Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
I showed "The Swimmer" at The Roxie Theater recently as part of a "Mad Men"-inspired film series, and was struck once again by the fact that such a strange movie could ever have been made within the Hollywood studio system, much less been bankrolled rather comfortably and star Burt Lancaster, one of the most popular leading men of his day. It's a lush, bleak, ostentatiously allegorical film about a man named Ned Merrill (Lancaster) who decides to "swim" home through his wealthy Connecticut suburb by dipping into a succession of swimming pools. (Another character correctly notes that this entails more hiking than swimming.)
The result feels like a Death of the American Dream cousin of "The Odyssey." Each stop on Ned's journey has biographical and metaphorical significance. We learn about him as he walks, swims, hikes and talks to neighbors, and we piece together the sad reality of his existence: he lost his job, his wife, and his daughters, and is now experiencing what amounts to a psychotic break—though one that's perhaps just a more extreme version of the blinkered materialist fantasies experienced by many of the neighbors that he wronged, and who still bear grudges against him, or who are merely indifferent to his troubles.
Lancaster, a paragon of virility past his 50th birthday (four years before the release of "The Swimmer"), puts his ebbing physicality on display, allowing Ned to be injured, insulted, emasculated, condescended to, even knocked around. He spends much of the film in an emotional defensive crouch. Even when he is bragging or making grand plans there is something pathetic about Ned. It seems a stretch to describe a man with such a spectacular physique as "vulnerable," but the word really does apply to Lancaster here. Like Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven," you get the sense that his entire career has been leading to this.
The film is based on John Cheever's best known short story and sticks fairly close to it, although it does invent dialogue and details to flesh out scenes, in the process creating dramatic effects that are perhaps a bit too "big" to convey the deadpan and rather delicate satire the story pulled off. There are moments of great pain and pointed social satire and sometimes shocking violence in Cheever, but in such moments he tends to compress the action into a few terse lines, which makes it all more horrifying and somehow more believable. In a feature-length film, some of these same actions are drawn out or rather self-consciously embraced, which makes the moments of extreme contrivance or artificiality (such as in the scene with the two smug nudists, which verges on TV sketch comedy) more jarring.
Frank Perry directed the movie from his wife Eleanor's script, few years after his Oscar-nominated breakthrough feature "David and Lisa." The film bears many of his characteristic tells, including handheld camerawork, promiscuous use of the zoom lens, and jumbled cutting that is presumably aiming for a poetic or disorienting effect but often seems pointlessly busy. (This was the fashion at the time; "Mad Men" even made fun of this tendency in a season five episode that saw ad copywriter Peggy Olson salvaging a dull Heinz baked beans account by using slow motion to choreograph a "bean ballet.") Lancaster brought in his friend Sydney Pollack for extensive reshoots, and while an exact, detective-style account of who shot what is probably impossible at this point, it seems likely that the quieter, more concentrated, intelligently blocked, performance-driven moments are Pollack's.
"The Swimmer" is overdone and overdetermined in some scenes but exquisitely right in others. Lancaster's performance, Marvin Hamlisch's orchestral score (his first for Hollywood), and the photography and editing all share this seesaw tendency. But as my friend Sam Fragoso pointed out, the schism seems to reflect the chaotic interior of Ned, who veers between seeming quite sure of himself (Lancaster sends up his own toothy messianic tendencies beautifully) and abjectly fearful. Moments of hamfisted obviousness are followed by moments that could scarcely be better, as when Ned cries out to the heavens, "You LOVED IT!", then seems to slowly sink into the deep end of his ex-girlfriend's swimming pool as if enacting a suicide wish; a reverse angle shows Ned in closeup, blank-faced with despair, his open mouth seeming to skim the water like the pool cleaning apparatus praised by neighbors in an early scene.
But however you parse the film's high and low points you have to admit that there is not now, nor has there ever been, anything quite like it. The last scene is cornball (Hamlisch's score seems to be screaming, and the rain is obviously an optical effect) but also freakishly powerful. We seem to be experiencing Ned's final collapse from inside his own mind. He's Willy Loman and Miss Havisham put together, in swim trunks, and the wind and water just keep scourging the ivy-covered walls of what used to be his home. He is the author of his misfortune, but at the same time, no one deserves this.