Daniel Petrie's Lifeguard might also be called "Magic Rick" after the character that Sam Elliott plays in the film, which almost certainly helped inform Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike. Elliott fits the role of the titular lifeguard like a glove, or, rather, a bikini and he, accordingly, gives a top-notch performance. He looks good, he's got good screen presence, and he convincingly radiates that zen attitude that I imagine all successful beach lifers (bums) must have to survive. As something of an Elliott neophyte, I was pleasantly surprised at how taken I was with him as Rick Carlson, a former surfing champ who remains a lifeguard at the local beach into his 30s. Rick is still in top shape, is good at his job, and has no problem attracting beautiful women to his bachelor pad or lifeguard station after hours. However, a combination of events and chance meetings, including a pivotal visit to his 15-year high school reunion where he reconnects with his former flame Anne Archer, leads Rick to seriously re-evaluate his life decisions and current standing.
Now that I'm in my mid-30s and older than than the "lifeguard" by a few years, I view stories like this, from past generations, with greater interest and, obviously, with a different perspective than I would as a younger person. Without spoiling things too much, I think it's safe to say that Lifeguard offers a satisfying affirmation for those of us who have not chosen "traditional" paths into adulthood. Rick's father, who can be seen in the trailer admonishing his son for pretending he's still "a kid at the beach," would be at a complete loss if confronted with a good majority of today's twenty and thirtysomethings who are often further from "settling down" than their counterparts in their parents' generation, such as Rick.
Despite light touches such as composer Dale Menten's Beach Boys-like main theme (a re-working of Paul Williams' "Time and Tide") and its PG rating, Lifeguard has a melancholy vibe that runs throughout the film, which proves to be a moving, well-crafted character portrait that fits in with many of its better known '70s brethren. The misleading one-sheet does nothing to dispel the impression that the film is an innocuous, bantamweight piece of fluff.
Like so many '70s PG films, Lifeguard, as constituted, would almost surely be an R in today's marketplace. There is full nudity from Sharon Clark (a former Playmate of the Year) who plays Rick's stewardess fling, casual references to and examples of sexual harassment--from both horny teenage boys and dirty old men, and a sexual relationship between a minor and an adult factors heavily into the plot. That said, nothing seems exploitative about any of these things and I would guess that in the mid-'70s none of this raised many eyebrows.
My first thought when I think of Elliott is as the "Marlboro Man" personified so it's nice to see him play a stud of a different variety. But, Elliott is more than an overaged Adonis here, bringing a good deal of weariness and self-deprecation to the table. Kathleen Quinlan is truly beguiling and quite sympathetic as a lonely high school girl who falls for Rick. Her scenes with Elliott are, I think, the best in the film. I also like Parker Stevenson as Rick's college-aged lifeguard partner, their dynamic similar to that of the veteran cop and his rookie partner.
To my eyes, the film's main weak point is the relationship between Rick and his former sweetheart Cathy (Anne Archer), who is as beautiful as one would expect "living legend" Rick's high school girlfriend to be. But, she's shallow and cold in a way that makes one hope Rick won't end up with her, even if she represents a pathway to a more "adult" existence for Rick. I can't tell if this is how the character is written or if that's just what Archer brings to the role...I must admit that my anti-Scientologist sensibilities make me think, half-seriously, that Archer's falseness and coldness are connected to her membership in that cult.
Canadian-born Petrie directed a lot of television, both series and telefilms, including the acclaimed Sybil, also from 1976. Of the handful of feature film directing jobs on his resume, in addition to Lifeguard, I'm an admirer of Resurrection, the last five minutes of which I find devastating, Fort Apache the Bronx, which I've previously written about here, and Buster and Billie, which stars one of my favorite '70s leading men, Jan-Michael Vincent.
The d.p. was Ralph Woolsey, who came up in television in the '50s and '60s and graduated to feature films in the '70s, in time to shoot a number of oddball features--I mean that in the best way--such as 99 and 44/100% Dead!, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, Deadhead Miles, The Mack, Mother, Jugs, and Speed, and The Great Santini.
Among screenwriter Ron Koslow's later credits are Michael Apted's Firstborn, a film which I've always had a soft spot for and John Landis' Into the Night. When I saw the latter screened a few years back, with Landis in attendance, the director told the audience that he re-wrote Koslow's script almost entirely and that, in order to placate the perturbed writer, he was a given a producer credit.
The Warner Archive, though its distribution of Paramount product, has rescued Lifeguard from the pricey, out-of-print dustbin. The copy I received was a pressed DVD that would appear to be a port of the original Paramount DVD issued in the early oughts, and includes a subtitle track, which is unusual for WA discs. The attractive cover art has an image--that does not appear in the film--of Elliott and Quinlan leaning on each other with contemplative expressions on their faces, an image similar to the one used for the VHS artwork.