Based on John Cheever’s celebrated short story of the same name, The Swimmer remains one of the most disturbing of all American films concerned with suburban alienation. When we first see Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), he’s a casual hotshot with an Olympian body that would be spectacular on any man, let alone a guy heading toward 50. Even Tom Cruise, contemporary Hollywood’s Dorian Gray, might shrink a little at Ned’s swimmer’s physique. Ned has the confident panther stroll to go with that body, too, as this is clearly a man who knows what he wants and has spent a lifetime successfully procuring it. We never learn what Ned does for a living, but we understand that he’s wealthy and lives a pictorially ideal life complete with trophy wife, children, as well as an obligatory variety of younger mistresses and envious friends. Ned observes that all of his equally pampered neighbors have pools, and that he could “swim home” from the hazy afternoon party that opens the film by walking a trail to his residence that includes all of their houses, stopping off at each one to paddle a lap in their pool. When Ned finally arrives home, we realize over the course of this strange afternoon’s swim that his life has been ruined.
The plot, which is surprisingly loyal to Cheever’s allegorical story, can be read a number of ways, and one shudders to think of the literal-minded think pieces that would greet this film online if it were produced in the present day. One can conclude that Ned’s life as he knew it has evaporated before he enters his marathon of neighborhood swims, and that his quest is a puny attempt to assert his dwindling masculinity. There’s also the faint suggestion of the supernatural, as Ned’s afternoon appears to span decades as we gradually learn of his professional and financial ruin, and of his shunning from the society he prizes. There’s a suggestion of alcoholism, which was more prominent in the short story, and that the pools are a symbol for getting lost in an addiction, or perhaps your own mind, which would scan with one of Cheever’s original inspirations: the Greek myth of Narcissus. Or perhaps Ned has lost his mind, or has died and is re-experiencing his life as a tour of early- McMansion-era disappointments.
The literal “truth” of The Swimmer doesn’t much matter, though, as it conveys the emotional texture of social disconnection with a vividness that’s exceptionally unusual for American films featuring iconic movie stars. Lancaster achieves something that’s difficult and altogether remarkable for films or art of any sort: He allows you to see how the hero sees himself and how that view poignantly and tragically differs from the way his world has grown to see him. We see this error in point of view most acutely in Lancaster’s superbly expressive physical gestures, as he allows us to understand that Ned’s a scoundrel who nurtures an illusion of himself as a naïve idealist, while his “friends” look upon him with mounting revulsion. This rift between exterior and interior perception probably accounts for a confidence that spurred Ned’s initial success, but it also bars him from directly experiencing his own life, as he’s locked up within his own regard of himself and his mirage of a past.
Most prominent films set in suburbia make far too much condescending hay of the suburban-dweller’s greed and hunger for conformity; too few bother to attempt to empathize with the invitingly comfortable illusion of cocooned safety that such a life promises. (One could also risk glibness and wonder where a Hollywood producer gets off lecturing their audience on greed.) The Swimmer shows a once-privileged man who grows to see that he’s a passive observer of his own life, and allows us to understand that this man’s fears of obsolescence and abandonment are our own. What this film captures is a weirdly inclusive nightmare of exclusion.
This digital restoration is most notable for its incredible sense of explosive color, which is particularly evident when looking at the perfect blues of the water of the various swimming pools. The newfound beauty of the color scheme intensifies the ironic contrast of the hero’s dilemma with his setting (in short, he’s a lonely man in a beautiful land crowded by affluent people) and renders The Swimmer even more existentially frightening than it was before. Skin textures are also specific, at times unforgivingly so, which also heightens the film’s themes of decay and elusion. Appropriate softness and grit remain. The English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio track isn’t as transformative as the new image, as it sounded a little flat to these ears, but it’s clean and otherwise sturdy.
"The Story of The Swimmer" is a surprisingly frank two-hour-plus collection of interviews with many of the film’s surviving participants. Burt Lancaster’s famous turbulence with director Frank Perry, who was eventually fired to make room for the actor’s friend Sydney Pollack, is covered in great detail, right down to the cast and crew’s understandable intimidation in the presence of the actor’s considerable physicality. Joan Rivers is even on hand to discuss her brief role with her characteristic mixture of frankness and awkwardness. The collection of stills galleries are unusually elaborate for this sort of supplement, and include Perry’s initial storyboards as well as shots taken from ultimately discarded scenes. Filmmaker Alison Anders’s interview with actress Marge Champion is negligible but fun, and John Cheever’s recitation of his own short story is an eloquent and creepy inclusion. Rounding out the package are TV spots, filmographies, and an appreciative essay by filmmaker Stuart Gordon. A thoughtful package.
Blossoming cinephiles are advised to acquaint themselves with this poignant exploration of privileged American ennui, which features one of Burt Lancaster’s greatest and most ambitious performances.