Monday, February 1, 2010
We don't know where he's coming from, but the movie starts with Ned coming out of the woods in a bathing suit to leap into the in ground swimming pool on his old friends, the Westerhazy's property. His friend isn't much interested in swimming and asks Ned to say hello to the wife (who is also uninterested in swimming) They seem happily surprised to see him and Ned is supercharged, glowing with enthusiasm. Clearly this is an upperclass neighborhood and he thinks of himself as belonging there.
Thanks to Lancaster, Ned's smile and charm are larger than life. It becomes clear quickly that it has been years since Ned has seen his friends, although he talks as if it was only yesterday. It's quickly established that the most popular activity in the neighborhood is sitting by the pool and drinking. Stricken by the "glorious day" and the thrill of his first swim, Ned realizes that his friends' properties make up a path to his house "Pool by pool, they form a river." he says and goes on to name it "The Lucinda River" after his wife, which clearly perplexes his friends. Nobody presses the issue though, as if afraid to appear impolite or perhaps they're only superficially interested. He decides to swim home, by stopping at every house on the path and swimming the length of each pool. However, when Ned is on his way, she comments, "Swim home, why would he want to do that?"
Ned's next stop at the Grahame's is friendly enough. Betty Grahame insists that he have a drink before he goes, and remarks that Ned never thought Howard (Mr. Grahame) would make it, as if their pool was an example that proves him wrong. The Grahames can't stop bragging that they didn't skimp on anything for their pool, and everything they'll add on next year. When Howard comes out on his riding lawnmower they brag about how they'll upgrade that. Howard refers to another couple as "the kind that skimp" Everything is brightly lit but not deep or warm. Initially Ned seems more than capable of his task, despite undergoing this journey in nothing but a bathing suit.
His next stop at the Hammar house doesn't go as smoothly. Ned is reprimanded by an the older Mrs. Hammar, who wants to know who gave him permission to use the pool. His only explanation is "I'm Ned Merrill" He says he's a friend of her son Eric, and Mrs. Hammer is clearly upset that he uses the word friend, pointing out that he never visited Eric at the hospital or even called. Ned seems perplexed and asks if Eric is better and her only answer is to state that it's her house now and he is never to set foot on it again. He is quickly distracted by watching a horse in a field on his way to the next pool.
His next stop is at the house where Julie (Janet Landgard) lives, a younger woman who used to babysit his daughters. Ned asks why they don't see her anymore, and Julie says that they don't need her anymore, even insisting that he's joking when he says that they do, trying to set her up to babysit next Friday. Julie seems to appreciate his swimming quest and accompanies him for awhile. She reveals that she had a crush on him and went through his things when she babysat, even stealing one of his shirts to pretend he was close to her. Ned presses her for details about her crush. When Julie asks him what he meant by having her babysit again, he says "I was teasing you." We're left to wonder if perhaps Ned is more aware than he seems, as it's unlikely that he could miss all the shocked reactions when Ned speaks of his home life.
Julie accompanies him to the Bunker's, who are having a lavish party. Everyone is absurdly overdressed for a pool party, and speaks with the affectations of the priveleged. One of the guests mentions Ned's job being stolen by a younger overachiever, and another mentions a job opening that would be perfect for him. An attractive woman invites him over to dinner, only to seem insulted when Ned says he'll have to check with Lucinda. Ned quickly brushes off the comments as if he hadn't heard them, diving right into the pool with Julie.
They make an adventure out of reaching the next place, running through fields and leaping over fences and hurdles laughing and enjoying the day and each other's company. This is acompanied by a musical interlude with many close ups on young Julie's laughing face. The music stops when Ned hurts himself landing. They share a significant moment lying in the grass talking about Julie's job in the city. Julie mentions the unsavory characters she runs into. Ned is confused her alternating between quoting the Song of Solomon to Julie and calling her an innocent. Julie gets uncomfortable when Ned strokes her hair and tells her he'll be her guardian angel and she runs away frightened. Perhaps because he's so much older than her, or because in this world his sincerity and intensity are too much for her to handle. It's also possible that she recognizes he is mentally disturbed. I think it's really a combination of all three, but either way it's an interesting way to point out that her fantasy crush, is no longer in effect, taking another piece of the past from Ned.
He stops at the Halloran's next, a couple of elderly nudists, who are clearly preoccupied with their own money and avoiding being thought of as repressed. On a phone conversation with their daughter, who refuses to bring the kids over to swim unless they wear suits, they chide her that the kids will grow up repressed. When Ned approaches, they discuss how certain they are that he's going to ask for money, even bringing up to Ned how sorry they are they couldn't help him in the past. Ned answers directly for the first time, saying he didn't ask for any help. It's interesting in this scene that Ned observes their manners taking off his swimsuit to speak with them. He has his swim and leaves, leaving them to wonder if he's 'back on his feet again" although Mrs. Halloran still strikes his name off for the $1000.00 table he requested at their next benefit.
Ned moves on to the Gilmartin's to find the Gilmartin's little boy selling lemonade. His mother is gone on her honeymoon to Europe and he only knows what his mother tells him about his dad (he's in love with the manicurist.) The boy is hesitant to give him a glass of lemonade as he can't be sure he'll get the 10 cents he's charging, but relents when Ned assures him he'll be back to pay him. It turns out that not only is the boy left on his own (with the servants) but the pool has been drained forcing Ned to swim through imaginary water, deciding it won't ruin his plan if he does every stroke as he would if he were swimming. The boy does this with him, excited that it's his first time swimming the whole length of the pool. This episode gives us some insight into Ned's thinking. When the boy remarks that his achiement doesn't count because there was no water in the pool, Ned says "There was for us. If you imagine something hard enough then it's true for you." But he still runs back in a panic when he hears the boy jumping on the diving board. He grabs him off the diving board, although the boy finds it ridiculuous that he thought he would dive when there was no water in the pool.
The next pool is another lavish party, at the Biswanger's, who aren't exactly friendly towards him. Mrs. Biswanger calling him a gate crasher before tiring of speaking with him. Talking poetically to a woman at the party, she remarks, "I've never heard anyone talk like you." until he asks her to come with him on the swim hime and she concludes that he's just another guy. Ned disagrees her, exposing the core of his character's need, telling her, "I'm a very special human being, noble and splendid." Ned starts getting cold for the first time here too, crossing his arms in front of his chest. The effectiveness is profound as Ned is already so vulnerable in only his swimsuit. Clearly the journey is taking it's toll. Ned causes a scene claiming the Biswanger's stole his hot dog wagon. They tell him that they bought it at a white elephant sale and refuse to sell it back to him. Mr. Biswanger kicks him out of the party, even pushing him to the ground to convince him.
Ned's next stop is Shirley, Ned's ex-mistress, who is still bitter over their past. She is clearly cold to him from the instant he arrives although he tries to act as if he'd only just left her. He takes a splinter out of her foot and after it's removed she kicks him in the face. He tries to remind her of what they did together "last year" and she tells him that it was three years ago. He prods her about a man who she's expecting and only makes her more angry. He asks her why things didn't turn out why he thought they would, although he's picked the wrong audience as she still resents him for sticking with his wife over her, although she was the one who had made him happy. Ned is even colder now and the enthusiastic man from the beginning now appears ready to fall over. Shirley remarks that "she really thought they were going to make it." remembering how deep her feelings were. Ned starts shivering and she gets worried about him offering him a sweater. He refuses to abandon his plan to swim home saying it's impossible to get home in a car as if it's more than a place he's trying to get to. Ned can't keep from clinging to her, forcing her to strike him so he'll let go. leaving Ned alone in the pool shivering. He can't even get out of the pool in one try at this point, hobbling up the stairs, istead of pulling himself up from the sides as before.
Ned makes his way to the public swimming pool, and realizes he doesn't have the 50 cents required to enter. He sees some acquantances and asks to borrow the entrance fee, finally getting it only to be humiliated by an official who keeps insisting that his feet are too dirty. The public pool is much different from the others in that it's full of people. Ned quickly does his swim and leaves but before he can be on his way, he is confronted by a pair of middle class couples who can't resist hassling him about money he owes them. In contrast to the other episodes, these couples are gathered outside the pool, barring Ned's way onward. These people have waited a long time to confront Ned and seem to relish the opportunity. They point out the ridiculous extravagances that Ned's wife required (which they provided) as if Ned's family was too good for common fare. Ned is not able to wave these accusations away as these people don't have the distaste for confrontation that his former peers did. When they challenge his belief that his daughter's idolize him, even saying that they thought he was a joke (always trying to pal around with them, to be one of the gang) They point out a scandal his daughters were involved, having stolen and wrecked a car, which Ned apparently paid to keep out of the papers. Ned can't take anymore and runs away through now harsh terrain.
Now his growing discomfort turns to visible emotional pain. Ned has never appeared more naked and vulnerable than here, as he is forced to cross a highway on foot, while the cars refuse to slow down for him, obliviou to his journey. Ned opens the gate to his home only to be hit by a rainstorm. He can't seem to open the door and he shivers in the doorway trying and trying to open it. We're given a look into the open window of the house, which is long empty, and it's clear why Ned couldn't make his journey in a car. He not only needed to return to this place but to another time, before everything soured on him.
The Swimmer is a searing look into the cost of success and the idea that spending all of your efforts on building a perfect surface will inevitably leave the underneath hollow. Ned is ultimately left with nothing but the door handle and we're left with the picture of him, broken down and sobbing trying to get back into his past and knowing that the only thing awaiting him is an empty house. Frank Perry did a masterful job using all the effects of a short story to make this film a pointed look at the hypocrisy of upper class suburbia. Interestingly, the scene between Ned and Shirley, his former mistress was filmed by a different director, Sidney Pollack. Due to the episodic quality and the emotional intensity of that scene it nonetheless comes across as seamless and perhaps even gives Ned's emotional descent a sharper impact. It's Lancaster though whose brave acting and impressive emotional range, without the benefit of wardrobe, makes this film so devastating and long lasting.