A university colleague complained to me last year about her frustration when trying to show a movie to her humanities class. The film was The Swimmer, a 1968 feature based on a famous short story by John Cheever, with Burt Lancaster as the title character. My friend’s problem was that the movie was only available with online streaming, resulting in less-than-ideal picture quality for the classroom. Since so much of the movie’s appeal (or that of any good film, for that matter) depends on how it looks, her disappointment was understandable.
Now, however, The Swimmer has finally surfaced in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that does justice to this nearly forgotten classic. Winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Collected Stories, Cheever is today regarded as one of the masters of the genre, and The Swimmer may be his most famous. Originally published in The New Yorker in 1964, the short fable details the day-long odyssey of Ned Merrill, a well-to-do New England suburbanite, to swim his way home by way of his neighbors’ pools. For middle-aged Ned, however, nothing and no one are what they seem (or once seemed to be) as his surreal journey of self-discovery takes him to an unexpected conclusion.
Written and directed by Eleanor and Frank Perry, respectively, the film version of The Swimmer was a risky undertaking from the get-go. The Perrys were a fairly hot team on the basis of their first film David and Lisa four years earlier, even though its follow-up, Ladybug Ladybug, proved disappointing. Neither had ever worked with a star of Lancaster’s prominence, however, and the source material — a minimalist 12-page story — was sketchy in audience appeal.
Despite these issues — fleshed out in detail on the terrific new two-and-a-half hour documentary accompanying the Blu-ray and DVD — The Swimmer proved to be a worthy realization of Cheever’s provocative story. Burt Lancaster, at age 52, plays the entire film in a blue swimsuit, prompting one reviewer to award him “the grand prize for the most physically fit 52-year-old American male.” And there’s so much more to Lancaster’s performance than physical fitness. In fact, it’s Ned Merrill’s vulnerability to the elements — physical and moral — that’s the real focus here.
Ultimately, Ned is lost in time and place, but most utterly in his own self-conception. As he goes from place to place, from one acquaintance to another and eventually to a former lover, his illusions begin to dissipate along with the waning day, from bright sunlight to a chilling downpour. Cheever’s story would’ve made a terrific Twilight Zone episode, but Eleanor Perry’s screenplay keeps it more rooted in Ned’s confusion rather than a crumbling reality itself. Still, there’s enough of a surreal touch that many early viewers were put off by it, confused by the presence of a major action star like Lancaster (his previous two films were The Professionals and The Hallelujah Trail) in such an odd role.
The Swimmer is now regarded as one of the great movies of the ’60s, and Lancaster’s performance as one of the very best in his long, impressive career. Final superlative: Neither the film nor the star has ever looked better than in this stellar Blu-ray/DVD presentation.