Canon Entry - The Swimmer (1968)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Since I personally despise any work that glorifies America’s prosperity set in the immediate postwar period of the 50’s and 60’s, I was destined to love The Swimmer. If you didn’t know John Cheever’s story, however, and If you just saw the poster for this movie with Burt Lancaster’s beautiful bod and nothing else, you might have thought this was a story about a middle-aged man’s late life quest to become a competitive swimmer.
More on that beautiful bod. If you had to point to a picture of the perfect American (White) man, then look no further than this man. Of course, Burt Lancaster was far more than this. His handsome looks betrayed his willingness to take on risky projects such as Sweet Smell of Success or The Leopard. He was truly and delightfully nasty in the previous movie, and his all-American good looks actually translated quite well to the latter’s tale of an Italian nobleman mourning the passing of tradition and his dynasty.
So, of course, this made him the best candidate to play Ned Merrill who seems like the type of man that everyone would get along with, or at least that’s what he would think. I’ve often heard how handsome and beautiful people think they’re hilarious because people around them are so entranced by their good looks. This ambiguity of perception, Ned’s own and other people’s of him, is evident even from the first scene. You see signs of suspicion when he mentions his wife. Are they humoring him? Are we supposed to prepare ourselves for some sort of allegory?
Ned’s main quest for this movie is to swim across all of his neighbors’ swimming pools to his house. He names the fake river Lucinda in honor of his wife. It is a fanciful quest, yet surely one that is not off-limits to a man who clearly has everything. He’s supposedly rich, definitely handsome, well-liked and White, the very definition of White privilege as a matter of fact. He starts his quest on a whim, but it is perhaps seated in a restlessness stemming from the belief that there is no more frontier to conquer and at least this unique venture would give some semblance of that. He sees himself as the last cowboy. Marvin Hamlisch’s score (his first for a film) is deliciously ironic, sounding a lot like Elmer Bernstein’s for The Magnificent Seven with its swooping grandeur accompanying Ned’s journey, an epic Western only in his mind and those who want to believe him.
What Ned has not considered is the extent of his kingdom, or the tenuousness of his rule. The slightly uncertainty that we sense at the beginning only increases. Time seems to elide and Ned’s memory along with it. He is confused to see his former babysitter Julie (Janet Landgard) all grown up when he had implied earlier that his daughters were all grown up, far too old for babysitting in any case. As he gets further and further away from his comfort, cracks start to break across his facade. We learn from a former lover about his philandering and his delusions about his sexual prowess. We see he is in debt to many people, including those he deems far below his station. Even his daughters, who worship him according to him, are said to do otherwise.
It is difficult to see who contributed what to the creation of the movie. Frank Perry clashed with Lancaster, who felt possessive about the story, and Perry was later fired by the producer. Sydney Pollack was brought into “salvage” the movie, which included reshooting the scene with Ned’s lover with Janice Rule instead of Barbara Loden as originally shot. It seems husband and wife director and screenwriter team Frank and Eleanor Perry make John Cheever’s slim story a struggle between Man and Nature. So much of this neighborhood seems to be full of lush forest, almost impractically so. We certainly feel the contrast when Ned is in the public pool, where he is definitely the most out of place. Instead of the abundant space that he can luxuriate in, he is forced to act like the plebs, and the people there are considerably less civil to him.
Adaptations of stories as ambiguous and surreal as The Swimmer are really hard to pull off, especially when they have to meet the demands of a bureaucratic system like Hollywood. It seemed like this film would never get made, considering the creative tensions between Lancaster and the Perrys, which confused a lot of the crew and actors. The film is a happy accident, with setbacks like Lancaster injuring his leg actually being incorporated into the script, which adeptly shows just how out of his element Ned is the closer he gets to the real world and leaving his ivory tower.
This movie works because the elements that would go into creating a blockbuster are heightened ever so slightly. The color palette is a little too vivid. The music is a little too on the nose. Lancaster is almost a little too ridiculously good-looking, suspiciously so (and great at playing this role). The effect becomes almost surreal, as if you were watching one of those optical illusions that seem kinetic despite being entirely stationary, set in ink. This effect is why this movie has lasted and deserves to last as an impressionistic portrait of postwar America. Even though Lancaster claimed that he didn’t “get” the story when he first read it and even gave it to his daughter to make head or tails of it, he and his co-creators managed to successfully adapt one of the best stories about the brokenness of the American Dream and how it makes the people it “blesses” into hollow shells devoted to materialism and comfort.