We move to a close-up of the eyes of Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), the stark blue falls out of focus as droplets of water and a cloudy sky is superimposed upon his visage. “I can do it. I can really do it,” he exclaims to no one in particular. So begins this tragic hero’s voyage back to his home, portaging between swimming pools across the county. Dubbed the Lucinda River, after his wife, Merrill latches onto the concept of returning home via this bourgeois stream as one would clinging to the last lifeboat from a sinking ship. He abandons his present company and engages in a surreal, episodic adventure. He begins a thoroughly quixotic man, entirely dissociated with who he has become and driven only by this passing fancy. This man is an unreliable one, and we must learn about him and his past only through his interactions with the wealthy Connecticut natives upon the cement banks of the Lucinda. His neighbors become the Greek chorus for “The Swimmer,” unraveling the mystery of Merrill with each passing exchange as we, along with our protagonist, march uphill, wind to our chests, towards the inevitable.
We are introduced to Merrill as he invites himself to the home of his friends to swim. In what will become a running theme, they have not seen him for a long time. They are reclined, dealing with the hangovers from the night before. Because the film takes place over the course of a single day and Merrill’s enigmatic life, the concepts of time presented are terse. It is difficult to imagine the protagonist even a day before or a day after his voyage. He has little to no recollection of his own past, forgetting that he did not visit his friend when he was hospitalized or that he is not on good terms with close inhabitants. His future is indistinguishable; he makes promise after promise to those he meets to be fulfilled in the near future. Whether they are an invitation to skate at his home in the winter extended to a neglected boy, or simply to repay the $.5 needed to enter the public pool, the offers would feel genuine were it not for their quantity. This day, Merrill sees himself as the hero of his own story. He is, in his own words, “a very special human being, noble and splendid.” And you want to believe him. He is sincere and Lancaster is exceptionally charming but his characterization purposely lacks believability.
It’s an almost entirely affected performance. He speaks with friends and strangers alike in an alien manner, seemingly unable to indentify the motives or emotions of others. The conversations are stilted and awkward. He is only really able to charm youth, the aforementioned boy and a young woman of twenty who was once the babysitter to his own children. These characters, for a time, are incapable of seeing through Merrill’s structured persona. They are victims to their own naïveté, unable to readily ascribe his speeches and actions to delusion or inner turmoil. Unable to comprehend that the man nearly begging for their affection has sequestered himself from the whole of humanity and his own past and factual present. His journey is not one of romantic farce or a return to youth, though it very well began with those fanciful notions, but one of submersion into a falsified reality he has chosen to adopt.
The swimming pools have extraordinary depth, not in their volume but in their service to the story. Through them, Merrill is capable of submerging into a fabrication. His own life story becomes distorted through the ripples, the ebb and flow, when viewed objectively from atop the water. When viewing an object sunken in such a fashion, your vision of it is tenuous at best. The shape changes and you have no firm grasp on its true form. Such is the viewing experience of “The Swimmer.” The only information of Merrill’s history is given by those who knew him prior to the journey that accounts for the totality of this film; those who knew his shape before his submersion. They each offer a hint or a whisper of his character so that by the film’s climax, we have a fully formed collage of who he is, with each passing conversation adding structure to the assemblage. It is a remarkably well articulated film that slides slowly into the dramatic and its beauty is only fully recognized as the final pieces of the puzzle are fitted into place.
It is difficult to determine whom to praise for the film’s visual composition. Sydney Pollack was eventually brought on to direct several scenes and transitions after director Frank Perry was fired, with less than half of what he originally shot remaining in the final cut. But it many ways, “The Swimmer” serves well as a predecessor to Pollack’s next film, the depraved and beautiful “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.” Both have a raw brutality to them but contain a multitude of directorial flourishes in order to facilitate their respective dream-like states. But while “They Shoot Horses” maintains a sort of hypnagogia embodied by its characters’ weariness, “The Swimmer” feels more like a descent into madness and mania. Despite Merrill’s exhaustion as he swims and hikes his way across suburbia, the camera refuses to echo his physical state. It is more a reflection of his accelerating mental unrest. It becomes increasingly difficult for Merrill to rectify his belief in his own auspiciousness with compounding evidence to the contrary, and this notion is reflected with frantic cuts that reinforce his anguish and turmoil.
It is not difficult to see why this film was initially met with harsh criticism, only later in its life receiving its due reverence. It possesses a rare cleverness and its mode of storytelling rewards repeated viewings. The performances could easily be misconstrued as alternating between wooden and histrionic were it not for the broader themes they serve. But this is the best that Lancaster has ever been, offering a suppressed vulnerability beneath his athletic, all-American appearance. And as Merrill’s fragmented reality reaches its breaking point, we are given more than a climax. What we are left with is glimpse of the extremities of the mind and soul.Continue Reading Issue #7
May 15, 1968
Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack
Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Tony Bickley, Marge Champion, Bill Fiore, Kim Hunter, Joan Rivers