THE SWIMMER (1968)

Director: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack (uncredited)

Writer: Eleanor Perry

(Frank Perry’s wife, from a story by John Cheever)

Cinematographer: David L. Quaid

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Janice Rule, Kim Hunter, Marge Champion

Running time: 95 minutes.

The Swimmer is director Frank Perry’s ambitious effort to translate John Cheever’s surrealist novel to the mixed reality of the big screen. Burt Lancaster, still trim and powerful at fifty-five (he spends most of the picture in a minimalist pair of black swimming trunks), plays Ned Merrill, a quixotic hero in search of lost dreams. He comes to the astonishing conclusion that he can find them again on the river Lucinda; in actuality a series of backyard swimming pools in suburban Connecticut that he has named after his absent wife.

Ned embarks on his journey from swimming pool to swimming pool, loping through side yards and forests, each dive bringing encounters with social archetypes of his cloistered life and characters from his own past. He meets a former babysitter with whom he shared a tender attraction; an ex-mistress; a liberal couple who endorse nudity as a form of open expression; and a young boy who may symbolize young Neddy himself and whom he symbolically teaches to dive off the high board into an empty pool, one is startled to notice, but at this point it is clear that the water is a metaphor. Ned Merrill is attempting to cleanse himself of sins both real and unknown, and return to the natural watery streams of his vanished youth.

If Ned’s tour through water is meant to purify his soul, however, the external effects are terrifying. Those unfamiliar with Lancaster’s acting range will be intrigued to see him transform from a dreamy and perplexed man-child to a distorted reflection of adult longing. Here, the film works both as metaphor and time travel device; as Ned crosses through the water, he visits various stages of his own lost life, and the once blue sky turns dim and frightening, inexorably setting the stage for the disturbing final scene when Ned reaches his own dark destiny.

The Swimmer is one of the first films scored by Marvin Hamlisch, who contributes a disturbing and dissonant musical track that hauntingly supplements the long journey of Ned Merrill. Frank Perry began production in 1966 on location in Westport, CT. The director’s previous films David and Lisa, which earned him a Best Director Oscar nomination in1962, and Ladybug, Ladybug, a cautionary tale of nuclear horror, proved that he was a visionary filmmaker with a capacity for handling quirky stories. Unfortunately, creative differences with the star forced him to leave the film before it was completed, and Lancaster brought in a young (and uncredited) Sydney Pollack to add additional scenes. The result is a somewhat uneven but still absorbing picture that perfectly complements the aquatic theme of this year’s festival.


(return to FILM FEST 2002)

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