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Sizzling cinema: A guide to the classic films of summer

Janet Landgard and Burt Kancaster in a scene from 'The Swimmer.'

Yes, yes, it's blockbuster season. But there's another way to while away a hot afternoon - catching up on (or discovering) cinematic gems. Our reviewers offer a primer to the films they consider summer classics in a 10-part weekly series kicking off today with The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster.

The Swimmer (1968)

The Establishing Shot: During the brief, fertile period of their careers, director Frank Perry and his screenwriter wife, Eleanor, intrepidly explored the dark side of the American dream, never more eerily than in The Swimmer. In fact, from Ordinary People through The Ice Storm to American Beauty, the movies owe a large (and largely unacknowledged) debt to this tale of suburban woe. It's late summer here, in that affluent community of old and new money where John Cheever set so many of his short stories. The Perrys blew up Cheever's taut piece to feature length, then battled with the studio (Columbia) over the principal casting and the final cut, eventually retreating from the project in despair, convinced their masterwork had been ruined. It wasn't; it isn't.

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The Close-up: Before morphing into a disturbing slice of surreal life, the story opens amid the sunny optimism of the chrome-and-barbeque crowd. There, Ned Merrill pops to the surface of his neighbour's swimming pool and stays on screen for the rest of the picture. His only attire is a pair of tight black trunks riding below a well-muscled chest that belies his middle years. Meet a riveting Burt Lancaster - how wrong the Perrys were to question his casting.

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All cocky bonhomie, Ned sets himself a mini-odyssey worthy of a modern Homer: to swim across the county, backyard pool to backyard pool, en route to his own home and allegedly waiting family. As he does, the other suburbanites, his fellow gin-swillers, react to Ned in ways that range from relative sympathy to open hostility. Gradually, through them, his shady past begins to emerge even as his troubled present starts to unravel. The guy is obviously on the knife-edge of a violent breakdown, and the suspense lies in who might get done in by the blade. With the day dwindling, the temperature dropping, the rains coming, Lancaster plays off that suspense beautifully, generating both pathos and terror. We're afraid for him, and we're afraid of him.

The Wrap: Clearly, there are Gatsby echoes here, another dream ebbing into delusion. Clear too is the allegorical intent, as our exposed pilgrim backstrokes from sun into shadow and vigour to infirmity. Yes, all this high-minded angst can seem a bit overwrought at times, as can the picture's obtrusive score and its occasional flirtations with sixties stylistic gimmickry. The result isn't quite the movie Perry intended to make. But neither is Ned nearly the man he hoped to be. Maybe that's why, whenever this summer-set treasure gets retrieved, a near-great film and a once-robust hero seem to merge with such poignant effect - it's a rare jewel box whose flaws so perfectly mirror its contents.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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