Lawrence Russell

The Swimmer (1968) dir. Frank Perry writ. Eleanor Perry (based on the short story by John Cheever) cine David L. Quaid edt. Sidney Katz, Carl Lerner, Pat Somerset music Marvin Hamlisch art Peter Dohaus

star. Burt Lancaster (Ned Merrill), Janet Langard (Julie Anne Hooper), Barbara Loden (ex-mistress), Tom Bickley, Bill Fiore, House Jameson, Kim Hunter, Janice Rule, Bernie Hamilton, John Garfield Jr., Charles Drake, Dolph Sweet, Marge Champion, Nancy Cushman, Diana Muldaur, Joan Rivers, Diana Van Der Vlis

Cheever Surrealism: an American Midsummer Night's Dream

A man emerges from a dry forest of scrub oaks and haunted wildlife in a slow long distance lope, naked except for his tight swimming trunks, enters a garden dominated by a large feminine swimming pool. His entrance is mysterious and primal, like a dream figure leaving one memory and entering another. He dives into the blue, swims a couple of lengths, rises sensuously onto the apron of the pool where he is handed a fresh cocktail by a beaming woman leaning forward from her recliner:

Helen: (purring) Neddy... where've you been keeping yourself?

Merrill: (marvelling at the sky) Oh here and there, here and there... what a day... have you ever seen such a glorious day?

Thus starts the odyssey of Ned Merrill (Lancaster) through the rural Elysian yards of upstate New York and the perpetually stoned society of party animals who own them. An amnesiac with no memory of his fall from grace (quite possibly suffering from a bad case of chronostasis), he stands sipping his drink, glimpses other yards, other pools in the cascading landscape of forest and dale.

He has an epiphany:

Merrill: If I take a dogleg to the south west, I can swim home....

How? Why?

Merrill: Pool by pool they form a river... all the way to our house... I'll call it the Lucinda River, after my wife.

Burt Lancaster The Swimmer

A noble, romantic gesture from the lips of man dressed in self-deception. At first he appears to be an incorrigible optimist, the very epitome of the American child-man driven by bourgeois altruism and free market determination. But as we follow his progress pool-by-pool towards his stated destination, his God-like persona gradually decays, and the essential schizoid nature of his reality is revealed. He swims the pool of his former mistress, has an ugly encounter. He swims the pool of his former baby-sitter, takes her with him for part of the journey. A storm threatens, he injures himself cavorting in a horse paddock. He disrobes completely for a swim in the pool of two nudist patricians, limps off into the dimming light.

If you make-believe hard enough, then it's true for you

In a key scene, he encounters a solitary boy playing a flute at a lemonade stand below a tree. The boy's parents are away somewhere. Merrill has no money but cajoles the boy into giving him a drink. He asks the boy if he can use his pool... but when they arrive at the pool, they find it empty. The boy says he can't swim very well. Undaunted, Merrill gives the boy a lesson, and they simulate different strokes across the floor of the dry pool. "If you make-believe hard enough, then it's true for you," Merrill tells him, and the boy is suddenly delighted by his apparent success in swimming an entire length.

But as Merrill departs, he hears a sinister reverberation... he turns, sees the boy bouncing on the spring-board above the deep end.... Yes, in this low tech but high concept film, symbolism is everything.

The screenplay is by Eleanor Perry, at that time the director's wife. It should be noted that it's no mere photocopy edit of the John Cheever story and is arguably better. Cheever's talent was for writing realistically about his social milieu in a very unrealistic way. He was an American surrealist. Events happen, nothing is rational. A product of disfunction in his writing method? His stories are really condensed novels because they use summation and long time-frames. In fact, they read like social essays, their style slightly archaic in the manner of the scented rhetoric of Henry James. The Swimmer is typical in this regard, its Biblical tone and elliptical humor quite anti-dramatic.

Eleanor Perry solves this by dilating the action into a series of symmetrical scenes at a series of symmetrical swimming pools. She also accelerates the symbolism by introducing new characters and reinventing others, and all this works despite a modest debt to the expressionism of the Italian filmmaker Antonioni. What is a Hollywood film without sexuality? Julie Anne (Janet Langard) the nubile baby-sitter is a clever departure from the original story, yet the invention is pure Cheever. This character allows us to see Merrill through eyes of an innocent on the edge of corruption, for elsewhere the characters are already corrupted. Everybody drinks, pretending success, but in fact they are anticipating failure. Although Merrill's failure is an unstated business debacle, the bigger failure is something that's both abstract and physical, spiritual and natural, that deals with the coming into and the going from life itself. As Merrill advances, he thinks he's evolving, but in reality he's devolving.

In the Cheever story, Merrill starts out with his wife but leaves her at the first pool; in the Perry film, she exists only as an ideal, a device to drive the action towards its paranormal ending.

post-war sexist ass-slapping triumphalism

So while The Swimmer uses a paradigm rather than a plot, the narrative is nevertheless very visual and metaphoric. For some, the heavy reliance on sub-text will be a delight; for others, a bore. Rooted in the episodic tradition of Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress, the action seeks to be instructive and moralistic. At times, it's like watching a National Geographic documentary about the rites and customs of some forgotten tribe in the Amazon jungle. It's pure anthropology.

Is life a dream? Is there such a thing as a collective unconscious? The director Frank Perry uses some interesting montages and double exposures in the bridges that link the scenes. Merrill stares at the sky, sees a river of pools... or, Merrill stares... and from his eye a dark horse emerges. These art-house saccades are elementary in this age of computerized special effects, but they are effective and accurate indicators of Merrill's psychological condition.

And how about Burt Lancaster... did he ever make a bad film? Probably... but The Swimmer isn't it. His attitude (post-war sexist ass-slapping triumphalism) and his physique (the trapeze artist in middle-age) are excellent for the role. Yes, he's the star (he's in every scene) but his role isn't sympathetic. Typically he conflicted with the director (who thought Lancaster wasn't right for the role) during filming and even came to believe what everyone else at the time said about the film, i.e., it was a disaster.

© LR 11/01


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