The Swimmer has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Comments on this post have been closed. Please read the official Certified Weird entry for The Swimmer and post any future comments about the film there.

When Burt Lancaster began his career as an actor, it appeared this was going to be a career in the mold of Errol Flynn or Randolph Scott. In films like The Flame and the ArrowJim Thorpe-All American, The Crimson Pirate, Vera Cruz, Ten Tall Men, From Here to Eternity, The Kentuckian, Trapeze, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and Run Silent, Run Deep, Lancaster seemed to personify and embody the American ideal hero.

However, behind those swell guy teeth and that brandished chest was a shrewd actor, who, as he seasoned, made increasingly interesting choices.  In the second half of his career, Lancaster often played off that earlier, heroic persona with admirable risk taking.  If  Elmer Gantry and Seven Days in May might be aptly described as loudly presenting the dirty underbelly of Americana, then The Swimmer intimately one-ups them.

In 1968 director Frank Perry with writer/wife Eleanor Perry adapted John Cheever’s acclaimed allegorical New Yorker short story, The Swimmer, and brilliantly cast the iconic Burt Lancaster as the pathetic hero.  The Perrys had previously teamed for the equally disturbing David and Lisa (1962) and made quite a splash on the art film circuit.  Surprisingly, that film even garnered a couple of Academy Award nominations, which enabled the team to make The Swimmer.

Still from The Swimmer (1968)The Swimmer begins on an absurdly bright, sunny day.  Ned (Lancaster), the epitome of a tanned, virile, soulless suburbia, decides he is going to enthusiastically embark on a strange, epic, connect-the-dot journey by “swimming” home through the neighborhood swimming pools. He takes along a nubile girl (Janet Langard), but at each pool he encounters facets of his failed life and the crack in his facade slowly begins to expand until the inevitable, tragic conclusion.  The physical reality of The Swimmer (a day in Ned’s life) is mere allegory and the allegorical symbolism of Ned’s entire life which is, in fact, the physical realm into which we are drawn.

Lancaster, the sex symbol, is perfection as he superficially pats his neighbors on the back, encounters a discarded mistress, is confronted by his numerous lies, his betrayals, his failure as a husband, father, friend and neighbor.  By the time he reaches his own home, his paradigm has altered from cartoon sunshine and forced, surface smiles to despairing rain.  When he reaches his porch, he is vulnerable to all the elements which mercilessly come down upon him in all forms, including nature itself.  Ned has ultimately realized his hollow state.

Impressively, The Swimmer has a dreamlike, short story, episodic pacing, not at all what is expected in the medium of film, and this adds to its uniqueness.  The Swimmer, fragile indeed in its quite odd structure, is a case where casting really counted.  It would not have worked without its star.  Unfortunately, The Swimmer is out of print and even when it was briefly available, Columbia disrespectfully released it an a cheapo presentation.  (NOTE 2/12/10: Astute reader MCD tipped us off to the fact that The Swimmer is available for download from Amazon for $9.99). Still, it’s a rarity in being a film that actually lives up to and surpasses its reputation.

The Perrys went onto make Last Summer and Diary of a Mad Housewife before divorcing.  Separately, the two never equaled the artistic level they achieved together.  Lancaster continued to carefully cultivate his screen persona in films like 1900, Moses the Lawgiver, Atlantic City, Local Hero, Rocket Gibraltar and Field of Dreams.

6 thoughts on “GUEST REVIEW: THE SWIMMER (1968)”

  1. Thanks for the heads up, MCD! This is the second time we’ve found a movie that’s out of print that Amazon’s “Video on Demand” service has rescued. (See Greaser’s Palace for the first). Hopefully this is a trend that will continue. In these days of digital delivery there’s no reason for any title to ever be completely unavailable from a legitimate source.

  2. This movie is also available as a download from Netflix, free if you’re a member. Yes, free.

    However, having just watched it, I’m afraid I disagree with your review. I had high hopes from the word-of-mouth, and an opening overhead tracking shot held promise, but things started sinking towards the bottom immediately thereafter. Some descriptions that come to mind: stagey, hammey, wooden dialogue, every possible special effect trotted out and over-used, times of obvious length-stretching filler. I could go on, but the absolute worst was the soaring, overpowering, slap-in-the-face orchestral score by Marvin Hamlisch. Yikes.

    Still, I liked Lancaster’s role, and the (downloaded) print was very good-no artifacts to speak of, and deep color saturation. Too bad the movie didn’t justify the print (or Cheever’s great story), but fortunately it was only an hour and a half long. I’m filing this one under ‘disappointing’.

  3. Um, I think this one should be re-evaluated. I’ve read there is a minor cult following for this film and I would’ve never believed it until I saw it. It is deceptively weird and haunting, dreamlike even. Ned Merrill is the ultimate party/life crasher isn’t he? Comedic elements abound…slo-mo jumping over equestrian hurdles with bubbly orchestral music; a piccolo playing kid selling lemonade;uppity senior citizen nudists; etc., etc. And let’s talk about those cameos…Janice Rule from 3 Women, a young Joan Rivers, and freakin’ Dolph Sweet from Nell Carter’s Gimme A Break TV sitcom! Wow! Oh, and some choice dialogue to boot…
    “Your belly is like a heap of wheat…”
    “They even have my hot dog wagon.”
    “Here’s to the sugar on the strawberries”
    “Spread your toes!”
    Yeah, as you can tell, I enjoyed this film.

  4. Though probably unintended “The Swimmer” has great relevance in today’s world of those whom we refer to as “The 1 Per-Cent.” Here we are exposed to mostly seemingly secure and comfortable high-income suburbanites. Unlike others I see Ned in a heroic role as one who awhile back thought he had achieved the American Dream, only to have lost it all, rendering him into a state of total denial. He’s basically a decent guy who got caught up in our materialistic culture, leading to his ultimate crash. As he becomes more aware of the corpses he left behind on his way to the top, he desperately and earnestly tries to make amends to those he wronged, only to belatenly learn that he is too late, and his former aquaintances, unforgiving. When he finally faces reality, Ned’s abandoned home represents that he, himself is but an empty shell, and all that ever really mattered is his family that apparently abandoned him. This film acts as a warning of what can happen to anyone who abandons basic values in order to reside on the “top of the hill.” It’s an old lesson, but hauntingly and beautifully told in “The Swimmer.”

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