The Swimmer (1968)

Dir. Fred Perry. Starring Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule

It’s a shame this movie doesn’t work better. If it were made in the present, I like to think that some of the more surreal photography would be amplified, although what would be much more likely is that A24 would get a hold of the material, put it in south Florida, and ensure we got a faceful of magic hour glinting on the tall grass. This would not necessarily be the biggest issue; a much larger problem is that the movie would miss out on Burt Lancaster, who is one of the few human beings I’ve ever seen on the movie who could give a movie like this a chance to work in the first place. I don’t need to fawn endlessly over Lancaster, who might be my favorite actor of all time, but his presence in this movie is absolutely essential. I think there are plenty of movie stars past and present who would be perfectly happy to appear in every scene of an hour and a half long movie in a short bathing suit, but I don’t know that there’s anyone who could wear that thing as naturally as Lancaster does. Here’s a man who barely even puts on a towel over the course of the movie; some woman says early on that Ned is still in great shape, and a man replies that Ned is one of those men who can eat whatever he wants and never put on weight. Only a man who has no shame, perhaps because of some defect but more likely because he knows he can blow women away, can get away with running around Connecticut like he’s in a one-man Jockey ad.

Lancaster, who was fifty-five(!) when this movie came out, is certainly in great shape. He looks like the kind of man who can swim as many lengths as he cares to, which many actors can do. The magic is in the fundamental slightness of Ned’s character. People who are going through a nervous breakdown do not frequently say to themselves, “Golly, I’m having a nervous breakdown,” and Ned is clearly in the throes of one and not thinking about it in the slightest. Lancaster has this way, which I don’t think we’ve seen the like of much, of looking absolutely terrific and acting like a man who is much smaller than that size. It’s impossible to imagine a Dustin Hoffman or Walter Matthau getting away with what Lancaster is getting away with, even though one can imagine both of them playing men who have frankly lost their sense. It’s just as impossible to imagine Clint Eastwood or Bob Mitchum playing this role, even though they would have looked right for the part. There are a handful of loose contemporaries who could have done something in the neighborhood of what Lancaster’s doing—Richard Burton, Robert Ryan, William Holden, maybe Steve McQueen—but for the most part I don’t even think that august group of actors could have been in a situation that humiliating for so long. Lancaster’s tremendous gift as an actor was this ability to embrace a character’s shame, to be accepting of the weirdness in him, but to look like a million bucks. At his best, it’s what George Clooney tries to do; Brad Pitt has been chasing this particular lure his entire career and has never quite pulled it off. The Swimmer only works, I think, because Lancaster wills it to working. I think about his blue-eyed close-ups, the way his body looks when he runs, the game smile he’s got across his face as he hurdles the jumps made for horses, the confusion in his face when people press the reality of his situation on him and the vague mania of greeting old pals who don’t remind him of the past. The part of the movie where he describes his plan to “swim home” through his neighbors’ pools is fine for what it is; it’s the way he walks around those almost universally crowded swimming pools, scoping them out before he dives badly into each one, that makes this nut believable. And quite sad, too.

The movie’s best scene is one that, if I had known the beats of the plot beforehand, I would not have expected much from. Ned runs into a kid, a fourth- or fifth-grader named Kevin (Michael Kearney), and he takes a peek at the pool; it’s empty. Kevin is, by his own admission, not a very good athlete, and at an age where some form of athletic prowess goes a long way, Kevin is kind of an outcast. Ned comes up with an idea; the two of them lower themselves into the empty pool, and Ned decides that if he does the strokes all the way through the pool, this one will still count as a stop on the Lucinda River. Kevin, who has had swimming lessons, joins him. They “swim” in tandem, Ned complimenting Kevin’s form, switching from crawl to backstroke halfway through. Over and over again, Ned runs into pool parties or, in the case of the public pool, mad crowds. When he’s alone with people, he tends to alienate them. He gets too close too quickly, he brings up things he shouldn’t bring up, he pushes harder than the other person (virtually always a woman) is willing to be pushed. This scene with Kevin is the only one in the movie where we get a sense of Ned’s gentleness, his need to protect without turning it into some sexual prelude. He goes on his way from this bend of the river, as it were, and not long after he hears something. Kevin is jumping up and down on the diving board. Ned sprints back, pulls the boy off the board, holds him tight, and scolds him, much to Kevin’s confusion. Kevin wasn’t going to jump, but in a movie where Ned tries to get his intimacy on with multiple people, this is the only scene where we can detect genuine tenderness in him. The movie will get around to hinting about the kinds of things that he’s done wrong, but it does not often try to get into the kind of man that he must have been; in his best moments, it’s possible to imagine him like the person who makes this instant connection with a lonely kid, who cannot imagine letting this boy he’s not known for more than ten minutes hurt himself.

The two women who get the most time in this movie are Julie (Landgard) and Shirley (Rule), and they are almost as right as Lancaster. Julie, a twenty-year-old secretary with a jealous boyfriend we never meet, had a crush on Ned that I’d like to say was insignificant, though the way she describes her teenage self makes that crush feel like something much stronger: giving up any other appointment or obligation just to babysit his daughters, touching his clothes, one time even stealing a shirt. Landgard is the only person who is asked to match up with Lancaster’s energy in the movie, and to her credit she manages to get there. We have to believe that Julie knows something of Ned’s misfortune (she is a little taken aback when Ned asks her to babysit his daughters), but we also have to believe that she would think of running around suburban Connecticut with a man old enough to be her father who she was infatuated with only a few years back as a kind of adventure. Landgard has very few movie credits, and this role is certainly the one she’ll be remembered for. There’s a way she has of crinkling her forehead and eyebrows to make us see concern, although her face is not the kind of face that wears concern easily. She comes into it a little suddenly, still clearly enraptured with the fit middle-aged man who popped into the pool where she happened to be, but leaves rapidly. When Ned starts to come on to her, she spooks; he begins to talk about sitting with her on the train on the way into New York, plans on how they can spend time together, seems even to want to edge out the boyfriend. Julie, who has been introduced as “the babysitter” at a party where everyone was wearing their clothes and only the only person in the pool was a drunk, who has bailed on some friends out of the blue, who has admitted an embarrassing phase from her past, disappears. She’s gone from the movie even more quickly than she came into it. As for Shirley, who was Ned’s mistress for a time, Rule plays her successfully despite having one of the most difficult types to pull off in a movie. Shirley is still in love with Ned, but works to convince herself constantly that Ned is bad for her, because there’s no doubt that he was. She careens between letting Ned put suntan lotion on her back, letting him get close to her, speaking politely to him, and yelling at him to leave, telling him that she used to make fun of him with other lovers. It’s such a difficult line to walk—there must be more such women in fiction than there ever have been in real life—but Rule has the right neurotic dispossession which makes Lancaster’s scene with her work, stagy as it is. (In a better world, we’d have Barbara Loden in the part, as she was originally cast for Shirley. It’s not that Rule isn’t very good, but that Loden is to this jilted and unstable romantic as Lancaster is to this hunky but off-kilter failure.)

The movie, alas, never pays off on the promise it has because it tries a little too hard. The Swimmer is about alienation, all right, the kind of alienation that one foments for oneself through ineptitude. On three separate occasions Ned chases a woman away who might have been coaxed into something a little more entertaining for him if he’d played his cards right. (The third one is Joan Rivers, of all people, who if nothing else gets Burt Lancaster one degree away from Miss Piggy in playing that Kevin Bacon game.) Ned’s past appears to be a sordid one indeed, and the more people talk around it the less interesting it becomes. That first scene where four people who have clearly not seen Ned in a while and are acting very calmly about him just being in the pool without any of his clothes, is enticing. There’s something off about it, something strange that doesn’t have to be talked about very much. In scenes with more people, it’s easier to get the picture of what’s happened to Ned. A series of personal scandals (his daughters running wild, presumably the failure of his marriage to Lucinda in part because of his dalliance with Shirley, and financial ruin that makes people leery of lending him even half a buck) have unbalanced him, made him an object of pity or an object of derision. The scene where he’s confronted by some townies who seem intent on running him down even further because he’s never paid them for what he owes their businesses is fine for what it is, but it’s not as effective a scene of humiliation as the one where he’s barred from swimming until he showers and cleans up his dirty, bloody feet. The man guarding the pool seems reluctant to let Ned in. Ned has to show him all sides of his feet the third time they speak to one another, and it’s only then that he’s allowed to put his feet into the sanitizer (a big grimace from Lancaster) and descend into the mad, chlorinated hell of the public swimming pool. The Swimmer hopes that we’ll be satisfied with the crumbs of Ned’s failures, but what it doesn’t recognize is that it’s far more interesting when Ned is more escapee from a local asylum than businessman gone to pot.

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