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The Swimmer from 1968 is a criminally under-seen film that Hollywood left behind.
Set in the final glory days of an affluent midcentury America most people never experienced, Frank Perry's scathing portrayal of upper-middle-class rot has aged to perfection and should be regarded as one of the finest films of the 1960's.
Yet its failure to achieve the notoriety of contemporary works like The Graduate- a spiritually similar, but wholly inferior movie from a year earlier-meant generations have been robbed of seeing John Cheever's sinister short story brought to life.
Masterfully using allegory in a way no other film has, Ned Merrill's (played with subtle creepiness by Burt Lancaster) quest to traverse his posh Connecticut neighborhood via its well-manicured pools not only takes the audience on a guided tour through an obviously troubled man's world, but reveals exactly how this tanned, smiling phony embraced people at his own convenient, superficial level, then casually abandoned them with little or no regard for what was left behind.
The script is fascinating because key elements of Merrill's life are left a mystery, and viewers are forced to interpret for themselves the meaning of each highly symbolic action and conversation. Noteworthy not only for being Joan Rivers' first credited acting role, but also master composer Marvin Hamlisch's first film score.
And The Swimmer's current critical classification of having a "cult following" is an obvious misread of the manner in which screenwriter Eleanor Perry and cinematographer David Quaid translated Cheever's work into the mainstream.
Because there is nothing obscure or transgressive about how this cautionary tale details our universal capacity for denial, and the withering toll it takes on those around us. And while it lacks the lightheartedly quotable "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me, aren't you?", or "Plastics" moments of The Graduate, The Swimmer digs miles deeper into the human psyche, eventually striking gold if you're willing to see through the darkness.
What a delightful little nugget of weirdness! Susan Tyrrell is hysterically deranged, and Bo Svenson plays perhaps the most homophobic detective in silver screen history.
Please judge this one on its own merits, and not against the titanic standards set by director Tobe Hooper in his original All-American freak show from 12 years earlier.
The list of filmmakers to follow up their own iconic creations with equally appreciated sequels is very short- Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather Part II. That's it. So, audiences hungry for even a reasonable facsimile of the first TCM should probably give Hooper a break.
America changed quite a bit from 1974 to 1986, and so probably did Tobe Hooper. Recreating artistic magic can be a tricky business- see Harper Lee or Michael Cimino. Whatever TCM 2 lacks in relation to the original (and it's a lot), it still has SOMETHING that makes it feel different from most contemporary horror flicks, despite the less-than-satisfying efforts to reinterpret key scenes from the first movie.
Was it blasphemous for Tobe Hooper to even attempt a sequel? Maybe, but at least it wasn't boring.
Great cast, good story, and a distinctively suspenseful atmosphere throughout.