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Film Review: The Swimmer (1968)



Neddy Merrill has been away for most of the Summer. He reappears at a friends pool. As they talk, someone notices that there are pools spanning the entire valley. He decided to jog from pool to pool to swim the whole valley. As he stops in each pool his interactions tell his life story.


I recently got the desire to check out some older films from the 60’s. One in particular caught my attention with a premise that seemed a bit odd to dedicate an entire movie to. This film was 1968’s “The Swimmer” starring Burt Lancaster in the role of Ned Merrill. I couldn’t’ imagine the film being anything other than a cult film as its motive is just plain bizarre.


Ned Merrill is a successful advertising executive who is fascinated with swimming pools. This aspect is humorously reinforced in the first act when Ned takes a dive in one of his friends pools and then proceeds to engage in conversations that all seem to end with asking them to take a swim with him. Ned who wears his swim trunks through out the whole film (who is quite the model of fitness) becomes obsessed with the single idea of swimming his way home.


Ned believes that his personal quest is to swim across the county per way of dropping in on his friends and taking a dive into their pools. With most of them being from wealthy lifestyles, it’s pretty much a given than they all have private pools on their properties. As Ned moves from one house to the other we discover that his journey is also one of socializing the high end of society. The circumstances and relationships all seem to vary which is only made more eerie by the fact that Ned is extremely comfortable showing up in their backyards dressed in his swim trunks. Even when he announces his intentions of swimming home, it still appears to be a bit odd and obsessive. The story is set within the more affluent communities of Connecticut which provides a perfect setting for his mix of encounters.


“The Swimmer” does have a certain surreal dynamic that is hard to explain at times. The encounters are more than just parts of the film as they seem to position themselves with Ned’s changing emotional states. Even with that said, Ned is comfortable maintaining a rather overly pleasant demeanor that becoming almost disturbing in itself.

On that note, one of the more uncomfortable visits is when Ned drops by a house and reacquaints himself with the 20-year-old Julie Ann Hooper (Janet Landgard) who use to baby sit his kids. As she describes how she use to admire and lust for him per a former school girl crush it tends to transform into a weird awkward prelude to romance than moves in slow motion as they frolic together jumping over horse barricades. The segment does fizzle out with Ned moving on his way.


It was after this point in the film that the purpose of “The Swimmer” began to sink in (pardon the pun)(and of which is why I am recommending it). As Ned makes his way across the county, he begins to experience a change in mood that is projected by those he encounters. This allegory emerges into a surreal journey that mirrors the reality of Ned’s life. In the first act, Ned is vibrant, ambitious, and a dedicated family man who proudly boasts about his successful wonderful life. He is loved by friends and appears to be at the peak of his social acceptance. As Ned makes his way closer to home, it all begins to fall apart as those he encounter express different aspects of his life that in reality are more applicable to hard times and failure. Ned encounters those who he owes money to, those who reject his social status and even former lovers and friends who he let fall to the way side. The film takes us from point A to Z as Ned’s cold reality is revealed in the final scene.


As retrospectives go, Ned is indeed on a journey. It is one that at times feels like perhaps the whole ordeal is a dream of sorts which arrives out of the suspicious dialog and realizations that are at first, not evident. Ned has managed to block the last 2 years of his life, which are unveiled to him as his journey reaches its destination. His ignorance to his life, which is in fact in shambles, is also suspicious suggesting at times being amnesia-rooted . Ned is in fact learning about these details with each new encounter (and swimming pool) making for a experience that at times may have its audience more in tune with the realization than the character himself.


In summary, “The Swimmer” turned out to be a brilliant film that may not realize its own brilliance. Directors Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack, in addition the writers John Cheever and Eleanor Perry, have presented something unique that deserves revisitation and evaluation long after the first viewing. Some parts may feel slow and dreamy, but at the core “The Swimmer” does indeed have a “purpose” to fans of cult cinema.

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