Skip to main content

Swim to his house. Why would he want to do that?

The Swimmer
(1968)

(SPOILERS) Metaphorical interrogation of the dissolution of the American Dream (or “Death of a Salesman in swim trunks” as star Burt Lancaster called it), in which Ned Merrill (Lancaster) takes it upon himself to swim home through a trail of swimming pools across a well-off Connecticut suburb, his sunny disposish gradually turning darker and less carefree as the journey continues. It’s a picture that impresses thematically more than it does stylistically, but is anchored by a compellingly out-of-touch performance from its star.


Who, on a purely facile level, was in remarkable shape when he made the picture (53: it was released when he was 55), spending as he does the entire time in his bathers. We’re clued in quite early that all is not quite right with Ned’s world. He has the appearance of an easy-going guy, at one with his world, enjoying a state of being his hungover friends the Westerhazys lack (“What a day. Did you ever see such a glorious day?”), and his decision to make the journey has the initial élan of some sort of ‘60s experiment in zen, liberty and freedom of expression, particularly in light of his rigidly indolent, overfed, over-indulged and over-privileged peers (“Swim to his house. Why would he want to do that?”)


But Ned’s awareness of his neighbours and his own family appears faulty, conflicting with their knowledge. Mrs Hammer tells him never to come to her house again, as he failed to visit her son in hospital (the background to this is unclear). His daughters’ ages vary according to whomever he is talking to at the time (are they married, do they need babysitting, did they have a car crash?) and his manner around women suggest a serial philanderer, attempting to inveigle any he meets into accompanying him, and making plays for them indiscriminately; he succeeds in bringing along young Julie (Janet Landgard) for a spell, since she once had a crush on him and finds his quest romantic, but she runs away when he makes intimations towards her (“You’re very precious to me… I’ll be your guardian angel”).


The trek reveals the emptiness of both those he meets and Ned. Many are aware of what he is hiding from himself (or know enough to know that his world is seriously awry), yet they are revealed to occupy booze-soaked, shallow veneers of existences, of pool parties and peripheries. They’re concerned with his deficiencies rather than their own, that he is coming asking for money again, or about the bills he hasn’t paid, or the problems his untethered daughters once caused.


Ned’s comments suggest enlightenment (“You’re captain of your soul. That’s what matters. Know what I mean?”) but in fact mask his self-deception (“You see, if you make believe something hard enough is true, then it is true to you”). By the time he meets Joan Rivers(!), he is announcing “I’m an explorer”, parroting the comparison someone earlier made to his mission. Like the blight at the heart of the American Dream, he has assumed he can just take what he wants and remain untarnished by the effect and fall out, be it in respect of sexual relationships, financial ones or those relating to race (he assumes the African American chauffeur he meets was the previous employee).


Ned approaches the point of the gathering storm, having to cross thoroughfares and crowded public pools (where he is forced to borrow money and shamefully wash his feet); his idyll is shattered. This most of all during a memorable encounter with Shirley (Janice Rule), who eviscerates his delusions of machismo (telling him he bored her to tears, and “You met your match in me, you suburban stud”) and brings out his pettiness and jealousy (“On a 10-point scale how do you rate him in bed?” he asks of the man she is expecting).


Ned’s persona is propped upon a thin illusion of validation. One might be initially tempted to read that he is absolutely fine until dragged into the mire by others, those who cannot let go of the past, that he is a man alone in a state of existential tranquillity. But it’s Ned who cannot let the past go, who has hopelessly erased the crumbling of his life and relationships and recreated a pristine replica of what it once (likely never) was. So, inevitably, he finds himself subjected to the rudest of awakenings, back at his shuttered, dilapidated and locked former residence, lame of foot amid a downpour.


He has lost everything that enabled a profligate lifestyle (job, house, quite probably wife and daughters) and, without them, all he has is a state of self-deception. The distinction between Ned and his neighbours is merely that his brutal reality hits home, and hard. They get to see themselves as better than him, or drown their emptiness for a while longer, but are just as hollow, unforgiving and self-absorbed.


I don’t really buy the reading the Ned is dead, simply because I don’t think it adds anything to the picture’s interpretation. Ned’s schism is evident enough without it. Lancaster’s performance is one of perfected incapacity to perceive, and the supporting performances, including Kim Hunter and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Diana Muldaur are mostly entirely complementary.


Less appropriate is Marvin Hamlisch’s overly melodramatic, mawkishly doomed romantic score, attempting to drown the picture in emotional immoderation. At times it supports Ned’s deluded dreams, but too often it’s allowed to leak incontinently over the content. One might argue it adds to the feeling that the picture is caught between eras, the old Hollywood of Lancaster and the new one, the dawning of the wunderkinds. One might see that as thematically resonant, but I think it hurts the restraint on display elsewhere.


It seems the production was not without its problems. Frank Perry had become a film director on the back of his wife Eleanor’s screenwriting (she adapted The Swimmer, based on John Cheever’s short story). He didn’t get on with Lancaster and was fired by producer Sam Spiegel following the screening of the first cut, with Sydney Pollack coming in for reshoots (including the outstanding Janice Rule scene; she replaced Barbara Loden). I’d stop short of labelling The Swimmer a classic, but it’s certainly a fascinatingly of-its-period picture, and its star was entirely justified in seeing it as containing his greatest performance.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Trouble’s part of the circus. They said Barnum was in trouble when he lost Tom Thumb.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
(SPOILERS) Anyone of a mind that it’s a recent development for the Oscars to cynically crown underserving recipients should take a good look at this Best Picture winner from the 25thAcademy Awards. In this case, it’s generally reckoned that the Academy felt it was about time to honour Hollywood behemoth Cecil B DeMille, by that point into his seventies and unlikely to be jostling for garlands much longer, before it was too late. Of course, he then only went and made a bona fide best picture contender, The Ten Commandments, and only then pegged it. Because no, The Greatest Show on Earth really isn’t very good.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting (1973)
(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

You had to grab every single dollar you could get your hands on, didn't you?

Triple Frontier (2019)
(SPOILERS) Triple Frontier must have seemed like a no-brainer for Netflix, even by their standards of indiscriminately greenlighting projects whenever anyone who can’t get a job at a proper studio asks. It had, after all, been a hot property – nearly a decade ago now – with Kathryn Bigelow attached as director (she retains a producing credit) and subsequently JC Chandor, who has seen it through to completion. Netflix may not have attracted quite the same level of prospective stars – Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were all involved at various points – but as ever, they haven’t stinted on the production. To what end, though? Well, Bigelow’s involvement is a reliable indicator; this is a movie about very male men doing very masculine things and suffering stoically for it.

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish (2018)
(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions …

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
Cheeseburger Film Sandwich. Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon. Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie. Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie, arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate terms, it only sporadically fulfils…

I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
(SPOILERS) There isn’t, of course, anything left to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey, although the devoted still try, confident in their belief that it’s eternally obliging in offering unfathomable mystery. And it does seem ever responsive to whatever depths one wishes to plumb in analysing it for themes, messages or clues either about what is really going on out there some around Jupiter, or in its director’s head. Albeit, it’s lately become difficult to ascertain which has the more productive cottage industry, 2001 or The Shining, in the latter regard. With Eyes Wide Shut as the curtain call, a final acknowledgement to the devout that, yes, something really emphatic was going under Stanley Kubrick’s hood and it’s there, waiting to be exhumed, if you only look with the right kind of eyes.