Classic Corner: The Swimmer

John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer is based on a literary conceit that probably has no business being a movie. Our protagonist Neddy Merrill, a hearty, hail-fellow-well-met member of Connecticut’s upper crust, attempts to swim his way home through his neighbors’ pools. There are an awful lot of swimming pools in this spread-out suburb and he’s intent on taking at least a lap in all of them. But every dive into the chlorinated water seems to wash away another of Neddy’s self-delusions, eventually revealing a despised and broken man limping back to an empty house he no longer owns. Published in The New Yorker in July of 1964, it’s one of the era’s defining masterworks, brilliantly conjuring the quicksand of despair lurking just beneath the postwar boom. (One can’t imagine Mad Men existing without it. Neddy Merrill swam so Don Draper could run.) But how does one film such a story? Not easily, it turns out.

Director Frank Perry’s 1968 adaptation of The Swimmer has such a strange, unsettling power probably because it’s so unfilmable. This is a weird, unnerving picture, with the then 53-year-old Burt Lancaster strutting his freakishly tanned and toned body in a pair of too-short swimming trunks, leaning into every unsettling aspect of his screen persona amid a disorienting barrage of woozy, dated camera trickery and an overbearing Marvin Hamlisch score that New York Times critic Vincent Canby amusingly noted “would sound overly passionate in a Verdi opera.” Yet the film’s unsteadiness is how it gets under your skin. There’s a wobbly menace in these bland Connecticut gatherings, the too-friendly backslapping bringing with it a chill. “I drank too much last night,” they all bellow, almost in unison. Lancaster is too ardent, his eyes too blue. It doesn’t take the viewer long to realize there’s something seriously wrong with this man.

Neddy’s always surrounded by whispers and sad looks. The neighbors flash confused glances at each other when he mentions his wife Lucinda or his two daughters, who Neddy insists are back home at his mansion on the hill, probably playing tennis. (He sure loves to mention that his house has tennis courts.) Expanding Cheever’s 12-page story to feature length, screenwriter Eleanor Perry fashions a poolside rake’s progress in which our protagonist finds himself in progressively less refined surroundings. Neddy’s journey takes him from the company of the chauffeured elite – comically depicted as a pair of elderly nudists – to the tacky, new money types Neddy snobbishly insists don’t even make his Christmas card list, but he’s not above helping himself to their liquor and attempting to woo a young Joan Rivers (in her movie debut). Neddy’s eventually reduced to washing his feet at an overcrowded public pool, surrounded by the hoi polloi who hate his guts. And all that’s before his harrowing return home.

We only get fragments of the protagonist’s backstory, a few breadcrumbs here and there hinting at how far Neddy has fallen, and how much of the fall was his own dastardly doing. The most of what one might describe as conventional exposition comes during a dip with an ex-mistress, brilliantly played by Janice Rule. It’s near the end of Neddy’s journey across the procession of pools he’s nicknamed “the Lucinda River,” and like a lot of folks on these banks, she’s none too happy to see him. You could pull the scene out of the movie and it would stand alone as a shattering one-act of regret and recrimination, and it turns out the entire sequence was reshot in California long after this troubled picture had initially wrapped, after director Perry had been fired and replaced by Sydney Pollack.

Super-producer Sam Spiegel, who won Oscars for On the Waterfront and Lawrence of Arabia, doesn’t seem like a logical choice for such an insular psychodrama, and by all accounts he was a bad fit with the indie-minded Perrys, who had each recently scored unexpected Oscar nods for their 1962 debut David and Lisa. They’d originally envisioned The Swimmer as a smaller picture with unknown actors, and the constant behind the scenes clashes are the subject of Chris Innis’ exhaustive 2014 documentary The Story of the Swimmer, which at almost two-and-a-half hours runs 43 minutes longer than the movie it’s about. The most tantalizing revelation is that Rule’s role was originally played by Barbara Loden, and when her husband Elia Kazan saw the scene, he flipped out and ordered Spiegel to burn the negative. We can only wonder how it must have originally played.

The Swimmer was shot in 1966, but with all the backstage drama didn’t hit theaters until 1968, when it must have made quite the boozy, suburban nightmare double bill with John Cassavetes’ Faces. It was not a successful picture at the box office, but it’s the kind of movie that tends to haunt viewers with memories that linger for years after the credits roll. There’s simply no shaking this Lancaster performance. He’s remembered for his smarts and athletic prowess, yet Lancaster’s best roles explore the self-delusion behind that swagger. He’s fearless here, with his strapping, still godlike physique running counter to Neddy’s fundamental ridiculousness, looking the fool while cavorting with his grown daughters’ old babysitter (Janet Landgard) or insisting to Rivers that “I am a very special person. Noble and splendid.” He’s a towering failure, and we can’t look away from his collapse. 

“The Swimmer” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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