This article contains spoilers.
A Hollywood oddity from 1968, The Swimmer stars Burt Lancaster as an upper-class suburbanite who, standing by the side of his friends’ pool on a summer afternoon, decides to swim home through all of the neighbouring pools. Based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever, it was adapted by Eleanor Perry and directed by her husband Frank Perry, with one scene helmed by an uncredited Sydney Pollack, brought in by the befuddled producers. The latter had trouble grasping the symbolic nature of the tale: through the central conceit, The Swimmer is really about a man in the midst of a mental breakdown slowly forced to face the reality of what his life has become.
At first, Lancaster’s Ned appears happy and at ease among his wealthy friends. But as he progresses from pool to pool, more details about his life gradually emerge until the terrible truth about his situation is finally revealed in a heart-breaking finale. The progression from pool to pool is an allegory for Ned’s life, from youth to old age, and from success to failure. The possibilities of youth are evoked in the first scene through the recollection of blissful, carefree swimming in the mountains with his childhood friend. From there, he moves to a pool belonging to his teen love, which prompts wistful musing over what could have been. At the next house, he convinces a young girl who used to babysit for him to come along with him. At first, it is an exciting adventure, full of laughter and youthful physical exertion, until Ned falls, spraining his ankle, and upsets the girl by becoming inappropriately, intensely, protective. Limping through the rest of the film, a now weary and vulnerable-looking Ned meets antagonistic people who reveal the extent of his decline and fall.
As Ned’s change of social status becomes clearer, the world around him becomes increasingly hostile. Welcomed at the first houses he visits, he is called a gate-crasher when he arrives at the pool party of vulgar nouveaux riches neighbours he probably used to - maybe snobbishly - look down on, and he is eventually thrown out. As he tries to cross a busy road, cars beep and swerve aggressively around him. When he wants to swim in the communal swimming pool, he is initially turned away by the employee because he doesn’t have the 50 cents required, then humiliatingly made to wash his feet twice by the attendant, before attempting to cross an insanely busy pool in which he is assaulted by chaotic bodies, floating objects and loud noises. When he reaches the other side, he is confronted by disgruntled shop-keepers whose bills he hasn’t paid, and who reveal more unsettling truths about his family. It is that scene that makes you realise how bare he is. Lancaster spends the whole film wearing only a bathing trunk. Initially, it is a positive thing: Ned looks handsome, powerful, athletic. But gradually, it becomes a poignant image for the fact that he has lost everything: he has literally been stripped bare, physically, emotionally, financially, socially. Ned starts like the picture of success - an idle upper-class suburbanite whiling away a bright summer afternoon by the pool - and ends a failure shunned by all.
We are never told if Ned lost everything as a result of misfortune, or as a consequence of his own actions, although the scene with his beautiful ex-lover suggests he may have been at least partly responsible, his infidelity possibly one of the causes of his predicament. With scathing bitterness, Shirley recalls how he broke up with her because of ‘his duties as a father and a husband’. But when he puts sun cream on her back, she visibly responds to his touch. And when he shivers with cold she puts a towel around his shoulders. The spark is still there and Ned tries to reignite it, but Shirley angrily resists the pull of past love, the hurt obvious underneath the lies she tells him to push him away. As with the nouveaux riches or the shop-keepers, Ned is lost and confused, unable to comprehend why she rejects him so violently.
Ned is indeed incapable to face the reality of his life, and keeping on swimming through the pools until he gets home is a way of pretending things are still the way they used to be. In a key scene that is the heart of the film, Ned comes across a lonely little boy who sells lemonade on a wall outside his absent parents’ mansion. Ned wants to swim in their pool, but the parents have emptied it because the boy is not good at sports. As they sit by the empty pool, Ned tells the boy that it’s better not to be picked for a sports team because ‘it makes you free’, and it’s clear that he’s thinking about life in a more general - and typically American - way. He then decides that they will swim anyway and teaches the boy how to swim as if there was water in the pool. ‘If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you,’ he tells the boy. What happens next shows that the boy is mature enough to understand the limits of make believe. Ned, on the other hand, remains pitifully self-deluded until he is faced with the crushing reality of his situation at the very end.
Like Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Samurai (1967) - which inspired The Driver - and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Swimmer reduces his main character to one single action/function. Confronted with the intolerable reality of living, the Swimmer, like the Samurai and the Driver(s), has a minimalist and mechanistic approach to life: the only way of coping is to keep repeating the same unique action over and over again. An action that is a physical projection onward, a constant need for movement: keep on driving, keep on swimming, keep moving forward to escape from the past, from one’s self, from life.