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 ten-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.