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

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

All the way up! We’ll make it cold like winter used to be.

Soylent Green (1973)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in Chuck Heston’s mid-career sci-fi trilogy (I’m not counting his Beneath the Planet of the Apes extended cameo). He hadn’t so much as sniffed at the genre prior to 1967, but over the space of the next half decade or so, he blazed a trail for dystopian futures. Perhaps the bleakest of these came in Soylent Green. And it’s only a couple of years away. 2022 is just around the corner.

Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
(SPOILERS) Black Hawk Down completed a trilogy of hits for Ridley Scott, a run of consistency he’d not seen even a glimmer of hitherto. He was now a brazenly commercial filmmaker, one who could boast big box office under his belt where previously such overt forays had seen mixed results (Black Rain, G.I. Jane). It also saw him strip away the last vestiges of artistic leanings from his persona, leaving behind, it seemed, only technical virtuosity. Scott was now given to the increasingly thick-headed soundbite (“every war movie is an anti-war movie”) in justification for whatever his latest carry-on carried in terms of controversial elements, and more than happy to bed down with the Pentagon (long-standing collaborators with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) to make a movie that, while depictinga less than auspicious intervention by the US military (“Based on an Actual Event” is a marvellous catch-all for wanton fabrication), managed to turn it into a parade of heroes pe…

Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.

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…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…