It’s a beautiful summer day as Ned Merrill emerges from the woods sporting nothing but swimming trunks. He dives into the pool owned by a couple of old friends. They haven’t seen Ned for a long time and are thrilled that he’s dropped by. They are recovering from a wild party the night before but are friendly and others that show up are equally joyed by Ned’s visit. The conversations are similar to those of friends who haven’t met in a long time. Ned responds to inquiries about his family, Lucinda and the girls are quite well. Lost in reverie Ned plans to swim across all the pools between there and home. Taken aback his friends wonder why on earth he would do something like that. Not necessarily in response to the plan but rather to the destination. This scene plays out in different forms as he goes from pool to pool. The weather gradually worsens as do the receptions he receives as he swims on. Sometimes he finds himself greeted with scorn.
Ned’s memory seems to be failing. Slowly clues are revealed about his character. Mostly good natured, Ned was a womanizer. Coming across his daughters’ old babysitter, Julie Ann (Janet Landgard) he tells her he and Lucinda could use her services. The girl thinks it a joke and joins him on his way. As the sun works its way down, marigolds bloom as the leaves of some trees turn. Summer seems to be moving toward fall in a manner of hours. In addition to his faulty memory it appears Ned does not see things as everyone else does; when he tries to help repair a neighbors new mower the engine sputters to a stop as Ned announces he’s fixed it. He also shocks some of his friends when he states that his daughters will soon get married in his house though they seem to know more about the situation than he does. Things are truly amiss when he encounters the nudist Hallorans (House Jameson and Nancy Cushman). He offers to donate to their fundraiser by getting a table that costs a thousand bucks. Seconds prior they were wondering if Ned had come to ask for money because he has fallen on hard times. Ned isn’t even aware that he had asked them for help and seems to be totally ignorant of his supposed indigence.
Lancaster is fantastic as Ned. He portrays him with youthful vigor slowly ebbing into a painful stagger as he carries on to find his home, his present and his future at the end of the Lucinda River. He is supremely confident of what he is doing and where he is going demonstrating contagious exuberance. It is painful to watch him try to remember something that should be easy for him to recall, it is gutting to watch him fend off pity and it is harrowing to see the ire with which some characters greet him. At the onset he never uses the pool ladder and his friends comment how he never would. As he nears his finish he struggles up the ladder and limps to the next pool. It is truly frightening watching Ned at the side of a freeway as traffic speeds by in both directions. His confidence is replaced with trepidation and his strength all but sapped to frailty. His final swim is chaotic and tumultuous and is greeted with derision as he reaches the end of the public pool. It would have proved simple to the gregarious and athletic Ned but as he is it proves to be a challenge to navigate.
Though it seems odd to do so, allow me to caution some who may not be aware of the conclusion of this 46 year old film. The following paragraph may give away the ending but it is no reason to watch this film for what it is, THE SWIMMER is a bizarre masterpiece.
Ned stumbles up to a rusted gate and overgrown garden. We find that It is fall as he walks past the long unused tennis courts that are covered in fallen leaves. The abandoned house is run down with broken windows and boxes of discarded items. Ned slouches to the stoop and curls up as the camera draws back and the rain obscures his form. The once vibrant Ned is now as much a broken down and empty hull of his once luxurious home. Was he a phantasm doomed to repeat his swim or was he a madman crushed by a horrible event trying to escape his horrible present trying to return to a golden past?
One of the taglines to THE SWIMMER is, “When you talk about THE SWIMMER, will you talk about yourself?” The answer should, of course, be yes. If the surreal journey of Ned Merrill does not make the viewer look at their life–where they are, what they have, where they’re going, what they’ve lost, their relationships, etc…then the fault must lie in front of the television. The film does its part. It presents us with a life over the course of an afternoon, and an entire season in 95 minutes. This remarkable restoration of THE SWIMMER is not to be missed. Studios rarely put out anything this off kilter and they aren’t liable to again. Based on John Cheever’s best know short story, the film possesses the same ferocity and ambition that can be found in the independents. Be sure to check it out.
Here’s to sugar on the strawberries.
The Grindhouse release is loaded with special features. A five part retrospective, each part approximately 30 minutes, is an in depth study of the film featuring actors, assistant directors, Lancaster’s daughter and others. It also includes an interview with co-star Marge Champion, the original short story “The Swimmer” read by author John Cheever, and still galleries, trailers and TV spots, outtakes from the title sequence, filmographies, and a slate of Grindhouse Releasing trailers. The trailers are: AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL, THE BIG GUNDOWN, CORRUPTION, GONE WITH THE POPE, THE BEYOND, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. It is presented in widescreen with mono English sound along with an isolated Stereo Music Track. Subtitle languages are English, French and Spanish. A booklet includes essays by Stuart Gordon and Chris Innis