Judge Clark Douglas is swimming down his street from bathtub to bathtub until he terrifies all of his neighbors.
Our review of The Swimmer, published April 29th, 2003, is also available.
When you talk about The Swimmer will you talk about yourself?
"Lucinda's waiting. The girls are home playing tennis. I'm swimming home."
Facts of the Case
Neddy Merrill (Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry) is on a mission: he's determined to swim across every pool in the sprawling, upper-class area where he lives, working his way from pool to pool until he finally arrives at his lavish estate. His neighbors are puzzled by this, but most of them are willing to accommodate his bizarre quest. As Neddy works towards his goal, he encounters a host of friends and acquaintances from his past. Some of these people are delighted to see him, others seem to regard him with suspicion and some even seem to loathe him. Who is Neddy, exactly, and why has he embarked upon this strange mission?
>From its opening minutes, something about The Swimmer feels strangely…off. We open with a scene of Burt Lancaster stumbling through the woods in naught but a bathing suit. The scene is underscored by elegant music from Marvin Hamlisch, which swells to a fever pitch once Lancaster arrives at his neighbor's pool and dives in. The dialogue scene that follows feels ordinary enough at first, but there are some strange touches. The sudden outbursts of laughter, the nervous glances the neighbors give each other when Lancaster mentions his daughters, the way everyone keeps saying, "I had too much to drink last night," in the same alternately weary and jovial way. What's going on? Is this just an amateurish lack of tonal control on the director's part, or are these peculiarities intentional? Such baffling moments appear with increasing frequency as The Swimmer proceeds, but the more of them we see, the better we understand Lancaster's enigmatic character.
At a certain point, it becomes clear that The Swimmer isn't meant to be taken at face value, but is rather presented as a Twilight Zone-esque parable on the hidden horrors of suburbia and the tragic side of the American dream. This premise will sound familiar (perhaps tiresomely familiar) to those who have seen the likes of American Beauty, The Ice Storm, Mad Men, Little Children, Revolutionary Road, etc.—but what's astonishing is that The Swimmer predates all of those films by at least three decades, yet it's as hard-hitting and insightful as any of those efforts. While the other aforementioned titles examine a certain American subculture in hindsight, The Swimmer is a film of its time and about its time.
Getting The Swimmer to the big screen wasn't an easy process. Getting the necessary financing for the film was a challenge, certain scenes took much longer to film than expected and Lancaster fought bitterly with director Frank Perry (who eventually left the production, leading to a young Sydney Pollack doing some uncredited work on the film). However, the troubled production process somehow didn't translate into a messy finished product. Based on a 13-page short story by John Cheever, which initially appeared in The New Yorker, the film attempts to remain true to the details of the short story while fleshing out certain elements in order to create a full-blown feature. Remarkably, the movie never feels even a little bit padded—it's a very precise, focused film that feels very much like the cinematic equivalent of a short story, an atypically literary movie that is perfectly fine with asking its viewers to meet it halfway. Many things are unclear initially, and even after the credits roll, there are many mysteries that remain. A variety of theories exist as to what "really" happens in the film, but I'm not sure the specific answers are all that important. On an allegorical level (which is the level the film is primarily concerned with), the meaning of the story is hauntingly clear.
Lancaster often claimed that The Swimmer was the best film and performance of his career. That's really saying something considering some of the work the man has done, but it's easy enough to see his point of view. It's a performance that seems simple enough initially, but adds layer after layer as the film proceeds. Lancaster is simply remarkable during the film's closing sequence, which is as terrifying as any horror film finale in its own way. There are solid little supporting turns littered throughout the film (including the big screen debut of a young Joan Rivers), but this is unquestionably Lancaster's movie. It's a testament to the actor that he believed in the material enough to participate in it; stars ranging from William Holden to Paul Newman passed on the movie before Lancaster landed the part.
The Swimmer (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/1.85:1, which highlights the film's almost explosively colorful visuals. The film definitely has the look of a classic melodrama, with bright, vibrant colors everywhere, but there's also something oddly ominous about the visual design. At one point, Lancaster asks aloud why the sun isn't providing any warmth, and he might as well be commenting on the bright-but-chilly look of the film. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is strong, highlighting Hamlisch's big, bombastic score (which some have accused of going too far over the top, but which certainly makes an enormous impression) and presenting the dialogue with clarity. The biggest and best supplement is a 2 and 1/2 hour documentary called "The Story of the Swimmer" (broken into multiple parts), which features interviews with surviving cast and crew members (including Joan Rivers). You also get a handful of still and storyboard galleries, an interview with actress Marge Champion (conducted by filmmaker Alison Anders), a recitation of the original short story (read by the author himself), some TV spots, a DVD copy and a booklet featuring an essay by director Stuart Gordon. A terrific package!
The Swimmer is a knockout punch of a film and one of the great dramas of the 1960s. If you can look beyond the strange, melodramatic tone, you'll be treated to a tremendous cinematic rumination on the emptiness of the American dream. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Grindhouse Releasing
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