On this day, 7 May, in 1979, The Swap was released. It’s a fascinating exploitation film for reasons we will get to later.
I first discovered this film in 1990 in a video store. It said that it starred Robert De Niro. Well, it didn’t. It looked like De Niro had starred in some home movies when he was in college, the producers of The Swap got the rights to it and built it around this footage.
I was mostly correct. And I admire that. But the footage was actually from a regular released feature film from 1969.
That film was Sam’s Song. It’s an art film. It tries to be very French New Wave. And it does come off a lot like Truffaut’s Jules and Jim.
It tells the story of Sam, a young documentary film editor. He goes with his rich friends to their Long Island second home. There he becomes accustomed to the ways of the rich and gets dumped by a pretty girl.
The problem is that Sam just isn’t that interesting. The script clearly thinks that Erica (Jennifer Warren) is the central character. Instead, the film flirts with its four principal characters who mostly don’t act in ways I recognize from real life.
This is generally my problem with the French New Wave. Even films I really enjoy — like Alphaville and Weekend — still suffer from too much intellectual nonsense. Taken straight, as in Sam’s Song, well, let’s just say I’m not the target audience.
What’s been really funny to me has been reading reviews. Over and over people claim that the only decent actor in this film is De Niro. From my perspective, he’s the weakest of the principals (maybe the second weakest). It’s funny to watch people spout conventional wisdom as though it were their actual opinion.
As I’ve said many times: Robert De Niro is the most overrated actor I know of. He’s really good but people talk about him as though he’s some kind of phenomenon. I even heard John Frankenheimer talk about him like that. Give me a break! He’s a professional actor who has had the good luck to work in some of the best film productions of his day.
The Swap is about Vito who gets out of prison to figure out why his brother was murdered and to get vengeance for it. All the footage from Sam’s Song is used as flashbacks as people tell the story of what happened.
It makes for a delightfully strange film. The old footage is carefully shot and relatively complex in its editing. The new stuff is all shot with a minimum of set-ups — usually making its professional cast seem much worse than they are.
The style of the dialog is totally different as well. The new material goes with very cheeky Raymond Chandler style. Of course, most people hate this film. And that’s fair enough: it’s not a Robert De Niro film. And frankly, this would be a better film if it didn’t even use the material from Sam’s Song.
But with it, it’s a bizarre gem.