The Swimmer

Film

Comedy drama

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<strong>Rating: </strong><span class='lf-avgRating'>5</span>/5
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Time Out says

A largely loony but oddly compulsive allegory, taken from a John Cheever story, in which Lancaster, clad only in swimming trunks, makes his slow way home by swimming through various people's pools. Partly an obscure satire on the idle rich, partly an eccentric commentary on disillusionment and dreams, it is almost - but, importantly, not quite - nonsense. That said, it is totally engrossing, thanks to its very strangeness, and to the superb performances and the vivid location photography.
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Release details

UK release:

1968

Duration:

95 mins

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steve rimmington

first saw when i was about eleven.initially i just enjoyed neds journey home pool by pool.when he finally arrives home the film issues a tragic warning. at every pool more of his character is shown.am forty six now and have never forgotten the swimmer.how bonny are the banks of the lucinder river.

steve rimmington

first saw when i was about eleven.initially i just enjoyed neds journey home pool by pool.when he finally arrives home the film issues a tragic warning. at every pool more of his character is shown.am forty six now and have never forgotten the swimmer.how bonny are the banks of the lucinder river.

Gavin Childress

The Swimmer This remarkable film takes place in the course of just one Sunday. It is about Ned Merrill, a man whose personality is revealed little by little, as he passes from pool to pool on his way home. It was made in Connecticut and released in 1968. Filming began in 1966. The film was made on a low budget and the last few days of shooting had to be financed with money from Burt Lancaster’s own pocket! The film is unequalled as an example of a simple narrative which gradually but inexorably informs the audience about the main character. It has been pointed out that he appears in every scene, and is never absent. This helps the audience to see the film as if through his eyes. Yet that is the question: do we ultimately see the world as Ned sees it, or do we simply define Ned as we look at him through the eyes of others? Gradually his characteristics- good and bad- are revealed to us. The audience is sometimes charmed, sometimes baffled and disappointed by Ned Merrill. In many ways he represents humanity as it really is; many-faceted. It cannot be seen in two dimensions. Merrill emerges as a bitter-sweet hero, with a personality as fragmented and inconsistent as a man can have, and yet we like him. He cannot be typecast and labeled. Is he a family man? Is he just a habitual flirt? The film is a textbook example of irony. Ned Merrill calls his odyssey a trip down the ‘Lucinda River’, aptly named after his beloved wife, to whom he is returning. Yet along the way he seems to flirt with and proposition as many women as he can find. He is fickle; openly loyal and disloyal to Lucinda as the mood takes him! On one occasion he tentatively accepts a woman’s offer of dinner, saying, ‘I’d love to…if Lucinda hasn’t made a date.’ Maybe it was that she just wasn’t his type. The Main Theme The theme is Merrill himself. In this film an unusually large amount of information is given about this one character. Yet the strange thing is that by the end of the movie the viewer asks if Ned remains nothing more than an enigma, and a stranger. He is the kind of man we all want to know. A man of beautiful dreams; living for the present, and wanting to draw all he can from each moment. He is almost a visionary, able to see dream cities in a simple cloud. He proposes a toast: ‘Here’s to sugar on the strawberries’. He speaks of glorious sunshine and clear water in a way which enchants the ear. Yes, he is charming; yet so inconsistent that he would try the loyalty of the most indulgent friend. The film is full of Ned Merrill’s promises. Yet he is a dreamer. It seems that if he tried to keep his promises, he would no longer dream. How many promises does Ned make in the film? He promises to pay a boy, Kevin Gilmartin, for a cup of lemonade. He says it will be the next day: ‘How do I know I’ll ever collect?’ asks the boy. ‘I’ll drop around tomorrow and pay you’ answers Merrill. He promises to race bikes, to play golf, to call people, to visit them, to engage them to baby-sit. Ned cannot fulfill these promises, and clearly does not take them seriously. This is not just a comment upon suburban America, and easy-speak; it applies to us all. How often do we make rash promises which we cannot fulfill? * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Ned Merrill is hard to pin down. He cannot be defined by his home, since we never see it until the end. The fact that he’s in a swimsuit means that we cannot define Ned by his clothes either! Additionally he seems to have been in a time warp for two or three years. His ‘here and there’ life seems out of time altogether. He speaks of ‘last June’ as if he cannot recall it. His memory of times and dates is very poor, and yet he can still smell the freshly mown grass of his youth, ‘as if it were yesterday’. Merrill could never hold down a job, and seems to have hit on hard times. He has seen affluence in the past. One young man remembers Ned’s ‘little red Jaguar’ which he used to have. Another man reminds Merrill that he should accept work when it is offered even if it means a cut in salary at first. Merrill is not interested. The man exclaims, ‘Now look hear Ned, you don’t have to pretend with me!’ He knows Ned desperately needs a job. Shirley Abbott We define Ned through the eyes of those who know him. This is particularly striking at the poolside of Shirley Abbot. Indeed this can be called the moment of greatest clarity in the film. Shirley had once been his mistress, and brings us as close to the real Merrill as we can ever get. Her apparent brutality seems to rise from a genuine desire for his good. She asks some very pertinent questions: ‘Will you ever grow up?’ And ‘How goes it in never-never land?’ It is by Shirley Abbot’s poolside that we see Merrill as he really is, a child in a man’s body. It is no coincidence that there he makes frequent references to memories of childhood. Shirley alone has the courage to tell him that reality only sank in when he was ‘tossed out of his golden playpen’. As for Shirley, he seems to feel for her still; and we believe him. Yet her name could not even be recalled by Ned at the beginning of the film: ‘I had it just a minute ago’ but he’d forgotten. The Ending The ‘downbeat’ ending is unusual for Hollywood. It takes us completely by surprise. Yet, of course the film is full of clues. It is interesting that in a sense we are like Ned himself and deny that these clues have been given: 1. Do we remember how Ned wants to drive home in ten minutes at the beginning? He receives the awkward reply, ‘Oh we really don’t have time’. 2. Do we recall the Grahams glancing at one another when Merrill says his daughters had so many friends his home ‘was like a parking lot today!’? 3. Do we recall a beautiful hotdog wagon which Ned had made himself? Why had it turned up at a ‘white elephant’ sale? 4. One man, called Brian, after a few drinks, says, ‘I think that was a stinking thing to do; I mean what they pulled on you over at your place!...I don’t care how big a firecracker this new guy was…brother that story really jolted me! I kept thinking, “What if some young [guy]… comes to our shop and does that to me?�’ The event that ‘jolted’ Brian would later jolt us, as if we never had a clue it was coming! A moral tale? There is a strange profundity even about the shallow, self-centered life of this complex man. He appreciates the freedom to follow his own desires, yet also seems to desire fidelity to Lucinda. What is apparent, however, is that Ned is in love with a kind of ethereal Lucinda. She represents home. The real Lucinda is never commented on by Ned. He never praises her virtues; he just uses her name. This kind of self-deception is dangerous in all relationships, and can herald the disintegration of real love. The ideal picture of the partner is loved, rather than the real person. The affluent, ‘gilded cage’ contentment of the Grahams near the beginning of the film is off putting. So what if their pool filters out ‘ninety nine point ninety nine point ninety nine point of all solid matter out of the water’!? So what if they plan to add ‘all the luxury optionals’ to their lawnmower! They are rooted to their home, and have no interest in the rest of the world. Additionally Howard seems intent on restricting the dreams and aspirations of his wife. By contrast, Ned’s apparent freedom to move around is attractive. He’s never still for long. His journey is appealing because it seems free from the constraints and pressures of everyday life. Merrill uses other people’s pools and towels because he seems to be free from their shallow materialism. He seems to rise above the tawdry quest for more. The film seems to poor scorn on the rich Mr Biswanger’s ‘fifteen tons of structured aluminum and clear plastic’; on his stereo and sumptuous party. Ned Merrill seems to have a kind of simplicity which we like. Yet in the end, what have his choices brought him? His three year absence is not concluded with a ‘Welcome Home’ party organized by Lucinda. Must she stay put whilst Ned is free to do as he chooses? To me ‘The Swimmer’ is profound because it is a narrative of life. It deals with our passions, our perceptions and, most importantly, our dreams. It shows how attractive they are; and yet we see that dreams must be harnessed or they will destroy us. We cannot live without commitment. We need to put down roots somewhere, and with someone, or we can end life with nothing and alone. Gavin Childress May 2008

Gavin Childress

The Swimmer This remarkable film takes place in the course of just one Sunday. It is about Ned Merrill, a man whose personality is revealed little by little, as he passes from pool to pool on his way home. It was made in Connecticut and released in 1968. Filming began in 1966. The film was made on a low budget and the last few days of shooting had to be financed with money from Burt Lancaster’s own pocket! The film is unequalled as an example of a simple narrative which gradually but inexorably informs the audience about the main character. It has been pointed out that he appears in every scene, and is never absent. This helps the audience to see the film as if through his eyes. Yet that is the question: do we ultimately see the world as Ned sees it, or do we simply define Ned as we look at him through the eyes of others? Gradually his characteristics- good and bad- are revealed to us. The audience is sometimes charmed, sometimes baffled and disappointed by Ned Merrill. In many ways he represents humanity as it really is; many-faceted. It cannot be seen in two dimensions. Merrill emerges as a bitter-sweet hero, with a personality as fragmented and inconsistent as a man can have, and yet we like him. He cannot be typecast and labeled. Is he a family man? Is he just a habitual flirt? The film is a textbook example of irony. Ned Merrill calls his odyssey a trip down the ‘Lucinda River’, aptly named after his beloved wife, to whom he is returning. Yet along the way he seems to flirt with and proposition as many women as he can find. He is fickle; openly loyal and disloyal to Lucinda as the mood takes him! On one occasion he tentatively accepts a woman’s offer of dinner, saying, ‘I’d love to…if Lucinda hasn’t made a date.’ Maybe it was that she just wasn’t his type. The Main Theme The theme is Merrill himself. In this film an unusually large amount of information is given about this one character. Yet the strange thing is that by the end of the movie the viewer asks if Ned remains nothing more than an enigma, and a stranger. He is the kind of man we all want to know. A man of beautiful dreams; living for the present, and wanting to draw all he can from each moment. He is almost a visionary, able to see dream cities in a simple cloud. He proposes a toast: ‘Here’s to sugar on the strawberries’. He speaks of glorious sunshine and clear water in a way which enchants the ear. Yes, he is charming; yet so inconsistent that he would try the loyalty of the most indulgent friend. The film is full of Ned Merrill’s promises. Yet he is a dreamer. It seems that if he tried to keep his promises, he would no longer dream. How many promises does Ned make in the film? He promises to pay a boy, Kevin Gilmartin, for a cup of lemonade. He says it will be the next day: ‘How do I know I’ll ever collect?’ asks the boy. ‘I’ll drop around tomorrow and pay you’ answers Merrill. He promises to race bikes, to play golf, to call people, to visit them, to engage them to baby-sit. Ned cannot fulfill these promises, and clearly does not take them seriously. This is not just a comment upon suburban America, and easy-speak; it applies to us all. How often do we make rash promises which we cannot fulfill? * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Ned Merrill is hard to pin down. He cannot be defined by his home, since we never see it until the end. The fact that he’s in a swimsuit means that we cannot define Ned by his clothes either! Additionally he seems to have been in a time warp for two or three years. His ‘here and there’ life seems out of time altogether. He speaks of ‘last June’ as if he cannot recall it. His memory of times and dates is very poor, and yet he can still smell the freshly mown grass of his youth, ‘as if it were yesterday’. Merrill could never hold down a job, and seems to have hit on hard times. He has seen affluence in the past. One young man remembers Ned’s ‘little red Jaguar’ which he used to have. Another man reminds Merrill that he should accept work when it is offered even if it means a cut in salary at first. Merrill is not interested. The man exclaims, ‘Now look hear Ned, you don’t have to pretend with me!’ He knows Ned desperately needs a job. Shirley Abbott We define Ned through the eyes of those who know him. This is particularly striking at the poolside of Shirley Abbot. Indeed this can be called the moment of greatest clarity in the film. Shirley had once been his mistress, and brings us as close to the real Merrill as we can ever get. Her apparent brutality seems to rise from a genuine desire for his good. She asks some very pertinent questions: ‘Will you ever grow up?’ And ‘How goes it in never-never land?’ It is by Shirley Abbot’s poolside that we see Merrill as he really is, a child in a man’s body. It is no coincidence that there he makes frequent references to memories of childhood. Shirley alone has the courage to tell him that reality only sank in when he was ‘tossed out of his golden playpen’. As for Shirley, he seems to feel for her still; and we believe him. Yet her name could not even be recalled by Ned at the beginning of the film: ‘I had it just a minute ago’ but he’d forgotten. The Ending The ‘downbeat’ ending is unusual for Hollywood. It takes us completely by surprise. Yet, of course the film is full of clues. It is interesting that in a sense we are like Ned himself and deny that these clues have been given: 1. Do we remember how Ned wants to drive home in ten minutes at the beginning? He receives the awkward reply, ‘Oh we really don’t have time’. 2. Do we recall the Grahams glancing at one another when Merrill says his daughters had so many friends his home ‘was like a parking lot today!’? 3. Do we recall a beautiful hotdog wagon which Ned had made himself? Why had it turned up at a ‘white elephant’ sale? 4. One man, called Brian, after a few drinks, says, ‘I think that was a stinking thing to do; I mean what they pulled on you over at your place!...I don’t care how big a firecracker this new guy was…brother that story really jolted me! I kept thinking, “What if some young [guy]… comes to our shop and does that to me?�’ The event that ‘jolted’ Brian would later jolt us, as if we never had a clue it was coming! A moral tale? There is a strange profundity even about the shallow, self-centered life of this complex man. He appreciates the freedom to follow his own desires, yet also seems to desire fidelity to Lucinda. What is apparent, however, is that Ned is in love with a kind of ethereal Lucinda. She represents home. The real Lucinda is never commented on by Ned. He never praises her virtues; he just uses her name. This kind of self-deception is dangerous in all relationships, and can herald the disintegration of real love. The ideal picture of the partner is loved, rather than the real person. The affluent, ‘gilded cage’ contentment of the Grahams near the beginning of the film is off putting. So what if their pool filters out ‘ninety nine point ninety nine point ninety nine point of all solid matter out of the water’!? So what if they plan to add ‘all the luxury optionals’ to their lawnmower! They are rooted to their home, and have no interest in the rest of the world. Additionally Howard seems intent on restricting the dreams and aspirations of his wife. By contrast, Ned’s apparent freedom to move around is attractive. He’s never still for long. His journey is appealing because it seems free from the constraints and pressures of everyday life. Merrill uses other people’s pools and towels because he seems to be free from their shallow materialism. He seems to rise above the tawdry quest for more. The film seems to poor scorn on the rich Mr Biswanger’s ‘fifteen tons of structured aluminum and clear plastic’; on his stereo and sumptuous party. Ned Merrill seems to have a kind of simplicity which we like. Yet in the end, what have his choices brought him? His three year absence is not concluded with a ‘Welcome Home’ party organized by Lucinda. Must she stay put whilst Ned is free to do as he chooses? To me ‘The Swimmer’ is profound because it is a narrative of life. It deals with our passions, our perceptions and, most importantly, our dreams. It shows how attractive they are; and yet we see that dreams must be harnessed or they will destroy us. We cannot live without commitment. We need to put down roots somewhere, and with someone, or we can end life with nothing and alone. Gavin Childress May 2008