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.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.