1968’s The Swimmer (based on the short story by John Cheever) was a labor of love for its producer/star Burt Lancaster. In it he plays a businessman who, at film’s start, has decided to spend a bright summer Sunday afternoon making his way from pool to pool, swimming his way across suburbia to his own home. He lives in an upscale and trendy community where everyone knows everyone else in their chosen clique, so it comes as no surprise to anyone when Burt wanders into their back yard and tells them he is swimming home. They laugh. They make martinis. They talk about what a card Lancaster is and what a simply mah-velous party story his little escapade will make. It seems like another Peyton Place soap opera at first. But then people start asking about his wife and daughters:
“I heard what happened…”
“I was so sorry to hear…”
“How are you feeling now?…”
“I didn’t think you’d want to be around anyone for a while, not after…”
What exactly did happen in Lancaster’s life that has everyone treating him either with extreme caution or overzealous joviality? Where exactly is he coming from at the beginning of the film? (Our first sight of him comes as he’s running in his swimming trunks through the woods, already sopping wet, yet he tells the first back yard gathering he appears in that theirs will be his “first” swim on his way home.) And why can’t he tell anyone what he’s been doing lately?
These key questions are skirted for the first half of the film, but it’s the very lack of ready answers that provides a good deal of tension. Hints are dropped, concerned looks are exchanged, surreptitious gestures made behind Lancaster’s back, and soon the viewer wonders about Lancaster’s mental stability as, piece by piece, the horror of his life comes together like a jigsaw puzzle that’s missing the last piece–which may be the reason The Swimmer is such a turn-off for many viewers: there is no direct and final answer to any of the questions, no last-minute revelation, but if you pay close attention, everything you need to know is there.
Lancaster gives a typically terrific performance, one full of both internal and physical catharses; every pool is a new baptismal fount where he washes away past sins, yet by the time he reaches the next pool, a different load of sins have made themselves known.
Running Time: 95 minutes
Directors: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack
Screenwriter: Eleanor Perry
Burt Lancaster: Ned Merrill
Janet Landgard: Julie Ann Hooper
Janice Rule: Shirley Abbott
Tony Bickley: Donald Westerhazy
Marge Champion: Peggy Forsburgh
Nancy Cushman: Mrs. Halloran
Bill Fiore: Howie Hunsacker
David Garfield: Ticket Seller
Kim Hunter: Betty Graham
Rose Gregorio: Sylvia Finney
Charles Drake: Howard Graham
Bernie Hamilton: Halloran’s Chauffeur
House Jameson: Chester Halloran
Jimmy Joyce: Jack Finney
Michael Kearney: Kevin Gilmartin Jr.