The Swimmer (1968)

Like the movie, Burt Lancaster's title character -- an aging suburbanite who one day decides, on an afternoon lark, to "swim home" pool-to-pool through the back yards of his friends -- starts out lightly charming us, only to plunge into darker waters.

THE SWIMMER (1968)

D: Frank Perry; with Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Tony Bickley, Nancy Cushman.

You know there's something strange happening in The Swimmer -- a late-Sixties adaptation of the John Cheever short story -- early on, when its almost kitschily gorgeous opening montage of sun-dappled Technicolor meadows and streams is suddenly intercut with a shot of an owl on a branch at nighttime. While this nighttime shot might seem, at first glance, like nothing more than a particularly egregious continuity error, it's really the first defiant act of a movie that aims to slowly and subtly break holes in our sense of its own continuity and in the mental continuity of its title character. Like the movie, that title character -- an aging suburbanite who one day decides, on an afternoon lark, to "swim home" pool-to-pool through the back yards of his friends -- starts out lightly charming us, only to plunge into darker waters. But who better to lead us into those waters than Burt Lancaster? The camera loved him and audiences instinctively trusted him, Lancaster was consistently unafraid to let that love and trust play warmly over the outer shells of characters he'd hollowed out and filled with dark passions, violent obsessions, and even madness. The swimmer is one of Lancaster's finest creations: an aging lothario whose easy charm is slowly stripped away over the course of the film, just as his nearly naked body is patiently, mercilessly battered by the elements. The film's narrative brings us so close into Lancaster's character, though, that we don't immediately notice him starting to unravel. Instead, we take a warm dip in his world of charming banter and endless pleasantries while our eyes gaze at calmly swirling leaves and outstretched valleys, lulled into a mounting, eerie sense of unease. The Swimmer, both a critical and commercial failure upon its release, might not be a perfect film, but it's a unique and brave one. Combining an inventive episodic structure with hallucinatory freeform interludes, freely mixing low-key comedy and sweeping pathos, The Swimmer's uneven tone only adds to its cumulative sense of menace and instability. It uses beauty to frighten and deceive, it uses charm to unsettle and unnerve, and it puts us where we want to be and then pushes us where we're afraid to go.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Screens Reviews
What If the Marx Brothers Got Around to Making That Movie With Salvador Dalí?
What If the Marx Brothers Got Around to Making That Movie With Salvador Dalí?
Josh Frank brings the legendary unproduced movie to printed life

Wayne Alan Brenner, March 22, 2019

What If <i>The Texas Chain Saw Massacre</i> Was Really About the Horrors of Modern American Society?
What If The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Was Really About the Horrors of Modern American Society?
Putting the Austin-made seminal slasher back into context

Marc Savlov, March 22, 2019

More by Will Robinson Sheff
I Live My Broken Dreams
I Live My Broken Dreams
This year's rock docs examine the 'outsider myth' and more among the likes of Daniel Johnston, Townes Van Zandt, and Wild Man Fischer

March 11, 2005

All About the Others
All About the Others
The Austin Film Society's Besides Almodóvar

Dec. 3, 2004

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Frank Perry, Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Tony Bickley, Nancy Cushman, The Swimmer, John Cheever

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle