Last Summer (1969) ****

Given the severity of the crime involved, you leave Frank Perry’s coming-of-age-drama wondering what happened to the four principals. Did the aggressive three young demi-gods of a golden age go on to pursue similar acts of cruelty? While one of them might show remorse, or at least suffer from guilt, of the other two I have my doubts. They would find ways to blame the injured party. And what about the victim? Would she have the courage to report the crime, or suffer in shame for decades.

It’s odd how time changes entirely the shape of a movie. In its day this was seen as a bold exposition of frank adventure by teenagers seeking their first experiences of growing up and experimenting with sex and drugs (pilfered from a parental stash). Although there is little focus on dysfunctionality, both Sandy (Barbara Hershey) and Rhoda (Cathy Burns) are missing a parent, the former’s father running off with another woman, the latter’s mother drowned by stupid misadventure. Both have been abused, unable to prevent the wandering hands of males. All are vulnerable, if only by youth.

Of the boys, Dan (Bruce Davison) is the more confident, Peter (Richard Thomas), while easily swayed, the gentler of the two. Dan merely seeks his first taste of sex, Peter the more likely to need love as well. Sandy is sexually precocious, somewhat on the exhibitionist side, peeling off her bikini top with apparently at times no idea of the effect it will have on the boys, at other times clearly uncomfortable with the notion that the guys might have nothing else on their minds but staring at her breasts. But she is the one who wants to continue watching a gay couple cavorting on the beach while Dan is embarrassed. Sometimes the frank sexuality is rite-of-passage stuff, other times it is distinctly creepy. In the cinema both men grope her breasts. She claims to have been excited by the experience, but you can’t help thinking at least one of the men should have shown restraint, not treating her as if she was some kind of sex toy.

The movie begins on a clearer note. The guys come across Sandy nursing a wounded gull and perhaps entranced by her good looks help her remove a hook from the bird’s throat, provide convalescence and eventually help the bird recover the confidence to fly again. It’s a cosy trio, but edgy, too, Sandy allowing them considerable latitude. But, of course, the guys do the same to her. When she bludgeons the bird to death because it bit her (“the ungrateful bastard”), the pair, initially shocked, are not shocked enough to reject her, afflicted by unassailable male logic, the kind that drove film noir, that maintained a beautiful woman could not have a black heart. 

Separated from the other two, Peter displays a gentler side, teaching the shy Rhoda to swim, kissing her in far more considerate fashion than the boys treat Sandy. But, effectively, she is a pet, and it’s only a matter of time before the unsavory aspect of Sandy’s character breaks out. After setting Rhoda up on a date, the trio do everything they can to spoil it, angry at the poor girl for not getting the “joke.”

Worse is to follow. Date-rape we’d call it today. Retreating to the cool forest, Sandy taunts Rhoda by removing her bikini top. When the horrified Rhoda refuses to do the same, Sandy attacks her, holding her down along with Peter while Dan rapes her. That’s where the film ends, no consequences, no repercussion. Back in the day it was a shock ending, an act of violence to mar an otherwise relatively innocent summer. After the deed is done, the camera pulls back into an aerial shot to observe the  guilty trio walking back to the beach, but without drawing conclusion or offering moral judgement. It’s hard to know what to make of the ending. These days, of course, we’d be appalled. But back then it didn’t appear to appall, certainly not drawing the outrage that accompanied similar scenes in The Straw Dogs (1971) or A Clockwork Orange (1971) perhaps because the perpetrators were so attractive and it was, after all, a coming-of-age picture, as if such things could be expected.

Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, judged that the conclusion “is not really important to the greatness of the movie.” Andrew Sarris of Village Voice noted that “Perry retreats from the carnal carnage” to end with a shot that “prefers symbolic evocation to psychological exploration.” In other words adolescence is fraught with risk and Rhoda is just collateral damage.

Certainly the acting is uniformly excellent for such inexperienced actors, coping with many changes in dramatic focus, from early exhilaration through growing pains to violence.  Barbara Hershey (Heaven with a Gun, 1969) would go on to become a major star. Amazing to realise that Bruce Davison (Willard, 1971) and Cathy Burns, Oscar-nominated for her role, were making their movie debuts and for Hershey and Richard Thomas (Winning, 1969) their sophomore outings.

Director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, 1968) had a special affinity with the young as he had proved with David and Lisa (1962) and at times the whole affair had an improvised free-wheeling style. Eleanor Perry (David and Lisa) wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Evan Hunter (The Birds, 1963).

This is very hard to find, it turns out, so Ebay might be your best bet.

My thanks to one of my readers, Mike, for digging up this story of the disappearance of Catherine Burns from the movie business.

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/catherine-burns-inside-50-year-disappearance-an-oscar-nominee-1275646/

The Swimmer (1968) *****

Ever since Broadway had produced an elegy to a man broken on the rack of the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hollywood had been searching for an equivalent, but had only managed to come up with tales of men self-destructing through drugs (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955) and alcohol (Days of Wine and Roses, 1962). The Swimmer, with its physical and mental dereliction, filled that void. It was the bravest choice of Burt Lancaster’s career – William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott turned it down –  the athletic prowess that had carried him through a host of films from The Flame and the Arrow (1950) to The Professionals (1966) now virtually redundant.

The final scene when, in the pouring rain, clad only in swimming trunks, he crouches, broken, on the steps of his abandoned house, as if seeking sanctuary in a church, was a stunning image. But it was more than that. Few actors of his generation would have been willing to stoop so low. Yes, the likes of Marlon Brando were often beaten to the point of humiliation (The Chase, 1966), but that was in the course of duty, not in pursuit of the American Dream. That Lancaster, a touchstone to Hollywood virility, the man-god with the dazzling style, was the one to come apart made the drama even more powerful.

The under-rated Frank Perry had struggled to find a footing in Hollywood even after the (minor) success of David and Lisa (1962), but he was one of the few directors willing to tackle the uncommercial subject matter. It was such a troubled production that producer Sam Spiegel, never one to shy away from publicity, did not put his name on it and Sydney Pollack who had directed Lancaster in The Scalphunters (1966) was called in to re-edit the rough cut. Eleanor Perry, the director’s wife, fashioned the script from one of the most acclaimed short stories of all time, by John Cheever.

The story is a simple one. Lancaster plans to swim across the county via the swimming pools of his upmarket neighbors to reach home. At the start he is vigorous, powerful, with a terrific dive and swimming stroke. He names the journey “the Lucinda river” after his wife. But he is like Ebenezer Scrooge, meeting ghosts from his past, facing up to the present, and left with only a desolate future. With each successive visit to a swimming pool, another part of his life unfolds. From the outset we can tell something is wrong – couples exchange odd looks and occasionally he is met with sympathy or hostility, neither of which he comprehends, and persists with a rose-tinted version of his life. And gradually, his physique deserts him and he limps, can’t pull himself effortlessly out of a swimming pool and instead of being warmed by the sun begins to shiver.

Stylistically, the movie begins with the idyllic, a camera tracking through the countryside from Lancaster’s point-of-view, his footsteps on the soundtrack, deer, a rabbit and an owl popping into view. As a counterpoint to long tracking shots of Lancaster trotting down a sunlit avenue of trees, Perry employs the zoom camera (an innovative technique at the time) to go so deeply into his eyes it must pierce his camouflaged soul. Harsher music and slower movement by Lancaster prefigure the onset of dangerous reality. And it is not the end of summer as Lancaster imagines (making reference to flowers or trees) but the beginning of autumn as the drifting leaves show.

By focusing so much on the actor’s physicality – he is never out of swimming trunks – we see at once his strength and his eventual weakness. There is one glorious sequence where he races a horse. In another, he leaps a five-barred fence. This is as the character perceives himself, a triumphant physical specimen.

But what we see, as he is pitifully stripped of dignity, is something else. Scenes that start brightly end ominously. For part of his adventure he is accompanied by former babysitter Julie (Janet Landgard). Initially, this is a picture of lost innocence, a three-minute sequence of Lancaster and Landgard mostly in longshot walking in dappled sunshine through the trees, as if they belong in a fairytale, with their voices detached from the images. But when she professes an adolescent crush (stealing one of his shirts, for example) and he begins to act in overprotective paternal fashion she takes it the wrong way and although nothing untoward occurs it clearly creeps the girl out and makes us realise that Lancaster is living in the past.

The present he could – and should have – enjoyed is tantalizingly all around. Every pool he visits belongs to the rich. There is alcohol aplenty. The houses are fabulous. As well as swimming pools, people own horses. Middle-aged neighbors sit out, ignoring the attractions of the pool, enjoying what their wealth has brought.

It is not a descent into madness for he must already have been unhinged to embark on his excursion but a nightmare that never ends. There is no safety harness for the American Dream. Once you fall, there is nothing to stop the plummet. Nothing left but, to mix the metaphors, swimming on empty.

The Swimmer is on Amazon Prime. Incidentally, there is an excellent documentary, directed by Chris Innis, The Story of the Swimmer (2014)  which you can find on YouTube.

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