Burt Lancaster swims out of oblivion
In the beginning was a stream with a deer lapping at the water’s edge in a forest. Music floods the bucolic scene with melancholy, while a gliding camera offers the point of view of a man whose feet crunch through the leaves that line the forest floor. What is this natural idyll? The camera picks up a sniffing bunny rabbit then sweeps onwards. There is an owl on a branch. Sometimes it’s day, and sometimes it’s night, but it is always the same moment. This all makes sense, somehow, thanks to the momentum of the camera and the extraordinary power of Marvin Hamlisch’s composition, which sounds like a prelude and an elegy all at once. Whose life story are we simultaneously anticipating and mourning?
Here comes the swimmer! Seen from above and wearing only tiny blue swimming trunks, he jogs through the forest, then, as a clearing emerges, leaps from rock to rock with catlike grace. His face still obscured, his figure framed by trees, he reaches a back-garden swimming pool and dives in. Low strings burst into high strings. Euphoria! Bliss! Heaven on earth!
This is as good as it gets. This is life lived by the animal instincts of the body. But this is not the way Neddy Merrill has always lived, and now it’s later than he thinks.
The Swimmer was first a short story by John Cheever, published in The New Yorker in 1964, then adapted into a 1968 film by the husband-and-wife team of Eleanor and Frank Perry: Eleanor wrote the screenplay and Frank directed. Burt Lancaster plays Neddy Merrill, a middle-class, middle-aged family man who lives in the Connecticut suburbs. One fine day – the day over which the film takes place – Neddy realises that his neighbour’s swimming pools form a curved line around his neighborhood and has the bright idea to swim home. He names the line of swimming pools ‘The Lucinda River,’ after his wife.
As he swims this unique waterway, Neddy encounters people whose reactions to him paint a strange picture of the man before us. We soon find that there is an amnesiac quality to Neddy, who does not have the first idea of the life events that his neighbours allude to first with sympathy, and later with anger. But Neddy is focused on his one singular purpose: to swim home. This challenge starts out as joyful, and Cheever’s prose in the novel is ecstatic: “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition.” This sense of divine communion is translated on screen through the faraway look in Lancaster’s light blue eyes, the wistful tone of his voice, the way he holds himself like a man who has seen no less than the truth of his destiny. The actor channels the same lonely nobility as he did in his earlier role in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), only instead of tuxedos and ballrooms, he now commands speedos and swimming pools.
Yet as the day progresses, the weather changes — inside and out. A perfect summers’ day and a man in peak athletic condition turn into sheets of rain pouring down on a spent force who hobbles up stainless-steel pool ladders. It’s a dramatic change in mood that naturally lends itself to symbolism. Perhaps this one day is meant to suggest a whole life? The quality of suggestiveness is a tenet of the Cheever short-story, loyally retained in the film adaptation. Even as the narrative arc of The Swimmer unfolds, a mystery remains at the core of the film, holding space for whatever the viewer may bring. What is made clear, however, is the criticism of the milieu Neddy has assimilated into, until the day he decided to step into himself. His tragedy is that he hasn’t lived a life that supports this new, strange and spirited mode of being. The film channels Neddy’s infectious bliss as he ploughs through the water, until this sensation is slowly replaced by desperate confusion when Neddy is forced to face his forgotten past.
Eleanor Perry uses dialogue to genius effect to highlight the disconnect between the version of reality that Neddy inhabits, and the one that everybody else is in. This is subtle at first, with characters talking at slight cross-purposes, and their tiny misunderstandings could be put down to clashing personalities.
“Swim to his house. Why would he want to do that?” asks Peggy Forsburgh, a hungover blonde in a blue and brown swimsuit whose feet Neddy tried to kiss. Her question could read as disdainful, but the earnest wonder in her delivery cuts a different way once we know the way the story ends.
At the next house, Howard Graham talks about the resale value of Neddy’s property, irritating the swimmer who says “I want my girls to be married in that house.” The Grahams look at each other with alarm, but nevermind, Neddy’s on a mission. These people are shallow, bragging about their pool filter; he’ll just swim in their pool and be on his way. As Cheever writes, “He saw then, like any explorer, the hospitable customs of the natives would have to be handled with diplomacy if he was ever to reach his destination. He did not want to mystify or seem rude to the Grahams nor did he have the time to linger there.”
Lancaster offers a performance of pure charisma, delivering poetic lines with the conviction of a man alive to the majesty of existence. So much so, that the viewer is more than inclined to side with him on his quest, brushing aside the jarring reactions of neighbours. At Mrs Hammar’s house, Neddy asks after her son, somehow not knowing that he has passed away. The social faux pas and irritating remarks escalate, until he is angrily confronted at the recreation-centre pool, and asked about all the money he supposedly owes.
The ugliness of these later scenes have their counterpoint in the way Lancaster is framed as he moves through the landscape in the first half of the film. His athleticism marks him as a superior specimen to the groaning, hungover neighbours, who are either floppy with drink or turned on by superficial trappings. Neddy says things like, “Here’s to sugar on your strawberries” in a dreamy voice, gazing into women’s eyes like a lover. He is a romantic hero, a figure worth following. And he does, in fact, gain a follower. Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard) is a young woman with buttermilk-yellow hair in a blue gingham bikini. Neddy is puzzled to see her grown up, since he remembers her as the babysitter to his girls. Don’t adults always say things like that to people they knew as children? In The Swimmer, cliches mask the truth that Neddy is truly lost in time.
Julie not only laughs off his confusion, she is impressed by his mission to swim home and agrees to join him. This paves the way to the most sublime, silly, triumphant scene which, though not included in the Cheever story (Julie was invented for the film), bears out a comment from journalist Rachel Cooke: that for all Cheever’s personal suffering, his fiction held “startling glimmers of optimism, its sense always of moving towards the light.” Julie and Neddy find an empty riding ring containing jumps intended for horses. And so they impersonate horses, running and jumping and running and jumping. As the two move in slow-motion, the camera picks up the ripples of naked skin on their bodies, while Hamlisch’s score hits notes of jazzy glory. Tomfoolery never felt so special as two healthy adults behaving like animals.
And yet, as the scene plays out, the qualities responsible for Neddy’s downfall begin to show. He actually has a fall, after striving too hard to impress the much younger lady, taking on a big jump and fumbling the landing. In their next scene together, Neddy’s strange romantic overtures cross a line into creep territory and Julie flees. Although the film is in thrall to Neddy as he presently appears, signs of who he used to be keep returning. His character was set in stone long before the film began, and Neddy is too old to be reborn now.
Just what an unimpressive man he was – and perhaps still is – we come to understand better in a two-hander with another woman, Shirley Abbott, his ex-mistress, phenomenally embodied by Janice Rule (who replaced original cast member Barbara Loden). The husky assurance of Rule’s voice is betrayed by the darting looks that show an animal on edge. Per Cheever: “They had had an affair last week, last month, last year. He couldn’t remember.”
Shirley’s house is located towards the end of The Lucinda River. She sits in her garden, a knockout in a crimson bathing suit. At first, Neddy watches awhile from a distance, appreciative, before she sees him and freezes. When he approaches, offering easy intimacy and familiarity, he is perplexed to find it not well-received. Shirley is hostile, resistant to his advances, withering in response to his attempts to drum up romantic nostalgia. When it finally emerges, their story paints a picture of him as just another supposedly respectable family man with a wife and kids, a good job and a big house, who took what he could from a woman on the side until it was time to play respectable again.
Shirley’s distress is palpable. Rule howls and cries. She says, “Neddy, I can’t” as he takes her by both hands and draws her into the water of her pool. The hurt he inflicted in an earlier timeline has set into a brittle unhappiness, with oceans of suffering easily stirred underneath it. Still, Neddy comes onto her, wanting to kiss her, eager to hear that what they had was love, clinging to his notion of himself as a good guy, a romantic hero. When she tears away from him, Shirley’s parting shot is ragged with layers of misery: “YOU MET YOUR MATCH WITH ME, YOU SUBURBAN STUD. I WAS ACTING!”
The promise of the day is gone. The poetic figure of the swimmer has been revealed as a “suburban stud” with delusions of grandeur. Even though the audience now sees him without illusions, Neddy himself cannot shed them, and forges onwards, limping and cold, across a busy road full of honking cars; through the recreation-centre pool where confrontations abound; up a rock face that all but exhausts him; through an overgrown garden and, finally, he arrives at the gates to his home.
“It was a terribly difficult story to write,” John Cheever told Paris Review journalist Annette Grant in 1969. She was visiting him at home in Ossining, New York where the pair went swimming together. He explained why: “Because I couldn’t ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying.” The story’s success relies upon the layering of two realities – Neddy’s and the truth. To Cheever, the difficulty wasn’t so much the technical matter of seeding enough clues for the reveal to land, but in drumming up the emotional weather. “It wasn’t a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables. When he finds it’s dark and cold, it has to have happened. And, by God, it did happen. I felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story.”
The cold and the dark here refer to the condition of Neddy’s home. Not the one he carried in his mind’s eye throughout the film; the real one he arrives at as thunder cracks and the heavens open. No one is there. Not Lucinda, not his daughters. The front door is locked, the window panes are smashed. Neddy cranks the door handle over and over, moaning and sobbing. The camera travels inside the house to show the door handle jolting from within, then pans around a dilapidated space empty of all furniture. No one lives here anymore and it suddenly becomes clear that his neighbours, who first appeared so rude and shallow when talking about the house or asking about his family, knew this all along. The whole swimming home jag was a flight of fantasy, a fever dream from a man who built himself up on a life he cannot remember, and which now lies in ruins.
It didn’t have to be this way.
“When I was a kid I used to believe in things,” Neddy tells Shirley, early on in their scene.
There is a kid in this story with a chance of going another way. Neddy meets Kevin Gilmartin Jr selling lemonade for 10 cents a cup. The two of them hang out, their legs dangling over the edge of the Gilmartins’ empty pool. Kevin is cut up about not being a good swimmer or popular at school, where no one wants him on their team. But Neddy is fervent that there are matters of more importance.
“Well, it’s a lot better that way, you take it from me. At first you think it’s the end of the world because you’re not on the team. Till you realise…”
Kevin Gilmartin Jr.: Realise what?
Ned Merrill: You realise that you’re free. You’re your own man. You don’t have to worry about getting to be captain and all that status stuff.
Kevin Gilmartin Jr.: They’d never elect me captain in a million years.
Ned Merrill: You’re the captain of your soul. That’s what counts. Know what I mean?
Swimmer that Neddy is, it is likely he once was the captain of the swim team, and did not heed his own advice. When, decades later, he fell out of status with the society that picked him, everything went cold and dark. Only in the parallel world that is The Swimmer does he still captain his soul, setting out alone and brand new through the clear, light-green waters of The Lucinda River.