On a warm and beautiful autumn afternoon Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges from the peaceful woods of an upper class Connecticut suburb wearing nothing but a pair of dark swim trunks and dives into the swimming pool of old friends. We have no idea where he came from, but Ned knows where he is going and how he intends to get there. In conversation with his friends over martinis (there are a lot of drinks served in this film) he learns that one of his neighbors just installed an in-ground pool in their backyard. This means that there is now a path of homes with pools leading all the way to Ned’s palatial house on top of a hill. He gets the idea to swim back to his house via this unofficially connected river of chemically-treated water. Everyone thinks Ned is a little off for even considering this bizarre notion, but this ordinary man sees it as a great adventure.
That’s where the 1968 cult classic drama The Swimmer begins, and it would usually be enough for any lesser film to use as a plot. But as Ned goes from house to house, pool to pool, in a last ditch attempt to seize the day as his fair weather friends drink and tan themselves into a mass coma the story mutates into something uncomfortable and tragic. From the rapturous optimism of the journey’s idealistic beginning to a pitch-black comedic indictment of malcontented bourgeois ennui, Ned’s grand quest through the sun-dappled forests and manicured estates of his dreamlike purgatory becomes a haunting portrayal of a once-beloved, successful man about town who had it all and gambled everything away simply because he could.
With the exception of an awkward encounter with the mother of a friend he seemingly forgot about even as the man was slowly dying in a hospital, Ned is mostly greeted with warm welcomes by the owners of the pools he swims in on his way home. Handshakes are exchanged, hugs and kisses shared, and promises of future lunches and golf games are made. The people treat Ned with respect but often regard him as a distant stranger, as if he had been gone for a long time. As he emerges from each pool the murkier aspects of his apparently happy life become clear and all is not well in Merrill’s paradise of a waiting, dutiful wife and two lovely daughters whose ages he tends to confuse but are definitely at home playing tennis.
At one pool he meets the comely young woman who used to work as the Merrills’ babysitter (Janet Landgard). Her name is Julie and she willingly joins Ned for the first leg of his journey. In one scene they romp through the horse riding ring of one neighbor and leap hurdles with the immense joy of lovers looking forward to a bright future. Julie admits to having once harbored a crush on Ned as a pre-teen, even confessing to the theft of one of his shirts, but now that she’s a woman and in love with another man she met through a computer dating service the shirt is just that. At that moment you can see the life slowly starting to drain from Ned’s eyes, and the attempt he then makes to woo Julie into a romance straight out of an old Hollywood film are treated as the creepy advances of a tired old man. Julie runs away and we never see her again. Her departure signals The Swimmer‘s descent into the waking nightmare of a man out of time and out of luck. Every pool Ned visits from here on in will rudely awaken mistaken passions, simmering content, and some harsh truths.
With films such as David and Lisa and Ladybug Ladybug to their credit, director Frank Perry and his screenwriter wife Eleanor Perry set about to adapt John Cheever‘s 16-page short story first published in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker. Initially envisioning a film made of “The Swimmer” to be a low-budget affair with unknown or little-known actors in the cast, the Perrys saw their fortunes improve both for better and worse when they brought the project to powerhouse Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel, a legend in the industry for mounting such classic productions as The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. Their screenplay found its way into the hands of Lancaster, at the time one of the most in-demand stars in cinema and someone who could balance conventional Hollywood films with a eclectic selection of bolder works that usually attained great critical and commercial success. His salary for The Swimmer would be $750,000 – one and a half times larger than the film’s original budget.
Lancaster had been an accomplished athlete and trapeze artist in his youth but he had no idea how to swim, so he took lessons from a swimming coach at UCLA to get in shape for the role of Merrill. He brought his A-game to the part and many consider his performance in The Swimmer to be the finest of his career. After watching the film for myself recently courtesy of its long-awaited Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release from Grindhouse Releasing it would be difficult for me to protest. Lancaster also brought with him to the set a heavy dose of star power and he didn’t get along well with the 36-year-old Frank Perry. During production an edict had been issued that not a single word of Eleanor’s screenplay was to be altered, a privilege rarely afforded to a screenwriter especially during the waning days of the old Hollywood studio system.
In an interview conducted some time after the film’s theatrical release director Perry admitted that the version of The Swimmer that played to enthusiastic reviews and non-existent box office represented only 50 percent of his intended cut. After filming first wrapped an early cut prepared by Perry was greeted with consternation by executives at Columbia Pictures and Lancaster brought on his dear friend Sydney Pollack (director of The Way We Were, Tootsie, and Out of Africa) to reshoot certain scenes that were lacking in dramatic impact. While my sympathies tend to rest with the filmmaker and their vision, The Swimmer bears no marks of a damaged film. It may have been pure hell for the cast and crew to make, but their labors brought to life a motion picture experience like no other. In fact that’s exactly how Columbia tried to sell it to the masses in 1968: “When you talk about ‘The Swimmer’, will you talk about yourself?” Or so the tagline the marketing campaign centered around went. In this case, too many cooks in the kitchen didn’t spoil the meal.
Like getting caught in the current of a raging river, it’s easy to be swept away by the film’s carefully-woven spell. The viewer becomes Ned’s fellow traveler on the adventure across his unforgiving Connecticut county, sharing in the thrill of living life to its fullest for a fleeting day and ultimately being forced to endure the uncertainty and heartbreak as he nears his final destination. I wish not to spoil the emotionally devastating pleasures of the unfolding plot, but once you arrive at the ending you might be compelled to watch The Swimmer again immediately just to see if it had been hinted during the course of the film. Looking back on particular scenes now that I know how it ends allowed the dialogue and performances to gain unforseen levels of complexity.
The performances are all magnificent: Lancaster cleverly subverted his image as a virile, handsome leading man of the silver screen with memorable results. Among the lovely ladies he encounters on his journey the stand-outs are Landgard as his sweet natured, temporary companion and Janice Rule as a bored socialite who still carries the emotional scars of her brief affair with Ned which he tries futilely to rekindle in one of the film’s best scenes. Comedian Joan Rivers has a cameo as a woman Ned meets at a pool party who appears perplexed by his pointless ambition, and Rivers has been extraordinarily forthright with her disappointment at how she was treated on the production and how her character changed against her wishes from sympathetic to shrill prior to filming the scene. The pivotal sequence towards the end finds Ned trying to barter his way into a crowded community pool that stands between him and a homestead that may only exist as happy and loving in his memories is masterfully staged with bouts of bleak humor and soul-shattering revelations. The film is backed up by an adventurous score from Marvin Hamlisch with its moments of soaring exuberance and quiet melancholy.
More than 45 years since it was first released to audience indifference, The Swimmer has not lost its ability to amaze and sadden. My initial viewing will be one of the greatest film experiences of 2014 as far as I’m concerned. It is a haunting and underrated masterpiece that demands your attention and yields bountiful rewards.
You can order Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray of The Swimmer HERE. This disc features a gorgeous 4K high-definition transfer of the film and several outstanding extra features including a feature-length retrospective documentary, a reading of the original story by author Cheever, extensive still galleries, trailers, TV spots, and other surprises. This is one of the best home video releases of the year.
– Robert Morgan