Our hero is, at first, conspicuously unseen. Is he a ghost? Foliage rustles and sundry wildlife go on the alert in his presence. When we finally catch sight of Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), from above, perhaps from a tree, it’s as though the camera captured his movement covertly after holding prolonged vigil, like the director was tracking Bigfoot, not a legendary film star traversing the woods in nothing but swimming trunks. But soon enough Ned strolls into the back garden of some old friends and takes a dip in their pool. After a highly peculiar opening sequence, everything assumes the semblance of normality. But it’s only semblance. The Swimmer (1968), newly released by Grindhouse on DVD and BluRay, is a strange, eerie movie, and it’s to the movie’s credit that the eeriest moments are those that seem most normal.
The Swimmer remains John Cheever’s most famous and oft-anthologized story. It was originally intended to be a novel, but was whittled down until its singular conceit was drained of all obvious symbolism and its air of desperation suffused every paragraph. Seemingly on a whim, “Neddy” decides that he’s going to swim all the way to his home by moving from one back garden pool to another—he sees the series of pools as forming a river, one he names after his beloved wife Lucinda. Chronicling Neddy’s journey, his encounters with friends, lovers and neighbours, and the many drinks he imbibes en route, the story’s balance of bizarre and banal takes on surrealist hues. Over the course of a single afternoon, the season seems to change, and Neddy’s sozzled haute bourgeois social life changes too. Cheever was a prodigious drinker, and this story’s power comes in part from the way it apprehends the confusion and memory loss that accompanies advanced alcoholism. As Olivia Laing writes in her excellent book The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, published earlier this year, The Swimmer “catches in its strange compressions the full arc of an alcoholic’s life.”
Thankfully, the film of The Swimmer, directed by Frank Perry from an adaptation by his spouse and collaborator Eleanor Perry, pushes that reading no more than the story does—though the booze certainly flows. The first line of Cheever’s story: “It was one of those mid-summer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” That exact line is uttered by two different characters within the film’s first few minutes, not ominously but, rather, jocularly, while more drinks are being served. Ned’s portage through the suburban wilderness takes him through few properties where drinks aren’t being served. Many characters remark on Ned’s terrific physique—Lancaster was in his mid-50s and in great shape—and some express their attraction to him, but others are unmistakably hostile, and perhaps afraid, and demand that he leave their property for reasons Ned can’t quite understand. Or remember. “Aren’t you a little confused this afternoon?” someone asks. Lancaster is perfectly cast as this chipper, charismatic socialite. There is a colossal block behind his eyes. His smile feels as developed and maintained and for-show as his biceps. His confidence feels calculated so as to carefully disguise an inner panic. What happened the last time he met these people? What did he do? What did he miss? And where are some of his old pals?
Perry’s body of work gives little indication of experimentalist ambitions, but The Swimmer, is a cavalcade of oblique—if dated—strategies; of punchy colours; of slow-motion flocking and fence-jumping through blurry forests to overbearing scoring; of truly weird ultra-close-ups, including one of Lancaster’s eyeball, in which he discovers a horse that Ned will later race. The film is much funnier than you might expect, yet not at the expense of the story’s integrity. It glides from pool to pool, always brimming with odd surprises, is unnerving in all the right ways, and finally kind of harrowing. It’s more successful than it had any right to be, I fully recommend it, and I tip my hat to Perry for pulling it off. Still, given the particular richness of Cheever’s idea and the milieu in which his tale unfolds, I can’t help but wonder what Luis Buñuel would have done with the material.