The Swimmer (1968): Burt Lancaster

One of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. Based on a John Cheever story, this was not an easy adaptation for film. Cheever’s short story is about the convergence of fantasy and reality, a privileged life that was actually a happiness house-of-cards.

The Swimmer was the story of a man who’s life has come apart, but is behaving like everything is fine. The audience quickly suspects there’s something not quite right, but at first it’s just a loose thread. As the film continues, the depth of his problems are revealed, and his entire life is sadly  unraveled.

This is a curious film, but it is hard to watch.  Lancaster gives an interesting performance of a man who appears to have had everything, and then lost everything.

Not everybody is pleased to see him.

I wonder what Lancaster saw in the script that drew him to the story.  The resulting film seemed to please no one. Director Frank Perry was fired and replaced by Sydney Pollack, who did recut the film and filmed some additional scenes, also with reshoots with different actors. Producer Sam Spiegel fired Perry and personally took control of the film, hiring other actors, ordering the revisions and giving instructions to Pollack.

His past has a hollow ring as he meets up with the former babysitter of his kids (top). Not even a drink seems to help (above).

The story of The Swimmer follows a middle-aged man who, swims across the county, pool by pool, till he reaches his home.  Along the way, he meets friends, associates and a former mistress, all who peek another layer of his story, until his plight is known, and a sad story turns even sadder. In each of the episodes, the gap between his character and those he meets, widens as you see his retreat from reality.  We never quite know the source of his downfall, other than psychologically, he is blocking out the ruin of his life.

He finally arrives home.

If you are looking for an uplifting film, this ain’t it.

The script was written by Eleanor Perry and directed by her husband Frank Perry.  This was an old team.  Eleanor Perry had in her contract that no lines of dialogue could be changed without her approval.  Frank Perry had experience directing sensitive material, but he fought with Lancaster and Spiegel, and there were issues on the set.  In a power-play with Spiegel, the Perrys lost.

With is former mistress, who he hurt and she’s returning the favor. Janice Rule replaced Barbara Loden as this scene was re-shot with director Sydney Pollack.

Lancaster was quoted as saying the film should have been made by a foreign director like Fellini or Truffaut, someone with a non-Hollywood view of the subject matter and better able to show the character’s distorted state of mind.

Here was a 50 year old man in a swimming suit for 95 minutes. Lancaster was in remarkable shape, no man that age is supposed to look that athletic, except Lancaster.  His statuesque appearance is part of the character, a god-like man who’s American Dream life has crumbled.  The film requires the character to run, dive, swim and lift women in the air. It was physically as well as emotionally demanding.

Lancaster was an athletic man, he was a gymnast and acrobat, but not a swimmer.  He studied with a UCLA water polo coach for months on how to be a convincing swimmer. He studied months, approaching this like training for any other role where he absorbed the character.

Marvin Hamlisch wrote the music, this was his first film score.  He is interviewed at length for the DVD special features.  It was interesting to hear his thoughts on composing the score, but as I was watching the film, the music was jarring and called too much attention to itself.  The music emphasized the tragedy, yes, but it was overwrought and subtracted, rather than added to the experience.

The special features also included a long interview with Michael Hertzberg, the assistant director on the film, and Ted Zachary, the first assistant director.  Both shed light on the production, as well as events that led to Frank Perry’s firing and the resulting changes to the film. Hertzberg, who would go on to produce Mel Brooks films in the 1970s, offers keen insight on the film-making process.

The Swimmer was a film unseen by me for 40 years.  I found it as unsettling as I did then.  Lancaster’s character, Neddy, is both revered and despised by those in the film.  He is held up as almost deserving of his fate, the victim of a shallow existence of living high on the hill, superior to others, but not far enough from the little people who almost cheer at his downfall.  The life he built, in this tony Connecticut town, is now his prison, as he is broke and stripped of his family.  Everywhere is a reminder of his former life, a beautiful facade, but hollow and haunting.

For an interesting character study, and a journey into a fractured state of mind, The Swimmer is a good bet.





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