He comes out of nowhere, armed only with a pair of trunks. It’s an end-of-summer day somewhere in moneyed New England, and Ned (Burt Lancaster) — the mysterious semi-hero of the 1968 art film “The Swimmer” — jumps into someone’s fancy pool. Luckily, he knows the owners, who weren’t expecting him but are glad to see him after what seems like a long absence. As they small talk and share drinks on a hangover Sunday, Ned beams the boyish, bright-eyed, optimistic glee we’ve seen from plenty of previous, Golden Age Lancaster performances.
But there’s something off. His friends ask him where he’s been and how he’s doing, but his answers are vague and dodgy. He seems faintly deluded, possibly crazy. And he wants to spend the day “swimming” his way home, hopping into every pool on his way back to his presumably tony manse. As he goes, what seems idyllic — if a not-so-subtle takedown of the bored wealthy — gradually turns sour, then sad, then nightmarish. One of the pool owners is angry over an old sleight, for which Ned can never, it seems, atone. He runs into a now grown-up and hot girl (Janet Landgard, a model) who used to have the hots for him, but that crumbles too. A run-in with an old flame (Janice Rule) goes much worse.
“The Swimmer” eventually winds up at a strange, metaphorical place, more dream than reality. It’s like a puzzle with a few missing pieces. Ned’s explanations start to contradict themselves, as when he asks for a babysitter, only to be later confronted with what sounds like his daughters getting into a car accident. He’s literally stripped down to his essence — just a bathing suit that he briefly discards when he happens upon the estate of rich nudists. (The running enthusiast Lancaster was, at 55, in better shape than most of us are in our 20s. Still, a butt flash has nothing on his sometime co-star Kirk Douglas rolling around with Farah Fawcett at 64 in the 1980 sci-fi “Saturn 3.”)
This is a singular and strange vision, which is all the more shocking when you learn it was a troubled production. Based on a 16-page short story by John Cheever, “The Swimmer” was the third film by wife and husband team, Eleanor and Frank Perry. She wrote; he directed. Starting with their surprise low-budget hit “David & Lisa,” about teen mental patients in love, their films have a heaviness and an earnestness that masks subversive and restless thinking. (Even “Mommie Dearest,” which only Frank was involved with, is actually quite clear-eyed and empathetic, when Faye Dunaway isn’t screaming about wire hangers.) In truth, Frank, who clashed with Lancaster, was booted off the production. Only half the footage is his, and the rest, including a melodramatic but well-played fight between Ned and Rule’s bitter former affairee, belongs to Sidney Pollack.
The real clash, though, isn’t in the production. It’s in an old time being overrun by the new. The film concerns one man’s gradual awakening to his irrelevance and failure. As it happens, the film is perched between a dying Hollywood system on the cusp of being redone. Filmed in 1966, the old puritanical Production Code, already eroding, was about to be wiped out for good. Even the mainstream was about to adopt more arty, experimental flourishes. “The Swimmer” embraces these, even if they’re occasionally cheesy ones. (There’s a dissolve-heavy romantic walk through the woods with an antiseptic flute song on the background — one that will appear more eerie in retrospect.)
Lancaster himself was Hollywood royalty, and about to at least somewhat forgotten. He’d spend the remainder of his career (he died in 1990) working only in fits, far from the staple he was at his prime. (Not that these were lesser works; the anti-western “Ulzana’s Raid,” from 1971, is one of his very best, to name but one.) “The Swimmer” knows exactly how to use him. He’s old school artificial, but here it really does look like an act, and a delusional one. It’s as though his Ned only knows how to communicate in broad strokes and is physically unable to be confronted with failure. As the film goes on, he essentially breaks. He becomes pathetic and wounded — the opposite of the manliness he exuded in “The Flame and the Arrow,” “From Here to Eternity” and even the sociopathic role he played to an Oscar in “Elmer Gantry.” It’s a vision of one man’s apocalypse, but also about the less stable landscape upon which movies were about to trod.
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