It’s late in the morning and the wind carries a sense of nostalgia through the forest. The woodland creatures scurry away, frightened by something we cannot see. We pan over the trees which have started to change color as Marvin Hamlisch’s score swells around us, filling the atmosphere. Ned Merrill (played by the iconic BURT LANCASTER) emerges from the brush wearing only a swimsuit and dives into a luxurious swimming pool that is not his own. “It’s been ages, Ned!” one of the sunbathing residents exclaims. “Where have you been?” another asks. “Oh, here and there” is his uncertain response. Immediately we have questions. The uncertainty continues when he’s asked about his two daughters and his reply indicates that they are “at home playing tennis”. This causes each of the residents to exchange eerie looks among one another. Thus begins the mysterious story of Ned Merrill and his aspiration to swim home pool by pool through the Lucinda River, which he has dedicated to his wife (who may or may not be at home waiting for him).
Filmed in the late 60’s only to gain worldwide acclaim over it’s 50 year release cycle, The Swimmer is directed by Frank Perry (Mommie Dearest, Diary of a Mad Housewife) and penned by his wife Eleanor, which she adapted from John Cheever’s short story of the same name. Due to the bizarre nature of the material, and the fact that Burt Lancaster had never learned to swim in his life, it was no easy task bringing the story of Ned Merrill to the big screen. Thankfully for us, the Perry’s dedication paid off and The Swimmer stands highly regarded as a one-of-a-kind film that features Lancaster’s most layered and heartbreaking performance.
“When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” the movie’s tagline reads. As an audience member you will find yourself drawing connections between Merrill’s tragic poolside odyssey and your own life. It’s important to mention at this point that it’s nearly impossible to view the film in a literal fashion. The entirety of the picture holds a dream-like quality to it that makes even the most mundane details spring to life with history. Much like real life, a conversation with a long lost friend will bring forth memories both beautiful and haunting. The Swimmer operates as a sort of twisted road trip movie in that respect. Each pool functioning as a pit stop that holds a spoonful of past trauma that helps us put together the missing pieces of Ned’s past. The true power of the film comes from the completion of the puzzle, when you finally figure out in your own mind what has happened to Ned in order for him to initiate this nostalgic romp through all of his neighbor’s pools. The ending of this film is one for the ages, a climax so impactful and shattering that you’ll want to start the movie over again immediately after having just finished it.
The film could survive on Lancaster’s star power and the Perry’s vision alone, but it doesn’t stop there. Behind the camera is David L. Quaid, who offers a reserved yet ethereal touch to the mesmerizing 35mm photography. We are blessed with some immaculately constructed wide shots and what I like to call “prism sequences”. Certain frames of the film will be cross cut with others to create a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors. I mentioned Marvin Hamlisch’s score earlier but it’s truly magnificent. Flutes, bells, drums, and organs speak for the scenes when normal dialogue just won’t suffice. Nowadays we are so accustomed to a mixture of radio hits and synthesized orchestras making up a large portion of movie soundtracks we forget how pivotal a composer like Marvin Hamlisch can be to a film’s success. I probably don’t have to tell you at this point, but just in case: watch this on the biggest screen and loudest sound system available.
During the uncertain times we find ourselves living in, films like The Swimmer hold more power than ever before. It’s an hour and a half of pure escapism and deep self reflection. This is one of those rare unclassifiable films that paves a path for other filmmakers to follow without even being aware of it, which makes for some of the most inspiring and entertaining types of movies out there. If you would like to watch Frank Perry’s THE SWIMMER it is available in a deluxe Blu-ray/DVD package through Grindhouse Releasing (not sponsored but I own it and can confirm it’s spectacular), and currently streaming for rental/purchase on these platforms: Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube Movies (starting at $3.99).