The Swimmer: Led by lights of love/Retro Review by Ian M. Clarke

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Burt Lancaster goes off the deep end

 

See Mrs. Gray she’s proud today because her roses are in bloom/

Mr. Green he’s so serene, he’s got a TV in every room/

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday/
Here in status symbol land/
Mothers complain about how hard life is/
And the kids just don’t understand

                            – A Pleasant Valley Sunday, Carole King/Jerry Goffin

 

There is a subtle but persistent hallucinatory quality to The Swimmer (1968). You’re gently pushed off balance on flat land.

And you always feel like you’re sitting too close to the screen.

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Another Pleasant Valley Sunday

One bright morning, in an affluent Connecticut suburb, Ned Merill (Burt Lancaster), in a swimsuit, appears at a neighbor’s pool party and announces his intention to swim home – that is, swim the length of a number of backyard pools that vaguely lead to his address.

As the story rolls, and Ned hits the pools, we discover more about him – and it’s disquieting news. It’s a wayward road movie with no Bob and Bing.

Is Merrill deranged? A joker? Just working out the jams? So strong and subtle is Lancaster’s performance that it isn’t until the last third of the film that we get confirmation – and by that time it is too late for Ned Merill and for us. The game must be played to the last lap.

The movie bombed when released in 1968. What was Burt From-Here-to-Eternity Lancaster doing in an art film? And why ridicule the Connecticut elite? Was it an expose of smug suburbia?

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Which side of the gate am I on?

For a parallel cinematic experience, consider the scene from The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman jumping into a pool and just staying on the bottom to avoid his dreadful parents and their friends. Water can cleanse the spirit and heighten a rebirth. It can also drown and kill.

The irony, given his state of mind, is that Ned Merill is the most alive, human and humane character in this offbeat masterpiece. Perhaps he is the Holy Fool. Or just a fool. Certainly he is a victim. Unloved. Unpitied.

Though Ned Merill sails gentle waves, his voyage hurls him through a tempest and finally, mercifully, is given enough insight to realize that no one, ever, has found a way home if not led by lights of love.