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USA 1968
Directed by
Frank Perry
94 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Swimmer, The (1968)

Watching The Swimmer one can’t help but recall the 1967 classic, The Graduate, which was released a year earlier. Although Frank Perry’s film is now largely forgotten both films take a critical view of affluent self-satisfied  middle-class America for whom the swimming pool is the symbol of comfortable, hedonistic success.

Adapted for the screen by Perry's wife, Eleanor, from a  story by John Cheever, the titular character is Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) an apparently  wealthy, middle-aged man living in a well-to-do belt of suburban Connecticut.  As the film opens Lancaster appears at the swimming pool of some neighbours. He is greeted warmly by them as they have not seen him for some time. In conversation Ned realizes that every house between theirs and his own “over the ridge” has a swimming pool, meaning that he can effectively “swim” home on a kind of imaginary river, which he calls the Lucinda, after his wife.  And so he sets off.

From the get-go it is clear that something is wrong although we do not know what.  On the one hand, Ned who is clad only in bathing trunks has appeared from nowhere, brimming with an exaggerated enthusiasm for everything. On the other, his hosts seem slightly ill-at-ease, equally over-eager to welcome him.  

As Ned progresses on his journey each stop brings him face to face with some aspect of his past. Each one gradually eating away at his veneer of charming self-confidence.  An elderly woman tells him to get off her property, he makes a pass at a young woman who  once baby-sat for his daughters and  she is creeped out, he encounters a former mistress (Janice Rule) who rejects him before he has to negotiate a public pool (an odd inclusion not in Ned's original map of his journey)  where he is humiliated by staff and former providers.  Finally, he arrives exhausted in a torrential downpour at his own home which, as we expect, has long been abandoned.

The original story has a bold concept and it is well realized by Perry (with some help from an uncredited Sydney Pollack who directed the mistress sequence) helped by a strong performance by Lancaster who appears in nothing but a pair of swimming trunks throughout.  We never find out what happened to Ned, his wife and daughters which is slightly frustrating but not a major issue (although it did not fare well critically or commercially) and there are good grounds for the film taking its place amongst the best works of late ‘60s American film-making.

FYI:  The film gave 22-year-old composer Marvin Hamlisch his first score.




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