“When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?”
“On a sunny early autumn day, the camera runs along the autumnal forest of an affluent suburb in Connecticut. The running is that of Ned Merrill (Lancaster), a seemingly successful, appealing and popular middle-aged advertising executive, clad only in swimming trunks. We never learn where he has arrived from. He walks out of the woods and into the backyard of some old friends sitting by their swimming pool. He chats with them, then he has a sudden idea: he tells his friends he intends to “swim” home across the county by dropping in on friends’ swimming pools which form a consecutive chain leading back to his house. He dives into the pool, emerges at the other end and starts his journey.
At first Ned gets warm welcomes as he meets old friends. These are mostly upper middle-class, well-to-do people with homes in the upscale outer suburbs. However, there are hints that Ned has been away for up to two years, and he brushes off any questions about himself. Each stop brings him face to face with some aspect of his life. The first one is with his youth when anything was possible, while the last one exposes the current collapse of his family life and where everything seems lost.
As the day wears on and Ned sees those who have been closer to him more recently, the welcomes begin to sour. Ned’s proud boasts about his wife, daughters and home are met with strong mixed feelings, jeers, suspicion and even anger – especially from women. In one backyard Ned meets a 20-year-old girl who, years ago, had babysat his daughters. She leaves with him, at first thrilled to do so owing to an unspoken crush she had for him in her early teens. But when Ned rather clumsily tries to woo and kiss her, she flees. He carries on with his “swim,” dropping by the pools of sundry other friends as it slowly unfolds that his life has somehow gone quite wrong.
He crashes a party at one pool. While he is allowed in at first, Ned is thrown out when he has an outburst after spotting a hot dog wagon he had once bought for his daughters, but which had recently been sold in a white elephant sale. He then shows up at the backyard pool of Shirley Abbott, a stage actress with whom he’d had an affair several years earlier. She is still feeling bitter and hurt. When Ned tries to rekindle things, this poolside meeting ends very badly for both of them.
As the day ends, Ned winds up in a crowded public swimming pool where he runs across and is shamed by local shopkeepers to whom he still owes money for unpaid grocery and restaurant tabs. When some of them comment about his wife’s overall snobbish attitude and his out-of-control daughters’ recent troubles with the law, he doesn’t want to hear it and angrily flees. As the sun goes down, a shivering Ned at last staggers up a rocky hill, shoves open a rusted gate and walks through an overgrown garden with an unkempt tennis court. A thunderstorm begins as Ned knocks on the front door of a locked, dark and thoroughly empty house, whereupon he breaks down on the front stoop and weeps.”
Based on a short story by John Cheever, this deeply affecting film was shot in and around Westport, Connecticut, in the summer of 1966 when star Burt Lancaster was 52, and features Cheever in a bit part as one of Ned’s “neighbors” roughly halfway through the film. It’s an uneven film, but ultimately tells more about the truth behind the surface of East Coast suburbia that nearly any other work of its kind.
The Swimmer is also something of a patch job, since director Frank Perry departed near the end of filming, and Burt Lancaster even plowed some of his own money into the film to finish it, but despite its somewhat compromised origins, the film is deeply affecting, and more than a little unsettling. Indeed, the film’s ending is so downbeat and enigmatic that Columbia Pictures, the film’s distributor, didn’t know how to handle the film, and shelved it until May 15, 1968, when the film finally went into general release.
After Frank Perry’s departure, the film was finished by the late, and deeply talented Sydney Pollack, though the film is signed by Perry alone, and Perry’s wife, Eleanor, scripted the film from Cheever’s story. Shot in the blazing summer, the film’s visuals are dominated by the green of well manicured lawns shaded by huge trees, conveying both the affluence and indolence of its characters.
The final scene, in which Lancaster, at the gate of his empty house, breaks down weeping, is almost unbearably poignant, as he contemplates the ruins of his home, his family, and his life. As the film’s tagline asked, “when you talk about The Swimmer will you talk about yourself?” More than just about any other film, The Swimmer captures the essential emptiness of the American Dream; the house, the family, the facade that all too easily crumbles.
It’s deeply affecting and committed filmmaking, and remained Lancaster’s personal favorite of all his films. As his character, Ned, observes rhetorically near the conclusion of The Swimmer, “nothing’s turned out – nothing’s turned out the way – I thought it would. When I was a kid, I – I used to believe in things. People seemed happier when I was a kid. People used to love each other. What happened?” Life happened, with all of its unexpected twists and turns. And some get crushed by it, like Ned Merrill.
Here’s the text of Cheever’s original, horrific ending, which the film superbly – and faithfully – translates to the screen: “The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys’ for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else? Hadn’t they agreed, as they usually did on Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home? He tried the garage doors to see what cars were in but the doors were locked and rust came off the handles onto his hands. Going toward the house, he saw that the force of the thunderstorm had knocked one of the rain gutters loose. It hung down over the front door like an umbrella rib, but it could be fixed in the morning. The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.”