Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Swimmer

The Swimmer is based on a short story by John Cheever and the qualities of short stories are evident in the film. While everything that we see is presented as a matter of fact, important elements are left out and we're left to fill in the gaps ouselves. The biggest gap is in the memory or perhaps life of our main character Ned (Burt Lancaster)

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.


Lana A said...

This is one of my favorite films as you know. And you beat me to writing about it! Lancaster's acting abilities are truly showcased here. He is too often left off the list of greatest performances of all time but he deserves a place on that list for sure and this film is only one of his oscar-wothy performances.

INDBrent said...

Yes agreed on the Oscar worthiness. Lancaster was such a tremendous talent and has so many great roles. I'll even watch a terrible movie if I know he's in it! THis is really one of the most emotionally devestating roles I've ever seen.
Yes, I know it's one of your favorites, but I let you have "The Razor's Edge" without a fight didn't I? Anyways, feel free to do it on your blog, i'm sure you bring something different to it than I could. I'll be first in line to read it!

Lana A said...

I know, you let me have the Razor's Edge, but honestly, I hope you write about it too. You have such skill and insight, it will certainly bring more watchers to the film.

I agree about watching films just because Burt Lancaster is in them. In his day, I suppose he was a box office legend. It's hard to understand why his popularity hasn't achieved cult status.

INDBrent said...

Thanks Lana! I think Burt has some trounle catching on these days because he's very masculine, but not at all "pretty" like your Tom Cruise types. He's more a guy out of the Hemingway tradition. I can't thimk of a modern equivalent for him.

JACQUI said...

Hi Brent. I love your reviews. This film - wow! what a journey. I almost felt like the journey through the swimming pools was metaphoric of a journey through life. Only he was travelling backwards into a past that wasn't there anymore. Superb analysis Brent. What more can I say? I'm inspired to watch the film now!

JACQUI said...

Hey! I’ve just given your blog a ‘thumbs up’ award. Keep doing what you’re doing – I think your blog is great. To find out more visit: http://www.upliftantidote.co.uk/wordpress/2010/02/thumbs-up-to-these-bloggers/

INDBrent said...

Hi Jacqui,

I think you're right on with the "metaphoric journey" Each swimming pool faced with him with a different aspect of his life. I hope you do get the chance to watch it as no review can duplicate Lancaster's intensity in this role.

And, an award! Thanks so much I really appreciate it. I really like what you're doing too, so it means a lot!

Mesina said...

You see, I would have passed this one over with a shrug! Wow, it sounds brilliantly done, and I love movies that provoke emotion and story most of all. Reading your blog is making my ''to-watch'' movie list quite long! well, I'll be resting with a new baby in bed soon, perhaps I'll get a stack of them ready to keep me entertained.

INDBrent said...

Hi Mesina,
Happy to help! You've definitely got story and emotion covered here. Let me know how you and the baby like it. If the baby likes it this movie could find a whole new audience.

TirzahLaughs said...

I never even heard of this film. HAh.

It seems a bit too depressing for my tastes. I think I'll skip it for now.


INDBrent said...

Hi Tirzah,

You're far from alone there. Fair enough on that, it's not the happiest piece of work ever made. I don't mind depressing if the acting and story move me.

Lizzy Anderson said...

I really want to see this film, funnily enough someone was talking to me about it the other day. Looks very odd but interesting nonetheless. Very detailed review, it's made me want to go and buy it so I can finally watch it!

INDBrent said...

Hi Lizzy,
Small world isn't it. It is a very odd movie but the story is an important one. John Cheever had originally used Narcissus (the guy doomed to eternally watch his reflection in a pool) as the basis for the story. He departed from it a bit, but you can see that sense underneath it.

Lena said...

Why do you always make me feel as if I do not know anything about movies??
Ok, I am not such a big movies fan, and not the criminal movies fan as you know. But you always manage to make me want to watch the movie you review! :)

INDBrent said...

Thanks Lena! We all know plenty about movies, at least the ones we like. (by the way I have seen Legally Blonde, but don't tell anyone!)
I think a lot of people miss some of these because they're too "dark" but they many of them are saying important things. I'm glad I make you want to watch them and please keep me posted when you do!

POB said...

I'd like to see a contemporary version of this story re-made in Stepford, er, Orange County, CA. I'm curious as to where the original took place - any clues in the movie?

INDBrent said...

Lol. Yes, the original was in suburban New York. They had announced a remake starring Alec Baldwin, not sure about the setting and can't find anything on it past 2003, could be it's dead in the water (no pun intended)I was surprised to hear that as a story this bleak is a tough sell!