The Swimmer (1968)

Director: Frank Perry/Sydney Pollack (final scene)

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Kim Hunter, Diana Muldaur

Cinematography: David L.Quaid

Music: Marvin Hamlisch

Script: Eleanor Perry

Story: John Cheever

Fact: Marvin Hamlisch was married to You're Moving out Today chanteuse Carol Bayer-Sager.

Lie: Burt Lancaster chose his acting name by combining a traditional down-trodden working class first name with the name of  British heavy bomber chosen from various model aeroplane catalogues. His other rejected choices included Wilf Halifax, Alf Wellington, Stan Short Stirling and Ted Handley Page 0/1500:Type H.P.15 (Airfix Series 6).

In One Line: A middle aged man discovers the tragic nature of his life as he swims the pools of his New England neighbours.


A summer morning in Connecticut. Middle aged Neddy (blame Cheever) Merrill decides to swim home via the swimming pools of his friends and neighbours. Merrill appears to have been away for most of the summer. At first he is greeted cordially and he discusses the fortunes of his wife and children as he accepts drinks from his hosts The first swimming pool is cool and refreshing, and Merrill glides across with ease and happiness. Along the way, he is joined by a young woman, Julie Ann Hooper (Landgard) and all appears well. As Merrill's journey progresses, however, the skies get darker, the air becomes colder and each swimming pool becomes more difficult to swim. The leaves turn from green to gold and Merrill's neighbours start to tell him truths about himself and his fortunes that he does not want to hear. Finally, Merrill makes it 'home'.

I won't spoil the ending.


A film to cause fights with your friends. Is it a fantastic allegory, a modern, suburban re-telling of the epic quest or is it  an unwatchable, unadulterated pile of shite?

Cheever's short story was set in the rich suburban heartlands of New York state, but the minor shift in geography still manages to capture the soullessness and back-biting of upper middle class life.

This is an especially 'difficult' film to appreciate if you switch on late - there are bizarre musical montages showing Merrill and Julie Ann frolicking in the Connecticut meadows as if they had discovered a poor-quality, hand me down hippie Eden, and there are strange choices of both shot and mise-en-scene throughout the film.

Cheever and director Perry wanted Merrill to represent  the searcher from  the epic quest or  the hero making the heroic journey. Merrill is also the modern tragic hero, a King Lear (a man who "hath slenderly known himself") on a journey of doomed revelation. Setting the story amongst the rich of New England helps to distance the idea, but this is a film that exists in symbols. Merrill's journey is not about one day, but an entire lifetime.

The dialogue has the same artificial contrivances so beloved of David Mamet - characters talk in a deliberately stilted and occasionally epigrammatical form in order to further delineate the 'literary' nature of the source material.

Lancaster is good as Merrill, but it's often difficult to assess the acting quality of the diverse cast (Joan Rivers turns up at some stage) because of the stylised demands of the story, direction and script.

The best part of the film is the final, tragic homecoming. Merrill's vulnerability is heightened by his lack of clothing (Lancaster appears in swimming shorts throughout the film) and his tragedy is perfectly realised by Hamlisch's (finally) evocative score.

Not a film to recommend to a mate who keeps a scrapbook of his football hooligan-related activities and court appearances (or indeed anyone if you want to keep at least a few friends), but a disturbing and challenging film which stays with its few fans long after the 'Columbia' logo makes its final appearance.