The Swimmer (1968)
The Swimmer (1968)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: May 15th, 1968 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Frank Perry Actors: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Tony Bickley, Marge Champion, Kim Hunter




hat doesn’t make much sense, does it?” Burt Lancaster announces to his ex-lover, Shirley (Janice Rule). It’s a well-placed line that sums up the majority of the premise: an amusingly confusing progression that challenges viewers to sort through esoteric happenings and decipher conclusions on their own, all while providing plenty of peculiar character self-revelations and despairingly few explanations. It’s a puzzling representation of a cloudy journey for a man struggling with his true identity, his origins, and his downfall – and a production attempting a disconcerting message. Thought-provoking but equally frustrating, “The Swimmer” certainly isn’t for everyone.

Optimistic, cheerful Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) finds himself at the pool of a friend’s house and soon begins reminiscing about the glorious days of yore. Mysteriously drawn to the watery sapphire, Ned plots out a course back to his home by way of his neighbors’ pools (involving more hiking than actual swimming), fondly naming the river of excavations “Lucinda,” after his wife. Meeting numerous figures from his past along the way, he encounters benevolence, bewilderment, affection, companionship, and even hostility from his unwitting hosts as he steadily approaches his enigmatic destination – where reality and fantasy frighteningly blur.

Based on the short story by John Cheever, the film takes its full running time to build up questions about the inscrutable protagonist before delivering a shocking ending that may prove highly dissatisfactory for many. Like a less sinister “Mulholland Drive” for the ‘60s, nothing is what it seems and solving the spellbinding conundrum is a task that goes unaided by the narrative. Through extensive recollecting, casual catching up with friends and foes, a preoccupation with the sky, and an obsession with water, Ned recalls pieces of his former life and fragments of memories lurking in his subconscious. His perception of himself differs drastically from those of the people he encounters, gradually turning sourer until he’s left only with a shattering truth. His calm, confident, and easygoing attitude slowly dwindles as the day fades and his journey comes to a close.

A haunting theme melody by composer Marvin Hamlisch magnificently presides over the abundance of oddities, including a triumphant race against a horse, slow-motion hurdling, random flashbacks, a couple of troubling nudists, and an attention-starved boy. The dialogue consists of seemingly insouciant conversations between associates, revealing not nearly enough about Ned to draw satisfactory conclusions – and doubtlessly aggravating for those who wait the entire length of the movie only to realize that solid answers will remain elusive. Perhaps learning the meaning of Ned’s odyssey is more important than knowing who he really is. In the end, “The Swimmer” is continuously interesting yet only genuinely entertaining for those who think they’ve got the symbolism all figured out.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10