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.
Reviewed by Will Robinson Sheff, Fri., Feb. 21, 2003
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.