Squint your eyes and cult classic The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster, could be the B-plot on an episode of extra-quirky later day episode of Seinfeld. Of course, it would be Kramer who joyously tells his pals he’s “going from pool to pool and swim all the way across the county home, Jerry!” It’s a fun thought, and if this were 1997, I might have a shot in the writer’s room with an idea like that. But we owe this premise to American literary exemplar, the “Chekov of the suburbs,” John Cheever (he’s got his own place in Seinfeld history). It was his 12 page story that appeared in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker that The Swimmer is based on.
After the cold, autumnal introduction of the opening credits, Burt Lancaster’s Ned Merrill saunters out of a springtime forest. He heads to the hungover Westerhazy’s (Tony Bickley and Diana Van Der Vlis) backyard where a pool party is imminent. We don’t have any trouble liking Ned at first, but old friend Howard Graham (Charles Drake) soon arrives and it starts to get weird. This is because Ned won’t shut up about swimming. He reminisces about their friendship and how much fun he had swimming with Howard when they were young. Ned tries to get Howard to join him in the pool and you start to get uncomfortable. You’re pretty sure the Westerhazys will probably be glad when he’s gone, and you realize, “Oh, he’s that guy.”
Finally, the Westerhazys point out that, everyone up and down the road have pools. And Ned, in a cosmic moment of divine clarity, conjures the notion to hit every pool between here and home, where Lucinda and the girls are-”the River Lucinda.” Suddenly “the girls are there playing tennis” become the driving force of Ned’s strange, desperate, and almost pathetic odyssey.
Sporting nothing but his navy blue trunks and a smile, Ned walks his way across the Connecticut countryside. Hitting pool after pool, most of the time only making a single lap swimming that River Lucinda. Everyone along the way knows Ned, and as he unloads his big plan, he gets some strange looks. As Ned’s troubled backstory begins to reveal itself, that cold, autumnal opening credits sequence becomes more symbolic and telling than you probably realise.
While The Swimmer is a bit surreal because, yeah, this guy is really doing this, there are a few extra strange moments. Particularly when Ned and ex-babysitter, 20-year-old Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard), who he convinces to join him for at least part of his forlorn excursion, leap the rails at a course for show horses in the middle of nowhere. Ned injures himself just barely enough to limp his way through the rest of the film, a reminder that Ned isn’t the stud he used to be (however, Burt looks pretty good for 52). Perhaps a suggestion that signals what happens to lame horses.
The Swimmer plays out episodically, as each pool scenario is different and seems to represent a different phase in Ned’s life. All leading up to what we’re now pretty sure is a tragic situation. If we weren’t sure by the time he meets the terrifying Janice Rule, then he seals the deal by pinning the whole thing down with a bit of dialogue to young Kevin Gilmartin (Michael Kearney) sitting before an empty pool: “You see, if you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.”
We finally get to it when Ned comes upon actress Shirley Abbott (the terrifying Janice Rule), who he seems to be smitten with and who doesn’t seem to want anything to do with him. “Swim the pool, do whatever you have to do, but get out!” Notice how her name isn’t Lucinda. I think you’re starting to figure this out. Anyway, in this escalating scene, Ned and Shirley have some heated grown-up talk, heightened with loads of grown-up resentment and desperation-there’s that word again. This got me a little worked up by the anger, a little taken by Janice Rule, and a little more terrified by Janice Rule.
In a move from the Twilight Zone playbook, after working through the symbolism of an over-crowded public pool (Ned’s like everyone else) but not before having to borrow money to get in (Ned may be less than everyone else), we’re learning how sorry Ned’s situation is. A good hard cry in the rain is as close to swimming as Ned is gonna get now.
The Swimmer had a troubled production. Producer Sam Spiegel (see also, The Chase) fired director Frank Perry and brought on Sydney Pollack who recast Barbara Loden as Shirley Abbott with (did I mention the terrifying?), Janice Rule. Joan Rivers has a little bitty part that is said to have taken a full seven days to film, and Burt ponied up the last $10,000 needed to finish shooting. A fine film that, like Ned, will keep you weirdly smiling until it doesn’t, and you’re left wondering if only Ned could have believed just a little harder, maybe he could have kept swimming.
Presented from a new 4K scan, Grindhouse Releasing recently re-released The Swimmer in a limited edition beautiful blu-ray / DVD combo pack, complete with an essay by the late director Stuart Gordon and a CD soundtrack of the haunting Marvin Hamlisch score. Even more fascinating is the two and a half hour documentary on the troubled making of the film featuring interviews with Janet Landgard, Joan Rivers, composer Marvin Hamlisch, assistant directors Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachery, and Joanna Lancaster.
Words by Lucas Hardwick
Originally published at https://www.indiependent.co.uk on September 16, 2020.