’s “neighbors” roughly halfway through the film. It’s an uneven film, but ultimately tells more about the truth behind the surface of East Coast suburbia that nearly any other work of its kind.

The Swimmer is also something of a patch job, since director Frank Perry departed near the end of filming, and Burt Lancaster even plowed some of his own money into the film to finish it, but despite its somewhat compromised origins, the film is deeply affecting, and more than a little unsettling. Indeed, the film’s ending is so downbeat and enigmatic that Columbia Pictures, the film’s distributor, didn’t know how to handle the film, and shelved it until May 15, 1968, when the film finally went into general release.

After Frank Perry’s departure, the film was finished by the late, and deeply talented Sydney Pollack, though the film is signed by Perry alone, and Perry’s wife, Eleanor, scripted the film from Cheever’s story. Shot in the blazing summer, the film’s visuals are dominated by the green of well manicured lawns shaded by huge trees, conveying both the affluence and indolence of its characters. 

The final scene, in which Lancaster, at the gate of his empty house, breaks down weeping, is almost unbearably poignant, as he contemplates the ruins of his home, his family, and his life. As the film’s tagline asked, “when you talk about The Swimmer will you talk about yourself?” More than just about any other film, The Swimmer captures the essential emptiness of the American Dream; the house, the family, the facade that all too easily crumbles.

It’s deeply affecting and committed filmmaking, and remained Lancaster’s personal favorite of all his films. As his character, Ned, observes rhetorically near the conclusion of The Swimmer, “nothing’s turned out – nothing’s turned out the way – I thought it would. When I was a kid, I – I used to believe in things. People seemed happier when I was a kid. People used to love each other. What happened?” Life happened, with all of its unexpected twists and turns. And some get crushed by it, like Ned Merrill.

Here’s the text of Cheever’s original, horrific ending, which the film superbly – and faithfully – translates to the screen: “The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys’ for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else? Hadn’t they agreed, as they usually did on Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home? He tried the garage doors to see what cars were in but the doors were locked and rust came off the handles onto his hands. Going toward the house, he saw that the force of the thunderstorm had knocked one of the rain gutters loose. It hung down over the front door like an umbrella rib, but it could be fixed in the morning. The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.”

This is a disturbing, enigmatic film – and essential viewing.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

They’re in black and white, which was once an economical production medium. They’re shot on 35mm film. Most were made on a strict six-day schedule. They were shot almost entirely at Universal City. The series started out as a half hour show in 1955, and then switched to an hour format in 1962, ending its run in 1965. Each episode was shot like a feature film, in “single camera” format, rather than in sitcom format, and production values — especially story lines and guest stars — to say nothing of the physical execution of each segment were exceptionally high.

As an anthology series, there were no continuing characters; it was an entirely new show every week. Hitchcock’s own input into the series was minimal, but he directed a few episodes of the series, and watching the Universal TV crew work, he was inspired by their speed and efficiency to shoot his groundbreaking film Psycho there, breaking away from the slower crews at Paramount, where he had spent the 1950s. All in all, 363 episodes were shot over a ten year period.

An enormous number of exceptionally talented actors, writers and directors contributed to the series, including actors Ed Asner, Mary Astor, Roscoe Ates, Gene Barry, Ed Begley, Charles Bronson, Edgar Buchanan, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy, Dabney Coleman, Joseph Cotten, Bob Crane, Hume Cronyn, Robert Culp, Bette Davis, Francis De Sales, Bruce Dern, Brandon De Wilde, Angie Dickinson, Diana Dors, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, John Forsythe, Anne Francis, Edmund Gwenn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Herbert, Lou Jacobi, Joyce Jameson, Carolyn Jones, Don Keefer, Brian Keith, Jack Klugman, Peter Lawford, Christopher Lee, Cloris Leachman, Peter Lorre, Dayton Lummis, E. G. Marshall, Walter Matthau, Darren McGavin, John McGiver, Lee Majors, Steve McQueen, Tyler McVey, Joyce Meadows, Vera Miles, Vic Morrow, Robert Newton, George Peppard, James Philbrook, Sydney Pollack, Judson Pratt, Vincent Price, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Henry Silva, Barbara Steele, Jan Sterling, Dean Stockwell, Jessica Tandy, Dick Van Dyke, Richard Waring, Dennis Weaver, Joanne Woodward, Fay Wray, and Keenan Wynn.

It’s an elegant, intelligent, well designed series, the like of which we will never see on television again. Black and white has vanished as a production medium, along with the artistic values that went with it. Film has also vanished, leaving everything to be shot with a slick, artificial digital sheen. The violence quotient has been upped so that gruesome rapes and murders are now commonplace on shows such as Law and Order SVU and the CSI series; it seems that plot, acting, and nuance have been left behind. Let’s raise a glass, then, to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, one of the most innovative and artistically ambitious television series ever produced — on a budget, on a schedule, on an assembly line, even — but with style, elegance, and wit, down to Hitchcock’s droll introductions and commercial break announcements, which the director performed himself.

Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American (2002)

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this film.

I was just watching Philip Noyce‘s 2002 version Graham Greene‘s novel The Quiet American again, and was struck not only by the brilliance of Michael Caine‘s performance — for which he was nominated, but did not win, an Academy Award for Best Actor, or a BAFTA, also for Best Actor, though he should have won both, I think — but also by Christopher Doyle‘s delicate cinematography — Doyle most famously worked as the mesmeric, color-drenched DP for director Wong Kar-wai — and Brendan Fraser‘s unusually nuanced performance.

It’s a film that succeeds on every level, from a deeply uneven director — and as Caine noted in interviews at the time, the first time the actor had to play a part younger than he actually was, which served as a sobering wake up call for him during the shoot. I’m also saddened to note that the film’s two executive producers, both excellent directors as well — Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella — are no longer with us, when clearly each had so much work left to do.

The Quiet American is a film about the loss of innocence, the ravages of age, the persistence of memory, and the fact that the present is continually becoming the past — we live only in this moment, and we are given no more. We have no certainty that what is in the present will extend into the future, and we have no assurance that what is in the past will help us in the present.

Michael Caine is deeply underappreciated; he gives so much in this performance, and with such economy and assurance that the screen seems to disappear, and we’re simply with him, in Vietnam in the 1950s, at the beginning of what would turn into the Vietnam war.

The Quiet American is also a film that really challenges the viewer, and in much more faithful to Graham Greene’s novel than the 1958 version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which starred Audie Murphy and Sir Michael Redgrave, but which excised the anti-war theme of Greene’s book almost entirely, as a result of the climate of fear that ruled American cinema during the era, the last days of the lingering HUAC Blacklist.

The 2002 version is in every way superior — fidelity to the source material, the performances, the cinematography and the direction — and brings back to life a vanished colonialist era in which no one could really see what was coming next, or if they could, were either powerless to stop it.

Film is so absolute ephemeral; as Val Lewton often observed, it’s like writing on water. The images remain as talismans of the cinematographic process, but the milieu in which they were created is completely evanescent, and vanishes as soon as the last shot is in the can. The film was made relatively recently — only about a decade ago — but can one imagine a film of such depth and ambition being made today, in the midst of the endless onslaught of one comic book movie after another?

I don’t think so, and it’s sad that both the BAFTAs and the Oscars missed the chance to reward Michael Caine for the performance of his career; this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment where all the creative elements of the film clicked, to create a work of resonance, depth and terrible beauty.

If you haven’t seen it, please do so at once.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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