Years after Frank and Eleanor Perry’s 1968 adaptation of John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer” flopped at the box office, star Burt Lancaster wondered if it might’ve done better if it had been directed by someone like François Truffaut, who could’ve prepared the audience more for the surreal and allegorical aspects of the film. It’s not that there’s anything drastically wrong with what the Perrys did with the material. But as the years have gone by and The Swimmer has become more of a cult favorite, some people—like Lancaster’s co-star Janet Landgard—have suggested that the film was ahead of its time, when really it’s too much of its time. The Swimmer is a studio picture masquerading as one of the European New Wave or emerging “New Hollywood” films. It’s not The Graduate or Antonioni. The look and the milieu are stodgier, and Marvin Hamlisch’s score—his first—is lavishly orchestrated and almost romantic. In 1968 at least, The Swimmer was too strange to appeal to the establishment, and too square to play with the kids.
Yet it’s that very betwixt-and-between quality that makes The Swimmer so haunting, because it’s about a man—and a culture—pining for a golden past that really only ever existed in their minds and in the movies. Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a New York advertising executive who shows up in swim trunks one morning in the backyard of some old friends in suburban Connecticut, and declares his intention to make his way back to his own house by going from yard to yard, “swimming” his way home. Along the way, he’s joined by his daughters’ former babysitter (Landgard) for a yard or two, and he reconnects with some people he hasn’t seen in a while, including an actress who used to be his mistress (Janice Rule). From the start, it’s clear that something’s a little off about Ned, besides his kooky plan and his tendency to stare off into the clear blue sky and wax poetic. He talks about his job, his wife, and his daughters in ways that baffle his friends, who seem to know something he doesn’t; and Ned appears confused when his friends refer to anything that happened to them over the past few years. It’s as though Ned’s been asleep for a while, and is waking up to a world that’s both familiar and disquietingly inhospitable.
The Swimmer isn’t subtle—at least not on its surface. The film overplays the idyllic nature of the first part of Ned’s morning, via sappy-looking lyrical interludes that were reportedly shot by Sydney Pollack after production wrapped, and inserted at producer Sam Spiegel’s request; and it hammers too hard at the way Ned’s afternoon starts to go wrong once he runs into some folks who aren’t as happy to see him. There’s a fairly pretentious metaphorical arc to Ned’s day, as he begins the morning reminiscing about his youth in a pleasant, sunny backyard and ends it shivering in a crowded public pool, surrounded by working-class acquaintances to whom he owes money. As the reality of Ned’s situation encroaches, the frame gets more crowded and the editing quicker, and while The Swimmer never expressly explains what happened to Ned (or where he’s been for so long), he’s an obvious symbol for the privileged, glad-handing hypocrite, who reflexively talks about how everything’s going “great” while his private life’s a shambles.
The movie works anyway, because Lancaster plays Ned as someone who actually believes his spiel, and is visibly shaken when he’s confronted with the reality that children grow up, spouses get divorced, and older men lose their jobs to younger men. It works because Eleanor Perry’s script marries the language of Cheever with her own observations about how suburbanites can pass long afternoons swapping cocktail orders and banalities about pool-filtration systems; and also because Frank Perry directs the actors so that sometimes they sound like overly phony performers in an absurdist play, and sometimes they sound like characters from a J.D. Salinger story, prematurely preoccupied with all they’ve lost.
For all that The Swimmer just misses—by virtue of being a youthsploitation picture that’s by and about middle-aged people—there’s a real ache to the film, epitomized by the healthy, virile Lancaster slowly crumbling as Ned, scene by scene. As effectively as almost any movie ever made about American suburbia, The Swimmer gets the contentment that comes with material success, represented by the sound of tinkling ice in a highball glass, on warm white pavement, in the shadow of a three-story house. And it gets how the fantasy is hard to sustain.
Chris Innis assembles interviews with key crew and surviving cast members (including Landgard and Joan Rivers, the latter of whom made her film debut in one scene) into a two-and-a-half-hour, multipart documentary, which, quite frankly, is much longer than a documentary about a 95-minute film needs to be. But while the interviews are shapeless and repetitive, they’re also filled with fun anecdotes (like the one about the day Paul Newman visited from his nearby house with a bucket of beer for Lancaster), and conflicting reminiscences of how and why the Perrys lost control of the film as the shoot wore on. In the end, while the interviewees disagree about what went wrong with The Swimmer—whether Lancaster was a sweetheart or a bully, and whether the Perrys were mistreated artists or lucky hacks—the general agreement is that this is a perfectly imperfect film, poignant almost in spite of itself.