Directed by: Frank Perry.
Written by: Eleanor Perry based on the short story by John Cheever.
Starring: Burt Lancaster (Ned Merrill), Janet Landgard (Julie Ann Hooper), Janice Rule (Shirley Abbott), Tony Bickley (Donald Westerhazy), Marge Champion (Peggy Forsburgh), Nancy Cushman (Mrs. Halloran), Bill Fiore (Howie Hunsacker), David Garfield (Ticket Seller), Kim Hunter (Betty Graham), Rose Gregorio (Sylvia Finney), Charles Drake (Howard Graham), Bernie Hamilton (Halloran's Chauffeur), House Jameson (Mr. Chester Halloran), Jimmy Joyce (Jack Finney), Michael Kearney (Kevin Gilmartin Jr.), Richard McMurray (Stu Forsburgh), Jan Miner (Lillian Hunsacker), Diana Muldaur (Cynthia), Keri Oleson (Vernon Hooper), Joan Rivers (Joan), Cornelia Otis Skinner (Mrs. Hammar), Dolph Sweet (Henry Biswanger), Louise Troy (Grace Biswanger), Diana Van der Vlis (Helen Westerhazy).
There was probably only one time in movie history where a major Hollywood studio would make a film like The Swimmer – and that’s the late 1960s and early 1970s. The studio model was dying, and younger directors no one had heard of were reinventing American movies (basically by copying the innovations of European directors) and delivering box office hits. The studios wanted to replicate this – but didn’t really know how to. The result is movies like Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1967), Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) and Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (also 1968). The film divided critics, and was ignored by audiences – probably because it was a little too strange for the older audiences who wanted to see a Burt Lancaster movie, and a little too square for the younger crowd, who refused to see a Burt Lancaster movie. Like those other two films though, it is utterly fascinating to watch now – a “perfectly imperfect” movie according to The Dissolve and a “horror movie that doesn’t know it’s a horror movie” according to Glenn Kenny – two excellent descriptions of the film.
The film is based on a short story by John Cheever – and (necessarily) expands it a little bit – but is basically faithful to the spirit of the story. Lancaster plays Ned Merrill – and when we first meet him, he’s in his swimsuit at his friend’s poolside. Everyone loves Ned – he is charming and good looking and he shares some laughs with his friends – all of whom “drunk too much last night” – and are preparing to drink too much tonight as well. He hears about another of his friends has also just put in a pool – and for a moment he zones out – staring across the affluent Connecticut suburb he lives in. He does some calculations in his head and determines that he can “swim his way home” – by hopping from one friends pool to another. It’s a crazy idea – but old Ned just may be able to pull it off. When he gets ready to leave though, his friends try and stop him. But Ned cannot be stopped.
So Ned hops from one pool to the next, and along the way, his journey becomes darker. Not everyone, it seems, loves Ned. They keep referring to things – his job, his wife, his daughters – with a look of pity in their eyes. They refer to incidents that Ned seems to have no recollection of – he doesn’t seem to remember anything for the past few years. He meets the girl, now a young woman, who used to babysit for his daughters – Julie Ann Hooper (Janet Landgard) – now a young woman, but still the perfect girl next door. He wants her to babysit for them this weekend – and she’s confused. Surely, his daughters don’t need a babysitter anymore? Still, she joins Ned for a while on his journey – confessing her old school girl crush she used to have on him. He takes things too far with her and she runs off – leaving him alone and confused once again.
The longest single set piece in the movie has Ned visit his ex-mistress, Shirley Abbott (Janice Rule). Sydney Pollack directed this sequence after the film was taken away from original director Frank Perry – and depending on who you believe, it’s could have been because Barbara Loden – the actress originally cast – out acted Lancaster the first time it was shot. That’s hard to believe, as Lancaster is brilliant in this sequence – and Rule herself is no slouch in it. By this point, Ned can no longer deny that something is definitely wrong with him. He’s getting tired – he has to use the ladder to climb out of the pool for the first time. The day, that started so brilliantly warm, has turned cold. He tries to reminisce with Shirley – but she seems to hate him. Everything he says happened “last year” – she says happened years ago. His vision of a passionate love affair between the two of them is shattered. He moves on to the public pool – where he suffers more humiliations, before finally making it home.
The Swimmer is a dark movie – and one that gets increasingly surreal as it moves along. It’s certainly an allegorical looking at multiple different issues – suburbia, the collapse of the American dream, aging, death and masculinity. Lancaster frequently said that this was both his best and favorite performance of his career – and while I’m not quite sure it’s his best (that would perhaps Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Gantry, The Leopard or Atlantic City) – but it ranks among them. Stuck in those tight fitting swim trunks for the entirety of the movie, he starts off virile, charming, funny – a classic Lancaster creation. As the movie goes along, he gets cold, dismissive, increasingly delusional and sad – and ends up a pathetic shell of his former self. It’s a rather daring performance by Lancaster – not least because he was in his 50s at the time, and spends the whole movie nearly naked. But he makes Ned Merrill into both an arrogant asshole, and a sympathetic character – one responsible for his own downfall to be sure, but still when the film ends, as it must, I could help but feel sorry for the man.
The tone of the movie is odd – in ways both intentional, and I fear sometimes not. This was the first movie for which Marvin Hamlisch wrote the score – and while the music itself is quite good, it doesn’t fit with the movie at all – it’s overly romantic for such a dark movie. Some of the stylistic excesses that Perry throw in the movie have dated badly and do not quite work now – and I doubt they ever did.
Yet the movie has a distinctive power all its own – and one that is fairly undeniable. It’s an odd film to say the least, but I liked how distinctive the film is. This is one of those films that auteurism fails to explain – even those who worked on the film (according to the documentary on the new Blu Ray) cannot agree if Frank and Eleanor Perry – who directed and wrote the film respectably – were two not very talented people who lucked into a great story by Cheever and a great performance by Lancaster and just had to not screw it up – or if they really are underrated filmmakers. I love auteurism – and it frequently helps to put certain movies into perspective by looking at them as part of the larger work of a filmmaker (I lean it perhaps too heavily at times). But with a film like The Swimmer, you have to approach it as a film all by itself. That can be invigorating in its own way as well. Whoever is responsible for The Swimmer – the Perrys, Cheever, Lancaster, Pollock – it doesn’t really matter. This is a fascinating, surreal nightmare of a movie. That it has its flaws is almost undeniable – but somehow those flaws almost work in the films favor – making it an even stranger, more singular film. It’s not a masterpiece – but it is one of a kind.