Movie Review: Lifeguard (1976)

Classic indie re: idealism vs. ambition __ 9/10
Review by Brian Wright

Lifeguard

Rick Carlson: [at job interview] That blond Adonis image you’re talking about, that doesn’t fit anymore. There’s a lot of training involved. A lot of responsibility. A lot of discipline. I do more PR out on that beach on a summer day than you do in here in a month. But you’re right. Saving lives isn’t selling cars.

Mr. Carlson: You’re not a kid at the beach anymore.
Rick Carlson: I’m doing what I want to do.
Mr. Carlson: You know it’s crazy, I still wonder what you’re going to do when you grow up.

Directed by Daniel Petrie
Story by Ron Koslow

Sam Elliott … Rick Carlson
Anne Archer … Cathy
Stephen Young … Larry
Parker Stevenson … Chris Randall
Kathleen Quinlan … Wendy
Sharon Clark … Tina
Steve Burns … Machine Gun
Lenka Peterson … Mrs. Carlson
George Wallace … Mr. Carlson

In 1976 when Lifeguard came out, I recall the review in Time Magazine having a hard time with it:

Modestly ambitious. Lifeguard concerns the folkways and seductions of the California beach life. It means to be funny and a little sad, but Director Daniel Petrie (Buster and Billie) and Writer Ron Koslow share a point of view that slides and shifts like the tide. Their hero is a lifeguard named Rick (Sam Elliott), a 32-year-old beach veteran who gets most of what he requires out of life by patrolling along the water’s edge. When Rick thinks he may want a little more than fresh…[you have to be a Time subscriber to see the whole review]

It’s the Time reviewer that actually can’t make up his mind whether to like or pan the movie; he winds up damning with faint praise. The gist of the review is that Lifeguard presents an alternative economic-life path outside the materialistic, corporate mainstream—consistent with voluntary simplicity and personal joy—that most men fear to tread. The filmmakers similarly offer their work without fanfare or promotion to a rare audience; Time lands on the side of dismissal of such a modest effort… both the film and the ambitions of character Rick Carlson (Sam Elliott), lifeguard.

MX Fast Money Success System :: Banner 04

Time doesn’t care to seriously consider the movie’s central, seemingly small, theme. Upon reflection the theme is the key economic decision almost every man makes: do what you love vs. climb on the collective treadmill chasing the almighty $. The situation with Rick Carlson is well-drawn as a universal: he’s a lifeguard responsible for a long stretch of beautiful LA California beach… he’s had the job since shortly out of high school, done the training, experienced the highs and lows, come to love the rhythms of the ocean-planet and his role in serving his ‘customers.’

But as most young men seeming to lack ambition, he often feels he must dissemble about what he does, feign interest in a ‘real’ job. The movie starts with the beach scenes, and we note the efficiency of the director with the camera: for example, watching a young couple sitting on the beach while the man’s eyes go wandering on the sightline of a bikini walking by; his wife pokes him in the ribs and he sheepishly returns to his paperback. Little comic touches like this prepare you for the many light and humorous scenes. Early on, Rick is shown at a bar chatting up the babes:

Girl #1: So you’re a lifeguard? Rick: Yup. Girl #1: How did you do today? Rick: I was three for five. Girl #1: Three for five? Rick: Yep, the other two were too far out, had to let ’em go.

Rick: So what do you do? Girl #2: I work for a doctor. Rick: What kind of doctor? Girl #2: A gynecologist. Rick: I hear there are a lot of openings in that field. Girl #2 [totally not getting it]: Oh no, it’s very hard to find work these days. Rick: You mean things are tight?

You get the picture. Rick is a natural hunk with the tan and the smile, he definitely has plenty of young women, gets his share of ups and downs. Nothing serious, but he’s a kindhearted and considerate, a straightshooter kind of guy. Then two women enter his life, actually a girl and a woman. The girl Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan) shows up on the beach and is totally infatuated with Rick; he has a protective vibe toward her… which starts him thinking about lost youth. Then at his 15-year high school reunion he runs into Cathy (Anne Archer).

Note the reunion is a near perfect sendup, complete with slow dancing to Henry Mancini’s Moon River (1961), which I remember from my junior high days. Other signs of the times—the movie story is 1976: Rick drives a cherry dark green Corvette convertible, Wendy has an MG Midget, the bell bottom slacks, lots of skin showing in the sex scenes with harp music of the Paul Williams theme song Time and Tide… which is played practically continuously.

Cathy is serious business, she’s divorced with a young boy, travels in affluent circles as painting salesperson. It’s obvious the two are MFEO.[1] Her ‘agenda’ doesn’t seem to include Rick making a career of the beach. So again the misgivings creep in, and he decides to interview for work at a Porsche dealership. Little touches: when Rick goes to the dealership, the horns and traffic cacophony hit him, the pressure of sales, all contrasted with the deep eternal of the ocean scenery. Point and counterpoint:

Rick’s Lifeguard Supervisor: I quit once. I sold insurance. I worked for my brother. You know my brother’s got plenty of money. You know my brother is younger than me but he looks about 50. And after a while I started to look like my brother. I got real nervous, I even started smoking.

From “Time and Tide:”

And love
There is love enough for two
In every mornin’
Come let us taste it
Find the love
In a life so quickly thru
An April warning
We must not waste it

Time and tide
I’ve watched your perfect sunsets slip into the waves
Your light has gone,
Your beauty, mind and mem’ry saves
My sweet mem’ry saves

So what will Rick do? One of my all time favorites, and enough to keep a sociology and ethics class in discussion for several semesters. Much deeper, more poignant, and more personally meaningful than it seems on the surface. Sui generis.


[1] MFEO = made for each other

This post has been read 9740 times!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Lifeguard (1976)

  1. Lifeguard…he felt he had to choose a grown-up job. I was a lifeguard and nurse. My father didn’t quite understand it but then he saw me in action, he understood. Something just gets in your blood. When summer came, my heart was with the water but nursing paid more so I did both. In the end, my battle was over. Being a lifeguard, swim instructor was just fun. Yes, I still worked as a nurse but very part time. Now I’ve stopped working but spend everyday in my pool. Water, my husband and daughter are my universe and they’re major swimmers too.

  2. This is one of my favorite movies and I have watched it literally hundreds of times. When I was in the service I had a job in Southern Calfornia that I really liked, just like Rick really liked his lifeguard job. My job came to an end because, when you are in the service, they move you every few years, so I can identify with Rick. Great cast and great movie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *