[dropcap]E[/dropcap]merging from a wooded area middle-aged Ned Merrill, wearing swim trunks, dives into a backyard pool. As he surfaces on the other side he is offered a cocktail by the home’s owners Don (Tony Bickley) and Helen (Diana Van Der Vlis). Although the couple seem happy to see Ned it’s clear that it has been some time since their last meeting. Another couple, Stu (Richard McMurray) and Peggy (Marge Champion) drop by. The visit stirs a nostalgic memory in Ned of himself and Stu swimming all day as kids at summer camp. Ned realizes that there are backyard pools all over the county and that they “form a river” all the way to his house. Both couples are puzzled and momentarily concerned but Don thinks that Ned is merely joking. But Ned takes off on his quest.
When Ned arrives at another pool he encounters a young couple and their friend, 20-year-old Julie Hooper, sunning themselves, he recognizes Julie as the sometime babysitter of his two daughters. Ned invites Julie to go on his swimming pool adventure and she agrees. When Ned suggests that Julie babysit his daughters again she is puzzled. She admits that she once had a teenage crush on Ned and eventually he makes a clumsy and creepy pass at her. She runs away but Ned continues his journey.
Ned meets a boy named Kevin selling lemonade at the roadside. They walk up the driveway to Kevin’s home only to find the pool empty. Kevin admits that he has been left home with only a servant as guardian while his divorced mother honeymoons with her new husband. Ned, disappointed that the empty pool will be the end of his adventure, tells Kevin they can pretend to swim across the pool, walking across the bottom as they perform each swimming stroke. When Kevin protests Ned says, “if you make believe something is true, then it is true for you.”
At various homes and at a public pool along the way Ned encounters increasing resistance and hostility although he doesn’t understand why. At one point he reaches the pool of Shirley Abbott, a former mistress, who confronts Ned with his flaws as a man and as a lover. During the journey Ned becomes physically and psychologically more vulnerable before he reaches “home.”
On one level The Swimmer is a psychological mystery. Important keys to Ned’s character reveal themselves in the dialogue between Ned and the boy Kevin at the empty pool. In keeping with much of writer John Cheever’s work, the film is also an examination of how the constant quest for wealth twists and damages relationships. Ned’s neighbors in The Swimmer may commute to the city for work, but their homes are not part of a subdivision. Their homes are manors with estate-sized plots of land tended by servants. Throughout the film cocktails are readily offered and characters comment about their hangovers.
The Swimmer was directed by Frank Perry and the screenplay was adapted by his wife Eleanor Perry. The pair had previously made David and Lisa (1962), and independent film about two young people suffering from psychological problems. Eleanor Perry’s adaptation of The Swimmer from John Cheever’s story is exceptional in its subtlety and nuance. Frank Perry cast the film beautifully and elicited excellent performances from the cast, which included Joan Rivers in her first film role.
Veteran Oscar-winner Sam Spiegel (On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia) produced the film. Spiegel kept his distance during the shooting of the film. After Perry turned in his cut Spiegel had new scenes shot and even re-cast a key role with Sydney Pollack directing. Spiegel’s interference hurts the finished movie in that the soft focus cinematography for some of the connective scenes are in a completely different style and tone from Perry’s work. Another unfortunate addition was some clunky dialogue that attempts to explain story points. Unfortunately we will probably never know how the original confrontation scene between Ned and his former mistress Shirley would have played out with Barbara Loden, the original actress. That footage has so far never been found. Even though it’s clear where most of these scenes were added, it interrupts the flow of what might have been a minor masterpiece without them.
In the role of Ned, Burt Lancaster gives one of his finest performances. Though middle aged at the time, Lancaster still appears in great shape and athletic in the brief swim trunks he wears through the entire movie. Yet he allows us to see his age and weariness as the story unfolds. Though an athlete and gymnast before he became an actor, Lancaster had never learned to swim because of a childhood incident in which he nearly drowned. To fully prepare for his role in The Swimmer he hired a top UCLA swimming coach to instruct him. With the perfect form he shows in the movie one would never guess he had not been a lifelong swimmer.
Lancaster was not an actor to shy away from difficult roles in the past. In his early career he appeared as complicated characters in such noir films as The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947) and Criss Cross (1949). He even produced Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in which he played perhaps his darkest character, a sociopathic gossip columnist. The Swimmer stands out as a role in which Lancaster bravely exposes the vulnerabilities of a flawed man facing the twilight of his life. A few years later he tackled similar thematic issues as an even older character in Atlantic City (1980) directed by Louis Malle.
The Swimmer was the first film scored by Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch (The Sting). It is a full-fledged orchestral score that reflects the downward spiral of Ned’s character. The only drawback, which was also an issue with many other film composers, is the ersatz “rock ‘n’ roll” music for a party scene.
The Swimmer had previously been available on DVD from Sony/Columbia with no extras. The new 4K Blu-ray/DVD combo from Grindhouse Releasing looks beautifully sharp with rich color. The five-part The Story of The Swimmer documentary by Oscar-winning editor Chris Innis goes into great detail about the making of the film and how meddling by producer Sam Spiegel, his friend director Elia Kazan, and even star Burt Lancaster affected the final film version. The drama behind the scenes examines the vagaries of filmmaking.
Extras: · 2 DISC SET – Dual layer Blu-ray + DVD combo
- New digital restoration created from 4K scans
- The Story of The Swimmer – five-part, 2-1/2 hour documentary by Oscar-winning editor Chris Innis featuring interviews with stars Janet Landgard, Joan Rivers and Marge Champion, composer Marvin Hamlisch, film editor Sidney Katz, assistant directors Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachary, UCLA Olympic swim coach Bob Horn, and Burt Lancaster;s daughter Joanna
- The original NEW YORKER short story read by author John Cheever
- 12-page booklet with liner notes by director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator)
- Rare production stills from lost alternate scenes
- Extensive still galleries, trailers and TV spots
DIR: Frank Perry. PROD: Roger Lewis, Frank Perry. SCR: Eleanor Perry based on a short story by John Cheever. CIN: David L. Quaid. Film Editing: Sidney Katz, Carl Lerner, Pat Somerset. Score: Marvin Hamlisch. CAST: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landsgard, Marge Champion, Nancy Cushman, Charles Drake, John Garfield Jr., Bernie Hamilton, Kim Hunter, Charles Drake, Tony Bickley, Diana Van Der Vlis. Color. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1. Running time: 95 min. Genre: Psychological drama. Columbia Pictures. Blu-ray/DVD release: Grindhouse Releasing (grindhouse.com)