As Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) takes a dip in the ritzy backyard pool of some friends, it occurs to him that he could make an adventure out of it, “swim the whole county” he says. Of course, this is affluent suburbia, somewhere in the rich wilds of Connecticut, and so there are no natural waterways to effect his journey. Instead he crafts a plan of taking a dip in every pool from here to his own home, some mansion on the hill. In a later scene, as he’s explaining this cockamamie quest to someone else, he calls himself an “explorer”, and indeed, when he stands at the edge of his friends’ pool in “The Swimmer’s” opening scene, on top of a ridge, overlooking the valley below, and the makeshift map of backyard pools, he looks like an explorer, just mad enough to make this grand plan come true.
Maybe he is mad. Several times throughout this introductory sequence director Frank Perry cuts directly from a medium shot of Ned to a ferocious close-up, and the difference in the face between the two camera angles is telling. From a distance, Ned looks a little romantic; from up close, he looks deranged. After all, he wanders into his idyllic backyard from the woods with no explanation as to what he was doing out on a jaunt through the foliage in nothing but his swimming trunks. Where was he before? How did he get there in a speedo? Who knows? That’s what we’ll find out as his journey along “The Lucinda River”, named for his wife, unfolds.
“The Swimmer”, based on a New Yorker piece by John Cheever, becomes an upper class adventure story, with a WASP as our tragic hero, a seeming midlife crisis eventually revealing itself as something more sinister, akin to a ghost story, the epilogue of bourgeois prosperity gone bust, as if he’s a male Miss Havisham in swim trunks, one kicked out of his mansion instead of left to waste away in it. And with each successive poolside encounter, escalating in their confrontational nature, the more the details of his predicament fall into place, albeit intermittently and elliptically. When he meets Julie Ann Hooper (Janet Landgard), his family’s babysitter, only to realize she’s all grown up, twenty years old and with a boyfriend. In these moments, his eyes can’t quite compute the changes, as if years have passed and he missed them.
1968, as chronicled in Mark Harris’s wonderful book “Pictures at a Revolution”, marked a tipping point in American motion pictures, from the studio system that was on its last legs to the more personal, fly-by-night filmmaking of the 70’s. “The Swimmer” feels caught between those two worlds, with a strident, operatic score, and precisely blocked, overly written sequences that come on like impassioned soap operas at odds with the film’s abnormal narrative and refusal to make every last detail abundantly clear. I kept imagining, perhaps unfairly, what this movie might look like now, with a more razor-sharp, lifelike quality to the satire, and with, say, a stone-faced, satirically committed Alec Baldwin as Ned.
Lancaster himself sings in tune with many of the scenes and not so much with others. His richly imitable baritone voice renders all his character’s fanciful hokum like “You’re the captain of your soul – that’s what counts” like the strained ravings of a nutcase. On the other hand, when he screams to heavens toward the end when the woman he might have loved declares she never loved him, Lancaster comes across depressingly out of his depth, a Golden Age titan crumbling in a moment that required John Cassavetes on call.
Still, for whatever doesn’t quite work in scattered individual moments, his overall manner is effective. Lancaster could so capably evince an air of grounded nobility, and here he strips that nobility away, scene by scene, until absolutely none of it is left, merely the shell of a man whose once-greatness now only exists in the recesses of his mind, where he’s gone to hide only to find it re-surfacing with every lap from one end of the pool to the other.
Watching this movie I kept thinking of another Lancaster movie, though one in which he was a bit player rather than the star. That was “Field of Dreams”, the parable of Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella building a baseball field in the Iowa corn. While most characters suspected Ray of having a psychotic break, he was proven right, his hallucinations revealed as divine instructions, happily ever after. Ned is like Ray’s distant cousin, just as fantastical but hearing no voices other than the ones in his head, which guide him to an ending he has already endured and now must endure all over again.