It really is amazing how unknown this movie still is. If you are unfamiliar with it, you are in for a real experience. It is based on a classic short story by John Cheever, and it works like an extended, lost episode of the old "Twilight Zone" television series. A middle-aged suburban man (Burt Lancaster) decides to swim across his wealthy Connecticut county, through all the swimming pools of his neighbors back to his own home. As he makes his journey you gradually become aware that he is not all that he seems. Dark secrets keep getting revealed and it soon becomes apparent that we are witnessing a telescoping of the man's entire adult life into a few afternoon hours of an early autumn day. The film becomes a powerful allegory about disillusionment and tragedy, without being the least heavy-handed about it. Like Cheever's other great short story "The Enormous Radio", "The Swimmer" can be interpreted as a religious parable about the self-deception of fallen humanity. The comeuppance Lancaster receives is almost too intense to watch. This is a genuinely shattering movie that will stay with you.
on September 26, 2000
Odd, unsettling film, based on a short story by John Cheever (from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection), about a middle aged man who swims from one end of suburban Westport, Connecticut to the other. Wearing only a snug pair of swim trunks, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) swims in each of his neighbors' pools until he reaches his home which, as he tells almost everyone he encounters, has a tennis court rather than a pool. Along the way, the sky turns from blue to black (both literally and metaphorically), and he realizes his life isn't quite what he thought it was.
Despite the presence of Lancaster, who was still in terrific shape at the time (he was 55 in 1968), Frank Perry's film was far from successful. And it isn't hard to see why--this isn't a happy tale and there's barely even a glimmer of hope or redemption at the end. Nonetheless, it's powerful and original stuff and, although you might imagine otherwise, doesn't really have much in common with the suburban melodramas of the 1950s, like "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," or the suburban black comedies of the 1990s, like "American Beauty."
Granted, "The Graduate," which was released only a year before, was just as cynical towards the Left Coast's version of swimming pool and cocktail culture, but that cynicism was leavened by humor and the point of view was, even more significantly, that of the young characters in the film rather than their parents. That isn't the case with "The Swimmer," which is more like a condensed version of "The Great Gatsby" or "Death of a Salesman." In other words, it's a fully realized character study and minor classic about the failure of the American Dream. Not to all tastes, but easily as relevant today as it was in 1968.
on February 2, 2004
Or not so plain and hardly simple.
My admiration for the shorter fiction of John Cheever knows no bounds, but this movie goes an already great short story one better. Great movies, of course, are made of very different stuff than great fiction. How, for example, to turn "Citizen Kane" into a great novel or "Ulysses" into a great film? Yet the reason this film works is "time"...
The story itself is well known: At the home of some friends one "midsummer Sunday," a successful, middle-aged advertising executive named Neddy Merrill decides, peculiarly perhaps (though with much symbolism, Freudian and otherwise), to swim the length of suburbia, from one friend's pool to another, until he reaches home, where his wife and daughters (he believes) are waiting for him. At each pool, however, his friends appear a little less friendly (and, by the end, downright hostile), and we begin to see that time is passing a little too quickly, that midsummer is turning into late fall, that there is a chill in the air and storm clouds in the sky, and that, by the time Ned reaches the end of his journey, his life is in ruin, and that his entire existence has been "drained" in the course of a single afternoon. Funny how realizations of a wasted lifetime creep up on us that way.
So here, perhaps, is the rub. In Cheever's story, a whole lifetime passes in one day, which passes in eight pages. In Frank Perry's movie, a whole lifetime passes in one day, which passes in about an hour and 40 minutes. The fifteen minutes or so required to read the original is too short, the time goes by too swiftly. This is a story that longs to be fleshed out (okay, pun intended), so that the shifting of Ned's fortunes and his realization of just how much he's lost seem more gradual, more subtle.
Each encounter at each pool is like a variation on a theme. As the people from the first pool come walking over to the second while Ned swims away, we get a superb sense of temporal dislocation (the original theme is still perceptible in the background, but already the changes are being wrought): It is still the same morning in the friends' world, but years have passed in Ned's life, and this is emphasized by his encounter at the third pool, where he finds himself unwelcome at the house of an old friend who has since died. Ned not only fails to realize this at first, he doesn't even remember his friend having been sick. Although the camaraderie is recovered at the next pool, the dark clouds have made their presence felt.
The encounter with his daughters' old baby-sitter, Julie (a naively beautiful Janet Landgard [and what an ironic name in this context!]), is a deviation from the original story, but works superbly as it serves at least two purposes: to bring home the unstoppable passage of time (as when Ned asks Julie if she can baby-sit his daughters that weekend even though, in "real" time, they've grown up already), and, when she flees his overweening embrace, to further illustrate just how much has escaped him, both figuratively and literally.
The most haunting scene, however, occurs when Ned reaches an empty swimming pool guarded over by a young, towheaded boy playing the flute, a vision that conjures up images of lost innocence and invokes an extraordinary emotional yearning (and as much emptiness as the cracked concrete below him can provide) that the original story could not quite match.
And who could fail to be moved by that final image of an irrevocably broken man, crouched in the fetal position and weeping in front of a house long-ago abandoned and left to molder, or the scene just before it, where Ned has to swim through the final dirty, crowded, but too-heavily chlorinated public pool (my, how the mighty have fallen!)? "Stings, doesn't it?" Jan Minor asks, and the line stings as well.
Burt Lancaster, by any stretch one of stardom's most exceptional actors, here gives the performance of his career. The gleam in the eye, that unrelentingly toothy grin, that look of sheer obsession. At first so full of the vigor of youth, but by the end a (self-)defeated, frightened man, straining against himself to understand what happened, when and where literally everything went wrong. Who but Burt Lancaster could have pulled off such a miracle? Kudos, too, to Janice Rule for her portrayal of Shirley Abbott, a one-time lover: a character in a situation that could so easily have seemed cliche here achieves the status of classical tragedy. And note the cameo appearance by John Cheever himself, looking somehow peculiarly diminutive but ever dapper; a standout in the type of crowd he so brilliantly portrayed.
And was there ever a more poignant score than that which Marvin Hamlish provided?
"The Swimmer," the short story, is a great work of fiction, but "The Swimmer," the movie, is a great work of art. "One man's shattering Sunday odyssey through suburbia," as TV Guide once so unforgettably put it. Cheever couldn't have said it better himself.
on September 23, 2010
When Burt Lancaster began his career as an actor, it appeared this was going to be a career in the mold of Errol Flynn or Randolph Scott. In films like The Flame and the Arrow, Jim Thorpe-All American, The Crimson Pirate, Vera Cruz, Ten Tall Men, From Here to Eternity, The Kentuckian, Trapeze, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and Run Silent, Run Deep, Lancaster seemed to personify and embody the American ideal hero.
However, behind those swell guy teeth and that brandished chest was a shrewd actor, who, as he seasoned, made increasingly interesting choices. In the second half of his career, Lancaster often played off that earlier, heroic persona with admirable risk taking. If Elmer Gantry and Seven Days in May might be aptly described as loudly presenting the dirty underbelly of Americana, then The Swimmer intimately one-ups them.
In 1968 director Frank Perry with writer/wife Eleanor Perry adapted John Cheever's acclaimed allegorical New Yorker short story, The Swimmer, and brilliantly cast the iconic Burt Lancaster as the pathetic hero. The Perrys had previously teamed for the equally disturbing David and Lisa (1962) and made quite a splash on the art film circuit. Surprisingly, that film even garnered a couple of Academy Award nominations, which enabled the team to make The Swimmer.
The Swimmer begins on an absurdly bright, sunny day. Ned (Lancaster), the epitome of a tanned, virile, soulless suburbia, decides he is going to enthusiastically embark on a strange, epic, connect-the-dot journey by "swimming" home through the neighborhood swimming pools. He takes along a nubile girl (Janet Langard), but at each pool he encounters facets of his failed life and the crack in his facade slowly begins to expand until the inevitable, tragic conclusion. The physical reality of The Swimmer (a day in Ned's life) is mere allegory and the allegorical symbolism of Ned's entire life which is, in fact, the physical realm into which we are drawn.
Lancaster, the sex symbol, is perfection as he superficially pats his neighbors on the back, encounters a discarded mistress, is confronted by his numerous lies, his betrayals, his failure as a husband, father, friend and neighbor. By the time he reaches his own home, his paradigm has altered from cartoon sunshine and forced, surface smiles to despairing rain. When he reaches his porch, he is vulnerable to all the elements which mercilessly come down upon him in all forms, including nature itself. Ned has ultimately realized his hollow state.
Impressively, The Swimmer has a dreamlike, short story, episodic pacing, not at all what is expected in the medium of film, and this adds to its uniqueness. The Swimmer, fragile indeed in its quite odd structure, is a case where casting really counted. It would not have worked without its star. Unfortunately, The Swimmer is out of print and even when it was briefly available, Columbia disrespectfully released it an a cheapo presentation.
* my review was originally published at 366 weird movies
on October 14, 1999
This is a beautiful, underrated film, as relevant today as it was in 1968. Burt Lancaster's swimming journey though the emptiness that defines suburban life stings the viewer. Lancaster's performance as the man who cannot connect with anyone, is perfection. The vapid emptiness of his friends and neighbors stands in sharp constrast to his pain. A sensitive, beautiful and emotionally draining score by Marvin Hamlisch adds to the film's luster.
on February 18, 2002
he said he was going to swim home" - John Cheever's "The Swimmer", is a powerful and sadly underrated film and one of John Cheever's jewels in a collection of masterful short stories. A pillar of success he seems at first, still strong and capable at 55 and ready to conquer his county by swimming the long stretch home. This stretch is crossed by highways and public places but the majority of his journey are the pools of his affluent neighbors, and he invades these trophy nests in a near naked state, like a golden Olympian. It is a peak performance for the aging Lancaster, an actor who was famous for his bravado to become a man who loses the battle in the upstream currents of life and to find no redemption at the end. What at first seems like a silly flight of fancy (by one of their own) is thrown in question when we see how outside the boundaries of their social world he has fallen... his illusion of privilege is seriously chipped away at when he is leered at a public pool which for him was like "a stagnat bend in the Lucinda River" and even Lucinda is a figment of his imagination - as his wife Lucinda has long left him and we soon realize what going home means. This film is not just a small slice of a bygone Americana and one mans fall from grace, it sends a beacon across our landscape and shows the cracks in America's (fragile) foundation built like Ned Merrills life - on dreams and myths.
on June 1, 2004
I first watched this film..in another language when I was a kid. How best to illustrate the impact it had on me? After 25 years I still remembered the story of it. Of a man swimming home and of the last scene where he coming home to find an empty, isolated house.
Flash back to the present. I found this movie by accident in the library. Wondering if it's the same one stuck in my mind for so long so I checked it out. The impact of watching it this time was still there (just a bit less since I already know the ending).
All in all it's really worth seeing. It left an unforgettably emotional impact on me..as a 10-year-old child. That's how best I could put it to say how good the movie is.
on May 5, 2006
This is one of the more strang movies Ive seen over the years. Then again, portraits of delusional, mentally-ill people tend to be a little different. This, however, is VERY different and is a success because Burt Lancaster plays the the title role so well.
Lancaster's character, "Neddy," is a man who decides to "swim" home, doing laps in neighbors'pools for several miles until he reaches "home." That's the plot.
However, the real story is uncovering who and what he is really was in the past. It's also an expose of Yuppie suburban snobbery, something that will never go out of style but is 1960s-ish in this film. It's interesting to see a bunch of familiar actors faces pop up as the various neighbors as Lancaster swims from pool to pool.
To focus on the shallow neighbors - and they are shallow, vain and pretty revolting - is to miss how "Neddy" is worse than them. Slowly but surely, he is exposed as an adulterer, crook, completely selfish, poor father, etc. etc.
In the end, we see just how delusional he is, too, completely unable or unwilling to see reality, still living in his dreamworld. Apparently, two years before the scenes in here take place, he booted out of his house by his also-unlikable wife and lost everything...his family, job, you name it.
Much of this film is dream-like, nicely photographed with some pretty nature shots, particularly the first half which features a young actress, Janet Landgard, who was "introduced" in this film but never did much after this film. She plays Burt's former babysitter and he meets up with her early on and then tries to hit on the pretty 20-year- old, finally scaring her away.
Landgard has the second-biggest role in the film. The third belongs to Janice Rule, who appears near the end for a long pool-side soap opera scene, the last encounter Burt has until he reaches his destination.
Overall, it's an unpleasant, haunting tale of shallow people but it's well-done and sure to evoke a number of discussions and interpretations. It's also interesting to view this movie twice, seeing it a second time when you know exactly Lancaster's situation and mental state. This came from a very short story by John Cheever (10-15 pages, depending on the size of the book) so much of the movie and almost all of the dialog, is made up. This is certainly a film you remember.
on October 13, 2004
"The Swimmer" is Sidney Pollack's brilliant adaptation of John Cheever's great short story of the same name. Neddy Merrill, perfectly portrayed by past-his-prime Burt Lancaster, is ostensibly a successful businessman and family man. But, as the film progresses, something darker begins to be hinted at, and then begins to emerge. Not all is as it seems in this surreal story. As Neddy makes his way across his suburban world--via his neighbors' swimming pools--the drinking and partying become less pleasant, to say the least. When he (and the viewer) reach the harrowing ending, we realize that the fears and dreads that plague Neddy stem from his denial of his reality.
Underneath the plot of "The Swimmer" is an allegory about alcoholism. The drinking that goes on in every scene is the comfort that Neddy seeks to conceal his failures and avoid his responsibilities. By the end, we can safely assume that Neddy's alcoholism destroyed his finances and his family, and he just cannot face up to it. Burt Lancaster's performance ranges from the happy-go-lucky, to the completely mystified, to abject fear and pathos. Pollack's understated touch only intensifies Lancaster's performance. This is as important a movie to watch, as the story is to read.
On the surface (no pun intended), "The Swimmer" doesn't look like the sort of movie a diehard horror fan like myself would enjoy. Look at that DVD cover, for instance. Burt Lancaster and Janet Landgard staring dreamily at each other while standing in front of a sun drenched swimming pool. What is this madness? Why would I spend even a second with a film that simply reeks of romantic drama? Well, the DVD cover is as misleading as the beginning scenes of the film contained within. "The Swimmer" is about as far from a romantic melodrama as "Friday the 13th" is from "Meatballs." This 1968 examination of the mental collapse of a member of America's affluent class is a horror lover's dream; a grim, unforgiving film that refuses to pull any punches when the "Twilight Zone" ending unfolds with all of its sinister implications. Sure, no one's head explodes, no one finds himself or herself on the receiving end of a sharp instrument, but that shouldn't preclude the serious shriek cinema aficionado from checking this downbeat picture out and giving it a whirl. "The Swimmer," more than most other films I've seen recently, stays with you long after the final credits roll.
Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), when we first see him, seems like a guy who has it all. A strong, healthy looking fellow with a warm personality and a ready grin, Merrill jogs out of the foliage to banter with a few of his neighbors. Everyone around the pool seems to love this guy even though they claim they haven't seen him in ages. Lots of "hearty fellow well met" dialogue follows as Merrill's friends inquire about his family, his job, and his impressive physique. Ned fires back like pro, cajoling and chuckling with aplomb. After taking a dip in the swimming pool, our hero comes up with a plan. Surveying the Connecticut countryside, he suddenly realizes that it's entirely possible to "swim" home, namely by swimming through all of his neighbors' pools. His friends cackle at such craziness, but Merrill is undeterred. Off he goes on his personal little quest which, when you think about, is a fun idea. What better way to spend a summer day than passing through estate after estate loaded with well manicured lawns, opulent homes, and good company? Every pool Merrill will swim through belongs to people who have known him for years. As we'll soon see, however, this is far from a good thing.
At first Ned finds his neighbors accommodating and personable, especially when he runs into his daughters' former babysitter lounging poolside with her friends. Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard) is a gorgeous young lady with blonde hair, and she seems quite happy to run into her old boss Ned. She's so happy to see him, in fact, that she agrees to join his mission. The two caper about, running through the forests separating the pools while talking about the good times. They even spend time running around in an old horse stall, leaping over obstacles and generally having a great time. Sadly, Hooper flees after an uncomfortable conversation with Ned in which she reveals she once had a crush on him. Merrill troops on alone, but now things don't go so well. His friends turn cold and distant--some resort to outright hostility when they see him--and very unpleasant information rises to the surface. Dark insinuations hint at Merrill's insolvency in all things financial, personal problems with the wife and kiddies, unemployment, and unpaid debts owed to local businesses. Ned doesn't seem to understand the animus aimed at him, but presses on nonetheless, determined to arrive home in time to play tennis with his young daughters. What will Ned Merrill find when he gets there?
"The Swimmer" suffers a few flaws, including an incredibly dated score from Marvin Hamlisch and some very cheesy set pieces. For example, check out that huge pool party. Whew! Those dance moves nearly had me clawing my eyes out! But once you get past the idea that you're watching an older film from a time when fashion and music tended to be a little off the wall, you're in for a treat. The best part of the movie is simply trying to discern exactly what happened to Ned Merrill. He committed adultery, if the emotional scene where Ned confronts his embittered former mistress is any indication, and he moved through life like the world owed him something, but what exactly sent him over the edge? For that matter, is he over the edge? Or did something far more sinister occur? Why do all of his neighbors act as though they haven't seen him for ages? Where has he been since his disgrace? One suspects the local nuthouse put out an APB on this guy. "The Swimmer" raises far more questions than it's willing to answer, so if you need a film that lays everything out in the open you should probably look elsewhere. But if you like a film that keeps you guessing, that features a guy and a girl running around a track like a pair of horses, "The Swimmer" should be your cup of tea.
Some maintain that the movie is an examination of the hollowness of the upper class, and in several respects that assertion contains grains of truth. The wealthy nudists (!) that spurn Ned, the endless parties and the drinking in the middle of the day (don't these people work?), and the attention to material possessions certainly supply plenty of evidence to back up this argument. But I think the movie is more interested in showing us one human being's inability to cope with tragedy than it is in revealing the decadence of a bunch of upper crust grand poobahs. Then again, I could be wrong. Give "The Swimmer" a watch and decide for yourself. Me? I'm putting on my trunks and going out for a dip in the pool!