Thursday, July 23, 2020

THE SWIMMER (1968)



What a strange, strange film. Just to describe the story of THE SWIMMER is to be amazed that it was ever made into a major motion picture. A man decides to spend a day "swimming across the county" via a route of suburban swimming pools. That's it. That's the plot. He goes from pool to pool until he makes it back to his house. Just imagine, someone actually greenlit a movie with that plot. Of course, the plot doesn't really capture how the film unfolds, how we learn more and more about about the man, how the movie takes on the weight of a tragedy.

The movie begins on a sunny day in a WASPy Connecticut suburb when a man named Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges from the woods and jumps into the backyard swimming pool of some friends. Everyone is hungover, lounging by the water, nursing drinks, when Ned shows up in his swimsuit. They seem happy to see him, but where's he been keeping himself? Seems like they haven't seen him in a while. Ned has a drink, flirts with the women, slaps backs with the men, playfully jostles a few expanding waistlines and blithely accepts compliments on his own impressive physique. It's all amiable enough, but there's an undercurrent of strangeness, a certain halting lag between some of the conversation, especially in the way his friends glance at each other when Ned announces his decision to swim the pools back to his house where his wife and daughters are waiting for him. 

Who is Ned? Where has he been? We don't know, but we start to gather information about who he has been and the role he's played in this community. Oozing affluence, boozy charm, and self-entitled lechery, he seems like the kind of middle-aged man who might have been partying at the beach house with Teddy Kennedy and the boiler room girls in Chappaquiddick.

As if foreshadowing the tragedy of Mary Jo Kopechne, for part of his journey Ned's joined by a pretty young woman named Julie (Janet Landgard) who used to babysit his two daughters. They run around an obstacle course until Ned turns his ankle. Julie admits she had a crush on him when she was a girl and then confides that she's being sexually harassed at work, but when Ned takes this information as an invitation to put his hands on her, Julie runs away. 

As Ned Merrill continues on his journey across the county, we learn more about him. Some people are happy to see him. Others are not. A few, in fact, are furious. What starts out as a lark turns into an endurance test. At first, the day is warm and sunny. Running around in nothing but swim trunks seems almost normal. But as the day turns darker and colder, storm clouds gather. By the end, he's just a nearly naked man trying to cross a busy freeway, limping home in the freezing rain. 

There's more that could be divulged about what we learn about Ned on his way home, but the film needs to be experienced on its own terms. The less you know, the better. 

THE SWIMMER was a bomb when it was first released, which surely came as a surprise to no one.  It fits into no easy categories, and it does not have a clear auteur. It was scripted by Eleanor Perry from a John Cheever short story and directed by her husband Frank. These days, the gifted Frank Perry is best known as the director of the camp classic MOMMIE DEAREST, which isn't much of a directorial calling card. Plus, the producer (with the apparent backing of the star) fired Perry toward the end of production and brought in a young Sidney Pollack to completely reshoot some of the scenes. This produces a strange jumpiness to the film. For example, Pollack reshot some "outside" scenes between Lancaster and Landgard on a soundstage, creating a trippy contrast to the actual outdoor footage Perry shot for the rest of the sequence. The penultimate scene of the film, where Ned confronts his former mistress, played by Barabra Loden, was also scrapped, the role recast with Janice Rule, and the scene reshot.

So, a troubled production resulted in a box office failure. That should have been the end of it, but THE SWIMMER has only grown in stature over the years. Once seen, it can't really be forgotten. Its strange rhythms pull you in and stay with you. Eleanor Perry's script is brilliant. The Cheever short story is available online and should be read--it's a haunting piece of work all on its own--but the way Perry fleshed out the story in her script builds Ned's world pool by pool. 

At the center of it all is Burt Lancaster, in what may well be his best performance. He had always been a big strapping stud. Think THE KILLERS or BRUTE FORCE in the '40s. (He was one of noir's most swaggering male presences.) By 1968, he was the perfect actor to play Ned Merrill, putting his body and his ego on display, letting them both be torn down bit by bit.

This finally brings us to the swim trunks. Lancaster wears them in every single scene. He has no other wardrobe. In the first scene, he is resplendent, the very model of middle-aged health. It's a sunny day, everyone is lounging by the pool, so it makes sense. But scene by scene, it starts to seem strange that this guy is wandering around the woods and people's backyards in nothing but his tight little swimsuit. Scene by scene, as the weather changes, as the social settings change, as his relationship to the other characters change, this tired, 55-year-old man limping around mostly naked starts to seem sad and pathetic. His physical glory in the opening scenes takes on a tragic grander, until we realize we were seeing the last shining moment before his ego started to finally unravel for good.   

***

THE SWIMMER has engendered a lot of good writing over the years. I particularly like this piece by Travis Woods "A Life in the Day: The Masculine Irreality of THE SWIMMER."