Some heroes take a long time getting home. Odysseus wandered for 20 years before rejoining Penelope in Ithaca. Gilgamesh the King returned to Uruk empty-handed after living as a beast, climbing the Mountain of the Sun, crossing Ocean and the Waters of the Dead, and finding and losing the secret to eternal life. A few sad knights limped back to Camelot after long years on the road learning that they were unworthy of the Grail.
But time and space are relative, and sometimes the Long Journey Home can be the length of half a dozen swimming pools in suburban Connecticut and last a single afternoon. The hero can be an out-of-work middle-aged businessman stripped of everything but a bathing suit and a vision of a life he never lived. The dragons are next-door neighbors, the ghosts are hot dog stands, and the Descent into the Underworld echoes with the mocking voices of one’s own children.
Despite some intrusive camera work, and a musical score for which the word “ostentatious” might have been coined, The Swimmer gives Burt Lancaster the chance to create one of the most noble, pathetic, and memorable figures in American cinema. In desperate need of a magic sword, shining armor, and a loyal companion for the quest, the protagonist of The Swimmer is stripped and alone. All he can do is repeat his mantra of a life he doesn’t know he’s lost (“I have a wife and two beautiful daughters who love me”) as the acid ghosts of the past eat away at his present.
The film has a fine supporting cast, ranging from the lyrically innocent to the terminally (and banally) grotesque. The Connecticut setting, with its gorgeous woods sheltering the suburban fortresses of the very well-to-do, provides the perfect backdrop for an allegorical journey.
The Swimmer does get home at last. Unfortunately, as Agamemnon and Hamlet and other have learned, sometimes that’s not a good thing. Sometimes exile is safer. Good night, bittersweet prince.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Note: This is the first review I wrote after a three-year hiatus, during which time our local newspaper changed hands a couple of times and I had my hands full with teaching.
“He had been swimming….His own house stood in Bullet Park, eight miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis. Then it occurred to him that by taking a dogleg to the southwest he could reach his home by water….He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife. He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty….His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the bank of the Lucinda River.” –John Cheever, “The Swimmer”
The year 1968 seems to have been a good one for shock endings: The Swimmer, The Planet of the Apes, Rosemary’s Baby. In the case of all three of those films, even when one is prepared for what’s coming up not a lot of the impact is lost. It’s true that as you watch The Swimmer you become aware that you’re assembling the fragments of Ned Merrill’s life; the ending doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Yet I think I found that ending even more affecting coming back to the film after more than 20 years. Here is one of my favorite performances by one of my favorite actors. Burt Lancaster was the perfect choice for Ned Merrill; he’s convincing in either the Jekyll or Hyde personae illuminated by that strange pilgrimage through suburban swimming pools: the shining knight & the narcissistic ogre, the gallant lover & the skin-deep suburban stud, the prideful patriarch & the serial philanderer, the near-naked swimmer & the big-shot corporate wolf. Now imagine telling such a Jekyll-Hyde story without Hyde actually appearing on the screen. It’s a cool idea that’s not going to work without some serious acting and storytelling chops. The Swimmer’s got them in spades.
The late Sixties was a heyday of psychedelic cinematography, with its apotheosis being the “starchild” trip-out at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fortunately, The Swimmer devotes a minimum amount of time to dated optical effects, dream sequences, and out-of-focus photography. It was probably inevitable that there was one sequence of refracted sunlight through dappled leaves, but for the most part director Frank Perry leaves well enough alone and lets his actors carry the film. Wise choice. The musical score by Marvin Hamlisch is sometimes more intrusive, with a couple of over-the-top moments of glaring emotional manipulation that let the audience know that it can’t be trusted to pick up cues subtler than timpani or massed strings. (I admit I might have been overly sensitized to musical overkill during a recent screening of Snow Falling on Cedars—which, incidentally, also overemphasizes what film critic Manny Farber called “glamour mechanisms,” camera tricks that accomplish nothing beyond calling attention to themselves.). To be fair to Hamlisch, most of his score works to heighten the moods rather than yank us out of them.
Burt Lancaster doesn’t carry the whole show on his broad shoulders. It’s the people he encounters along the way—the bitter ex-mistress (Janice Rule), the pseudo-Communist nudists, the snubbed neighbors,
the boy from the broken home, the cougar on the prowl (Joan Rivers!)—that give us the true measure of the man. And speaking of supporting roles, I was surprised that I’d totally forgotten the interlude with Julie Hooper, the young girl who had once been the Merrill’s babysitter. It’s a significant addition to the narrative in John Cheever’s original short story. I’m not sure if it fits with the kind of man Ned once was (that man probably wouldn’t have balked at hitting on the babysitter), but there’s a creepy erotic chemistry happening between Julie and Ned that highlights his born-again gallantry, his growing desperation, and his tenuous grip on reality. For the young actress who played Julie, Janet Landgard, The Swimmer did not mark the beginning of a long career. She acted in only three other films after this one. She was interviewed in 2014 in a two and a half hour documentary called The Story of the The Swimmer. I haven’t been able to track down a copy.
Trivia: Surprisingly, Burt Lancaster wasn’t a very good swimmer when he first decided to take on this role. His spent months training so that his strokes in the pool would seem effortless.
Check out the fine, in-depth review by Steve Moffitt at http://www.wearemoviegeeks.com/2015/08/the-swimmer-the-blu-review/
For anyone interested in John Cheever’s short story, YouTube has a recording of him reading “The Swimmer” to a live audience in December of 1977. There’s also a YouTube recording of the story as read by Anne Enright.