When sitting around a swimming pool in the summer it is hard for me not to drift off and think of the “The Swimmer.” This is a subversive and challenging film. It shakes the foundations of the suburban dream and highlights the fragile nature of that dream. It is loaded with psychological content with elements like guilt, purification and repression. Lots to ponder on a hot summer day with a drink in hand.
The core of the story is the journey of the main character Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) who decides to swim home across the county. Ned first appears in a bathing suit unannounced as he enters the back yard of one of his old friends, the Grahams. After a swim in the couple’s pool he decides to return home across the upscale suburban valley by swimming in a string of swimming pools along the way. He is going to swim home down the “Lucinda River” he proclaims as he looks across the valley. Lucinda is the name of his wife.
The film is based on a John Cheever short story. The original is lean, dense and only 9 pages long. Frank and Elenor Perry's film interprets and expands generously on the original story by adding new characters, surreal imagery and a moody sound track. Cheever’s story is subtle and nuanced while the film is garish, at times melodramatic, and stylized in a bold 60’s fashion. Not all of the additions work perfectly and they tend to “date” the film, but the core themes are still there and well developed.
Early on Ned appears as a hero on an epic journey. He is fit and handsome. A specimen. He is like a Homeric hero full of confidence and optimism for his quest. It is a sunny warm day, and the water is blue and inviting. At each pool along the way he is greeted with surprise, and usually handed a drink. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” comes to mind as the journey gets darker and more foreboding the further he goes down the river. The natives get increasingly dangerous and hostile.
We soon realize that something has happened in Ned’s life, but it is never spoken of directly. The conversations along the way are oblique but telling. There are hints that Ned has failed in business, and is probably not working. He is flirtatious and has had messy affairs. He has caused financial loss and owes money to his friends. We find out he has two daughters and a wife: a woman of high social standing. They strove for material wealth and success and at some point he has become estranged from his friends. Ned is in denial about all of these things. He talks about his wife fondly and claims his daughters are at home playing tennis. He donates $1000 dollars to a charity and attempts to carry on the sunny disposition he started his quest with. It becomes clear from the reaction of the people he meets that no one is buying his story. Ned is living in denial of what has happened to him. By the end of the film he is a broken man, cold and defeated, pounding at the door of his own deserted home in a rainstorm. The fallen hero is finally forced to confront reality.
The film is rich with psychological content. At the beginning of his adventure Ned projects a childlike state, happy with the wonder of his own quest. “Good Christ Ned, will you ever grow up,” states one of his friends. In a Freudian sense he is acting from pure id. Ned attacks his quest with a primal energy and will not let anything stand in his way. He bounds through the forest between the properties like a panther. He is single minded in his swim home with no need of reality getting in the way. When he meets two children along the way, he bonds with them better than with the adults. These situations are at first playful but then deteriorate into awkwardness.
The young girl he meets turns out to be his family’s former baby sitter. She is now 20, but clearly attracted to Ned. The girl likes Ned’s plan, and on a whim she joins him on his journey. It’s an act of regression for her too we find out. They play like kids in a horse-jumping ring. She reveals a long time crush on him and tells him about unwanted approaches by men in her life. These stories shock Ned and he volunteers to be her protector. There is implied displacement occurring here with the babysitter substituting for his own lost daughters. The encounter becomes awkward with a suggestion of desire by Ned. It is a complex moment. He is conflicted with his own childlike regression, his fatherly instincts and his masculine ego. The reality check of the ego kicks in and the spell of childlike innocence is broken.
In another scene he meets a young boy. The boy’s family has drained their pool because they fear their son cannot swim. The boy acts defeated and powerless, and in a sense emasculated. Ned finds a way to overcome the lack of water by creating a fantasy swim across the empty pool. They get along well and in a way Ned rescues the boy, who wants him to stay, but he moves on to continue his journey.
The elements of water and swimming also suggest Ned is attempting purification or a cleansing. Ritualistic bathing is meant to wash away the sins of the flesh, with absolution the goal. It is an important spiritual practice, like Baptism in Christianity, Wudu in Islam, and The Mikveh in Judaism. The Graham’s go into detail about the purity of their pool and the their filtration which eliminates ''99.99.99 percent of all solid matter out of the water.'' If Ned thinks he is symbolically visiting Lourdes here, he is mistaken. His neighbor’s are only interested in themselves and maintaining their own illusions. They are only interested in baptism by alcohol with “a diluted martini.”
For most of the encounters with his friends, "Neddy" is not taken seriously and the relationships deteriorate along the way. His friends come across as two-faced and fragile. They appear to be aware of what has happened to him, but are only half-hearted in their pleasure to see him. No one presses him as to what’s going on or offers much in the way of support. It’s awkward for these people to see that one of their own has fallen. A false sense of security hangs over the social gatherings and pools. It’s an idyllic lifestyle these people inhabit, unburdened by conscience, with little self-judgment. They have no wish to have their oasis contaminated by someone who broke their social code. The film has a subversive warning here: Is our life the one we want or are we living a lie?
Ned himself is in denial. He has repressed the unhappy facts of his life. He speaks of his wife and daughter as if nothing has happened. For him his welcoming home is waiting for his heroic arrival. He tries hard to maintain the illusion but it slowly breaks down.
In one of his last encounters, Ned meets a woman with whom he has had an affair: the woman he cannot recall the name of earlier in the film. Here we get details of a messy business and some background on his wife. Ned appears exposed at this point. He starts to feel cold, and the weather is changing. Ned is very needy (Neddy-needy, is there a play on words intended here?) for companionship and asks the woman to go away with him. The burden of the illusion he is carrying becomes too much as he is barely able to swim across this last pool.
When he finally reaches his home it’s raining. He crosses the dilapidated property to the front door. The house has been deserted for a long time and the film closes with Ned weeping on the ground at the door. It’s a dramatic ending and we are left to contemplate ourselves and perhaps a broader metaphor. The air of a hangover looms over the film. The party is over. Innocence is lost. There are threats everywhere around us and deep down we long for a time when "people seemed happier.” But let's not worry about that now. Lets have a drink and go for a swim.
Note: The film is directed by Frank Perry and written by his partner Eleanor Perry. This team also made “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” which is also a very notable film.