Saturday Night Holiday Cinema: The Swimmer


Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema class is “The Swimmer,” in honor,  of course, of the Labor day holiday weekend. Labor day means swimming pools and there is an abundance of those in this enigmatic, poetic, disturbing film starring Burt Lancaster as ‘Ned Merrill, ‘a tragic hero for the ’60s.’ It’s one of Lancaster’s most searing performances. He is superb.

‘Like a series of hammer-blows to the gut.’

‘A mannerist, moody and wonderfully strange allegory of the squandered American Dream. Like a plunge into the deep end, it stings and refreshes.’ Film4

‘A woefully forgotten gem from the 1960s … a penetrating piece of introspection that was clearly ahead of its time.’

1968’s “The Swimmer” is a dream and a nightmare rolled into a deceptively simple mission of memory evasion. It’s a strange picture, but engrossingly so, taking the viewer on a journey of self-delusion and nostalgia that gradually exposes a richly tortured main character as he attempts to immerse himself in a life that’s no longer available to him. Strikingly made and outstandingly performed by Burt Lancaster, “The Swimmer” (directed by Frank Perry and scripted by Eleanor Perry) deftly combines disturbing realities with the romance of fantasy, constructing a riveting psychological portrait of a man set loose in his own playground of emotional fragmentation. Beautifully shot and executed, the effort is generous with disturbing, puzzling behavior, yet wise enough to provide clear clues to aid interpretation. (Blu-Ray)

The Screen: Cross-County ‘Swimmer’:Burt Lancaster Stars in Cheever Story Also Arriving, ‘How to Seduce a Playboy’

By Vincent Canby. May 16, 1966

“IT was one of those mid-summer Sundays when everyone sits around saying I drank too much last night.'”So starts “The Swimmer,” John Cheever’s spare, horrifying New Yorker story about a man going to pieces on the outer reaches of suburbia.

Neddy Merrill, an aging country club lothario, decides one afternoon to swim home across the county. As he makes his way through one friend’s pool and then another, portaging across lawn, garden and highway, it becomes increasingly apparent that gung-ho Neddy is a failure, a man whose vision of life has always been slightly bent, as if refracted through water. Neddy is swimming through his past to the nameless horror of an unrefracted present.

In Frank and Eleanor Perry’s flesh-out film version, which opened yesterday at the Cinema I, the story’s first sentence is articulated, not once but repeatedly, like a sort of opening chorus. Neddy’s gin-swigging friends, which Cheever drew as dim but recognizable phantoms, are visualized with an the subtlety of the gargoyles on Notre Dame.

Mrs. Perry, who wrote the screenplay has been as faithful as is possible when making a 94-minute film from a 13-page story. Using the Cheever original as a blueprint, she and her husband, who directed the movie (and who also collaborated on “David and Lisa”), have necessarily — some will say fatally—literalized it.The result is an uneven, patchy kind of movie, occasionally gross and mawkish, and one that I happened to like very much. I like the Perrys for having liked it, and I like Burt Lancaster, who is essentially miscast in the title role, for having wanted to do it. Without his interest, the film probably would never have been made.Although literal in style, the film has the shape of an open-ended hallucination. It is a grim, disturbing and sometimes funny view of a very small, very special segment of upper-middle-class American life. As a box-office proposition it obviously is an uncertain quantity and one that few of the major producers might have undertaken without the insurance of Lancaster’s name.It’s too bad that—because of factors over which he has no control—Lancaster is not better in the role. He does have the physique of the aging athlete who has kept his form, if not the youthful texture of his skin. However, try as he might; he simply can’t project Neddy Merrill’s vulnerability as a foolish, ridiculous WASP. When Lancaster, who has the dignity of a peasant, attempts manic intensity, it comes across as vigor.

The film, which was photographed mostly in and around Westport, Conn., has the look and smell of authentic suburbia—of burnt lawns and chlorinated water. The large cast of supporting characters—the friends whom Neddy meets on his cross-country odyssey—are always vivid. Especially interesting are Janet Landgard, as a grown up, filled out baby sitter who joins Lancaster for a while; House Jameson and Nancy Cushman, as a pairing of wealthy, aging nudists, who fancy themselves as left-wingers; and Joan Rivers, as a gross, nouveau venu, poolside party girl.”The Swimmer,” thus, is at its best when it is being elliptical. An encounter between Neddy and his former mistress, played by Janice Rule, bogs down in soapy detail, although the exposition does serve to illuminate a picture of Neddy’s unseen wife (“an aging Vassar girl in an understated suit”).

Somebody connected with the production seems to have felt that the story must be made more specific. Neddy’s self-delusion, bordering on madness, is portrayed with little patches of lyric, arty photograph, and the climax is punched home with a musical score that would sound overly passionate in a Verdi opera.Still, the voice of Cheever—describing the sudden, awful awareness of time passing, of the mortality of all living things— is never completely overwhelmed. As do few movies, “The Swimmer” stays in the memory like an echo that never quite disappears.

THE SWIMMER, screenplay by Eleanor Perry, based on a story by John Cheever; directed by Frank Perry; produced by Mr. Perry and Roger Lewis; a Holzon Picture released by Columbia Pictures. At Cinema 1, Third Avenue and 60th Street. Running time: 94 minutes.
Ned Merrill . . . . . Burt Lancaster
Julie Hooper . . . . . Janet Landgard
Shirley Abbott . . . . . Janice Rule
Peggy Forsburgh . . . . . Marge Champion
Mrs. Halloran . . . . . Nancy Cushman
Ticket Seller . . . . . John Garfield Jr.
Betty Graham . . . . . Kim Hunter
Howard Graham . . . . . Charles Drake
Chauffeur . . . . . Bernie Hamilton
Mr. Halloran . . . . . House Jameson
Stu Forsburgh . . . . . Richard McMurray
Cynthia . . . . . Diana Muldaur
Joan . . . . . Joan Rivers
Mrs. Hammar . . . . . Cornella Otis Skinner
Henry Biswanger . . . . . Dolph Sweet
Grace Biswanger . . . . . Louise Troy
Helen Westerhazy . . . . . Diana Van Der Vlis

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