From Wikipedia: The Swimmer is a 1968 film directed by Frank Perry and starring Burt Lancaster. A surreal, allegorical tale, it is based on the short story of the same name by John Cheever, adapted by Eleanor Perry (wife of director Frank).
I have seen “The Swimmer” many times and find it as powerful as ever. When it was first released, the movie was a box office and critical bomb. Maybe it was the subject matter, maybe it was the zeitgeist, or maybe it was the counter-type casting of Lancaster who plays the main character Ned Merrill. The plot is comprised of a simple conceit- a man swims across a wealthy county- one swimming pool at a time. What unfolds, lap by lap, is a portrait of a man’s life and that portrait is painted by the reactions of those he encounters. At first his neighbors are happy to see him, but with each new pool we learn more about Ned. We learn about his long descent from power and wealth to loneliness and despair. We learn of his wealthy wife, his troubled children, and his infidelities. Yet, Ned seems incredulous when confronted by each new revelation and he begins to shiver as the warm summer day progresses. The final assault on his psyche is during a brief encounter with a former lover, played by a beautiful Janice Rule. She admits to Ned that she pretended to care for him and that he was a bore. At the end, Ned confronts the reality of his ruined house, family, and life.
This is not an easy movie to watch, and it has a tendency to stay in one’s head. Lancaster was very effective, which surprised me because I really only knew him through his part in western movies. Janice Rule had just the right balance of sensuality and emotional distance to play Ned’s old flame. Pre-surgical Joan Rivers has a small part where she plays a frustrated wife who flirts with Ned, but is ultimately pulled away by her male companion.
There are scenes in the movie that last too long (e.g., Ned running through a meadow or crossing a busy highway). The latter scene is interesting, however, just to see the 1960’s cars. There are many artsy shots (e.g., long focus on the landscaped then refocusing on a tree leaf) that look not very sophisticated by today’s standards. The music, the main theme of which was written by Marvin Hamlisch, is too loud and it is intrusive. The orchestra’s instruments are too closely mic’d, which makes the music even more overpowering.
In spite of these small problems, “The Swimmer” is powerful film. It’s the kind of movie we don’t see much of today. It doesn’t have a single killing, no bomb blasts, no aliens, and no CGI. It also focuses on the lives of mature people, something that we just don’t see in movies today. There are few- “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours” come to mind. Maybe the subject matter is just too depressing and maybe we don’t need to be reminded of our failings- many of us know them very well without having to see it in a movie. But “The Swimmer” gives us entre into the lives of the super rich in the late 1960’s and I, for one, am happy to reflect on that world, while drawing parallels to my own.
A memorable quote from Ned- “My life didn’t turn out the way I thought”. So too for me.