177. THE SWIMMER (1968)

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“[The Swimmer needed] someone like a Fellini or a Truffaut. It needed some kind of strange, weird approach to capture the audience and make them realize that, in a way, they were not looking at anything real.”–Burt Lancaster

“What the hell does this mean and who the hell would want to make it?“–Unnamed studio executive’s response to Eleanor Perry’s screenplay for The Swimmer

DIRECTED BY: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack (uncredited)

FEATURING: , , Janet Landgard

PLOT: Ned Merrill, a fifty something suburbanite, begins his day with a strange, simple goal of swimming  home through a “river of  pools.” Christened “Lucinda’s River,” after Ned’s wife, our protagonist connects the dots from swimming pool to swimming pool,  speaking to neighbors along the way who reveal a little more about his character. Ned’s odyssey inexorably drains his illusions, rendering his truth an authentic nightmare.

Still from The Swimmer (1968)

  • Although highly athletic, Burt Lancaster did not know how to swim and prepared for the role with several months of swimming lessons.
  • The Swimmer was the dream project of husband-and-wife team Frank and Eleanor Perry, with Frank directing Eleanor’ s adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. Fortunately for them, star Burt Lancaster got behind the project. Although the project was greenlit in the experimental sixties, Columbia Studio and producer Sam Spiegel were skeptical. Spiegel could not grasp the material, and constant fights with Frank Perry lead to the director being fired. Perry was replaced by Sydney Pollack, whose feel for the narrative lacked Perry’s poetic eccentricity. Luckily, Eleanor Perry was on set to the end to counteract Speigel’s clueless demands, one of which included asking for a happy ending. In the end Spiegel had his name removed from the film.
  • According to the documentary The Story of the Swimmer, one of the primary reasons Frank Perry was fired and half his scenes were reshot was a dispute over a scene with actress Barbara Loden. Lancaster and Loden apparently got caught up in their love scene in a pool, and down came Loden’s bathing suit top. Perry wanted the scene intact. Unknown to the director, Spiegel was a good friend to the actress’ husband, Elia Kazan. True to his nature ((Kazan’s reputation had already been cemented when he was the first to name names for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, destroying many lives for merely having leftist affiliations. Kazan never regretted his actions and publicly stood by his behavior)), Kazan told the Perrys he was okay with the scene, and then double crossed them by going to Speigel, demanding the director be fired. Spiegel’s reputation was almost as bad as Kazan’s and Loden expected her dismissal, which came when she was replaced by Janice Rule.
  • Spiegel promised to be available on set for Lancaster, but predictably broke his promise, which resulted in numerous problems, including Columbia prematurely pulling the plug on The Swimmer. An additional day of shooting was needed and Lancaster was forced to finance the final shoot out of his own pocket.
  • A young Joan Rivers makes her first cinematic appearance in a small role as a rich suburbanite. Surprisingly, she is quite good. Later, Rivers complained that Lancaster required numerous takes and made her character “unsympathetic,” which naturally inspires a smile from the rest of us.
  • Author John Cheever makes a cameo as a passed-out drunk.
  • This is the first film score by Marvin Hamlisch. Producer Spiegel gave him the gig after hearing him play piano at a party. Hamlisch was still in college at the time.
  • Despite all the production tensions, The Swimmer opened to good reviews, but predictably bombed at the box office. Its financial failure succeeded in quickly cementing a solid cult status.
  • The Swimmer was released in a poor-quality DVD in 2003 that quickly went out of print, and the movie was essentially unavailable on home video until Grindhouse Releasing’s 2014 Blu-ray/DVD edition.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Ned, coming upon an empty pool and a boy who is afraid to swim, believes his”project” has been ruined. Ever the innovator, the swimmer, with young cadet by his side, takes a pantomime dip. They breast-stroke, dog-paddle, and wade their way through a barren basin. Allegories abound in The Swimmer and there is truth, wanted or not, to be found in the cliche “out of the mouths of babes.” This scene is obvious, and in other hands, it would have been too much so. Yet, with assured direction and acting, it makes for a potent vignette here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The weirdness of The Swimmer is contextual, as opposed to visual or on the surface. Taking place in the course of a day, the film is a phantasmagoric metaphor for an entire life. The final, devastating scene, though expected, will hauntingly linger like the film itself does. The Swimmer’s composition resembles a short story, and is not at all what we expect in a film. The movie beautifully breaks the rules, with David L. Quaid’s cinematography and Marvin Hamlisch’s score enhancing the strange, impressionistic quality. 

Original trailer for The Swimmer

COMMENTS: With its wholly odd, even fragile structure and troublesome shooting, The Swimmer‘s success was dependent on the right actor in the title role. As a fifty-five-year-old acting veteran, Burt Lancaster refused to rest on his laurels, resisted typecasting, and increasingly took on riskier roles as he aged. In Ned Merrill, Lancaster gives a searing performance. You can never take your eyes off of him, even in his pathetic state. It remains one of his most memorably etched characterizations in an impressive resume which includes From Here To Eternity (1953), Sweet Smell Of Success (1957), Elmer Gantry (1960), The Leopard (1963), The Train (1964), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), 1900 (1976), Atlantic City (1980), and Local Hero (1983). Commendably, Lancaster took the role and film, even partly financing it while fully believing it would inevitably lose money.

The film begins in a cartoonish sunlight. Original director Frank Perry, by all accounts a taskmaster who allowed no room for improvisation, knew exactly what he wanted. The opening could be described as a surreal pastorale. Through sparse dialogue, we see, early on, that Ned’s vision of an American Eden is deceptive. He denies the bad portent of a lingering raincloud. His facade is brutally chipped away, pool-by-pool, through rejection (by both Janet Landgard and Janice Rule) and revelations of marital discord and financial failure, so much so that The Swimmer is sometimes categorized as a horror film. The ending also has repeatedly invited comparisons to “The Twilight Zone,” but these are lazy attempts to categorize a film which fiercely resists labels. The Swimmer, though imperfect, is one of those rare films that stands on its own, denying comparisons.

Excellent writing and performances overcome the film’s weaker elements—namely, the substitute direction by Sidney Pollack and post-production meddling by producer Sam Spiegel. Pollack, as his subsequent career proved, was more at home in linear melodrama. Almost all of The Swimmer‘s clumsier scenes, such as Ned racing a horse, and “dramatically enhancing” trick camera effects were directed by Pollack, at Spiegel’s insistence (only about half of Perry’s original footage was used). Janet Landgard, coming off  “The Donna Reed Show,” is superb as Julie Hooper, the Merrill baby-sitter who is alternately smitten with Ned and appalled by his attempted seduction. The versatile Janice Rule gives a thoroughly complex performance, which nearly matches Lancaster. Still, one wonders how Barbara Loden, an almost equally underrated actress, would have fared in the part of Shirley Abbott (her scenes were cut and the negatives destroyed).

It is, of course, Lancaster we are drawn to. Roger Ebert’s assessment is astute: “Lancaster is superb in his finest performance. He is a plausible hero and a hero is needed here. We must believe in the swimmer’s greatness if we are to find his fate tragic.” It is doubtful that The Swimmer would have worked with another actor. Lancaster, in contrast to his character, is the film’s anchor. He inspires our sympathy, even when we should know better than to give it. When all the earthly elements rain down upon Ned, we share in his vulnerability.

Upon its release, The Swimmer took many critics by surprise. Its unorthodox, episodic texture, and surreal humanism challenged preconceived critical notions. If critics were at loss to assess it, mainstream audiences were not. By and large they reacted with outright hostility. It is testament to The Swimmer that nearly fifty years later, it still inspires as much hate as it does admiration.

G. SMALLEY ADDS: “Aren’t you a little confused this afternoon?,” says Janice Rule’s scorned woman to Burt Lancaster’s superficially charming Neddy. It’s a sentence of unwittingly murderous understatement. From the moment Ned first materializes out of the woods at his neighbor’s pool, there’s something off about him. He’s impossibly sunny and optimistic, and quickly becomes obsessed with the strange notion of “swimming home.” None of his old friends have seen him in some time, and everyone looks at him oddly and seems to know something he doesn’t. Lancaster, and the efficient script, do an excellent job of making us like Ned, before pulling the rug out from us, and from him. This is a major difference between the movie and John Cheever’s original short story, where Ned’s delusional suburban aristocrat and his world of New England leisure is more of an object of direct satire from the get-go. I think the increased sympathy for the protagonist that Lancaster’s warm presence brings improves this strange tale. The movie version works both as a bizarre satire of bourgeois “swimming pool culture” and as a touching character study of a man who doesn’t realize the American dream has passed him by. I would rate The Swimmer as a “must see.”


“An uneven, patchy kind of movie, occasionally gross and mawkish, and one that I happened to like very much… Although literal in style, the film has the shape of an open-ended hallucination.”–Vincent Camby, New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Frequently silly but oddly memorable and unsettling, THE SWIMMER is an underrated blend of existential fable and social satire.”–TV Guide

“Burt Lancaster plays the title character, whose encounters with his upper-class neighbors (among them Kim Hunter and Joan Rivers) grow increasingly weird and disturbing as he approaches a cruel homecoming. A resounding commercial flop, this has since been recognized as a signature 60s film, prescient in its view of American self-deception.” J.R. Jones, The Chicago Reader

IMDB LINK: The Swimmer (1968)


The Swimmer (1968) – Overview – The TCM informational page includes extensive background notes and three clips from the film

The Music of Marvin Hamlisch — Part 3 — Film: The Swimmer (1968)The Swimmer page at composer Marvin Hamlisch’s official site offers as much information about the movie as the score

The Swimmer (Philosophical Films) – A list of discussion questions about the film intended for use in philosophy classes

DVD INFO: The recently released (and long overdue) Blu-ray/DVD combo edition (buy), from Grindhouse Releasing, includes a valuable two hour documentary about the making of The Swimmer, interviews, trailers, and a booklet with essays by editor Chirs Innis (The Hurt Locker) and . There is also audio of Cheever reading his original 1964 “New Yorker” short story. It is surely one of Grindhouse’ most impressive editions, rivaling the kind of packages put out by the Criterion Collection.

The Swimmer is also available for digital download, without special features (buy).

7 thoughts on “177. THE SWIMMER (1968)”

  1. nice review the swimmer despite its flaws is a haunting movie that lingers and since ive seen it it joined my list of fav , I dont find it to be weird though by surreal and anti old Hollywood

  2. A deeply flawed but nonetheless incredible film. It’s the reason I found your website. After peppering your comment section with my own biases I will swim off to the next pool, on my way home to the house on the hill, where I will beg admittance.

    Well, not really. I hate water.

  3. I wish they had kept Barbara Loren’s topless scene. They showed Burt’s bare ass after all ! Unusual and interesting movie.

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