Where do you begin with a movie like The Swimmer (1968)? Supposedly a cinematic masterpiece, it somehow traps itself in 1960s self-consciousness. Every scene seems designed to hammer its eternal greatness into our viewing heads. Over the decades, it has achieved a sort of cult status, and everyone else seems to have bought into it. But hey, I’m the guy who didn’t like Point Blank (1967), so what do I know?
I’d never seen the movie (and yes, I’m old enough to remember when it came out), but Burt Lancaster has long been one of my favorite actors. His turns in Brute Force (1947), The Sweet Smell Of Success (1957), Elmer Gantry (1960), Seven Days In May (1964), and Atlantic City (1980) rank among my favorite onscreen performances by any actor. In addition, he stood out in many lesser-known films, such as Vera Cruz (1954), The Young Savages (1961), and Valdez Is Coming (1971). And, despite this impressive resumé, I’d heard from more than one source down through the years that The Swimmer was indeed his finest hour. TCM aired it the other day, and I DVRed it, anxious to finally absorb a great piece of moviemaking. Beware of spoilers ahead.
Great it was not. Not even close. But it could’ve been. The story of a man visiting a series of upper-middle-class friends at their homes in the Connecticut countryside was compelling in the sense that, with each visit, more and more is learned about him until it’s revealed he’s not really what he purports to be. But the revelation is hazy, incomplete, and ultimately unsatisfying. We only learn isolated fragments about who he really is. Is he crazy? Has he been in prison? Is he really married with children? Or is he completely delusional about everything? Who knows? The movie makes no attempt whatever to connect any of the dots of his life, dots which are strewn about at each pool.
And there’s the problem. Those damn swimming pools, a weak gimmick if ever there was one. Lancaster gets the idea to swim in every pool between the first house he visits and his own home, apparently on the other side of the county. I grew exhausted just thinking about this long trek, especially since Lancaster was clad in nothing more than brief swim trunks for the entirety of the film.
He shows up at the first house in his trunks, materializing like an apparition out of the weeds into the pool area behind the home of some friends. Where he came from or why he is dressed in swimwear is never explained, nor are we meant to question it. He’s just a nearly-naked guy running around in the woods and appearing at other people’s swimming pools. On top of that, almost no one is surprised to see him in this fashion. How very sixties.
At the first pool, there are two married couples lounging around, fully clothed, and the women can’t keep their hands off Lancaster’s athletic body. Lancaster flirts with them in return — inordinately, I might add — and the husbands don’t seem to mind at all, which I thought was very odd. But then again, they weren’t supposed to mind and we weren’t supposed to notice that they didn’t mind. We were only supposed to notice how friendly everybody was. The women found Lancaster irresistible and the men thought he was a swell guy. No one asked him where he came from or why he was there. Nearly everyone offered him drinks and wanted to engage him in small talk.
Each poolside visit drags him further and further downhill, and we’re supposed to be piecing together the fragments of his life, but through it all, he remains a very blank slate. Easily, the most memorable scene is the brief one with Janice Rule, who plays an old flame. Rule, a vastly-underrated actress, who was almost always far better than the films she appeared in, steals the scene from Lancaster and very nearly steals the entire movie.
Following the scene with Rule, Lancaster’s character continues his slide until he arrives “home” for the incomprehensible ending.
Director Frank Perry was somewhat hamstrung in his effort to tell this story, because most of the film takes place around these pools. The swimming is, I’m sure, allegorical in some sense, but I didn’t get it. Instead, it seemed truly extraneous and emblematic of the nonsensical “heavy-ocity” that was all the rage in the 1960s. This engaging story of an unraveled life could’ve been much better told without it.
Recommendation: See this only if you like the pseudo-existential pretensions of the 1960s. Otherwise, read a book instead.