The Swimmer and the Mirage of the American Dream

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The Swimmer and the Mirage of the American Dream

In an affluent Connecticut suburb, the strapping but past-his-prime Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) details to his friends beside their backyard pool how he plans to “swim his way home.” Between their home and his sits a series of pools outside various neighbors’ dwellings, and Ned concocts a scheme to chart these crystal blue waters, stopping by each residence to do a lap in their pool before heading to the next one. He dubs this path “the Lucinda River,” named after his wife. At the mention of his partner, the friends look perplexed, slightly concerned. After many minutes sharing smiles and empty small talk, we get our first taste that something here might be amiss. 

Speaking of, where did Ned come from before now? We witness him emerge from the woods, sheathed in nothing but a pair of short blue swim trunks. Not even a towel to his name, he comes as if from Eden itself, springing upon these neighbors who express surprise at seeing him for the first time in ages. Where has Ned been? It’s one of the many ambiguities in The Swimmer, a day-in-the-life descent into one man’s warped vision of the world, a man whose sunny disposition slowly cracks as we follow him from one pool to the next. 

Why would this peculiar man create this idea of swimming home one pool at a time? Describing himself as “a great explorer,” Ned sees himself as some bygone of a golden era, a true Man of the World on a magnificent expedition. Yet he’s not traversing a wide and untamed river, he’s paddling in chlorine-filled backyards of the rich elite. He’s wading in a prison of his own making, always surrounded by the same walls while searching for the virility he’s long lost.

The Swimmer began life as a 12-page short story written by John Cheever, first published in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker. It was adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry and directed by Frank Perry, a married duo who were Oscar-nominated for their debut feature, 1962’s art film David and Lisa. The couple had a vision for The Swimmer as a deliberately ambiguous dissection of the American male psyche, a reckoning with the masturbatory self-seduction of these bastions of the American Dream who chew up and spit out anyone who gets in their path. 

Production for The Swimmer was tumultuous. Won over by a pitch from producer Sam Spiegel (already a three-time Oscar-winner for producing On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia) who insisted on keeping the Perrys’ vision of an independent picture without any name stars, things quickly turned sour when Spiegel had them sign over decision-making authority and demanded a major actor take on the leading role to help lure audiences in, among other changes. The 2014 documentary The Story of the Swimmer from filmmaker Chris Innis takes an extensive two-and-a-half-hour dive into numerous woes that were faced by a film that would go through at least four film editors, two directors (Sydney Pollack came on to do reshoots) and three entirely different cuts. The issues were so extreme that Spiegel even removed his name from the credits before release.

Yet, the end product is an exquisite dissection of a particular breed of All-American Man that mystified audiences upon release and has gained in esteem in the decades since. Its simple plot belies the many philosophical and existential musings that lurk underneath, with each dip in the pool washing away more of Ned’s facade until there’s nothing left. 

Time and history get lost for Ned as he traverses from one pool to the next. In one moment, he mentions his daughters having boys packed in their driveway ready to date them, and the next he offers their old babysitter the opportunity to come over and watch the daughters, as if they’re just children. That sitter, Julie (Janet Landgard), is college-aged and yet Ned can’t stop remarking on how much he can’t believe she’s grown. Explaining his Lucinda River journey to Julie, she calls him a “great explorer,” and of course that’s everything this aging lothario could dream of hearing. She loves his silly idea while everyone else sees it for the nonsense it is, and so he jumps on the opportunity to relish in this young woman’s naive fawning. She’s giving him exactly the false visage of masculine magnificence that he’s longing for, that’s been ripped away from him, as we start to get the hints that maybe his wife and daughters have long since abandoned him.

Lancaster’s performance is arguably his very best, with the actor recognizing his unique positioning to capture the rotted heart of this quickly evaporating creature. There was a time when Lancaster was the very thing at which The Swimmer aims its incisive critique: The poster child for The Great American Hero. His Ned Merrill is almost the direct antonym to his gallant stud of a soldier in From Here to Eternity from a decade prior. His piercing blue eyes now hold an aching void within, completely lost in this deteriorated man whose view of himself and the world has crumbled. Now he’s gone so deep into delusion that he fully believes the fallacy he’s concocted for himself. Lancaster fastidiously worked out every day to keep in shape for this part, maintaining the physicality of a Greek god, and he shrewdly uses this persona to expose the knotted core at the heart of this misleading vessel.

Ned invites Julie on this journey with him, and he leaps at the opportunity to show her his virility—somehow coming across an area built for training show ponies, with obstacles and hurdles for them to navigate. Ned, a show stallion if ever there’s been one, excels at the course at first, demonstrating his prime stature to this new admirer. Julie even reveals that she used to have a crush on the man, telling him “I was just a kid to you, but you were a god to me,” as she admits that she used to go into his bedroom to try on his suits, smell his cologne, and even once stole his shirt. After he injures himself, the two lie down and she describes to him two instances of sexual assault she experienced at her workplace. Ned, ever the letch, ensures her that he’ll take care of her and keep her safe, and then makes his own unwanted advance towards her, which she rebuffs. 

Soon after, Ned encounters Kevin Gilmartin Jr. (Michael Kearney), a young boy home alone sitting on the edge of his empty pool. Kevin complains to Ned about how he never gets picked for any teams at school because he’s not athletic. Ned’s response opens up a window for the audience into his true self, as he explains to Kevin that not being picked actually makes him lucky because it makes him free. No one has any expectation for him to be great. Is Ned ultimately speaking of himself? That without his family around to put responsibility on him, he can be this peak specimen he sees himself as? Kevin tells Ned that he can’t swim, and to continue his expedition across the Lucinda River, the hero takes the boy through a false swimming lesson along the bottom of the pool, mimicking the movements as though they were gliding through water. “You see, if you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you,” he tells the boy, though he may as well be speaking to a mirror. 

Each new backyard sheds more of the mirage that Ned elaborately tries to maintain, particularly when he stumbles across a hot dog wagon, the type a street vendor would use, at one house’s rocking pool party. Ned adamantly proclaims that this is his hot dog wagon. The neighbors explain that they purchased it during “a white elephant sale” that Ned’s wife threw, and when he demands to purchase it back, he is shoved to the ground. It’s becoming more and more difficult for him to avoid the harsh truth of what the neighbors see him as: An embarrassment, a failure, a fraud. 

His next visit is where the gloves really come off, as he stumbles to the home of Shirley Abbott (Janice Rule), who we quickly understand to be a spurned former mistress of Ned’s. While the ladies’ man lovingly recounts their old romantic moments, Shirley retorts that these instances didn’t even happen with her. They must have been with one of his other mistresses. All she shares is a painful memory of her seeing him with his family and knowing that he would never truly be with her. 

“What happened?” he asks Shirley, looking more weathered than ever. “Nothing’s turned out the way I thought it would. When I was a kid, I used to believe in things. People seemed happier when I was a kid. People seemed to love each other. What happened?” 

“You got tossed out of your golden playpen, that’s what happened,” Shirley cuttingly responds. He pathetically attempts to make a move on her, and is rebuffed even more aggressively than before. She tears him down to the bone, calling him dull and vapid and saying she always faked her satisfaction when she was with him. “YOU LOVED IT!” he cries to the heavens as she storms away. No one is around to hear his proclamations of greatness anymore.

As we follow Ned along this day-long journey, it seems that entire seasons are changing before our eyes. He’s getting colder and colder, shivering by the time he reaches Shirley, and in his final spot before making it home, he lands at a public pool that is absolutely crammed with people. He is dressed down trying to get in, having to beg for 50 cents simply to enter, and then having to wash off his rich pool water and the dirt on his feet before being admitted. 

After making it out of the jam-packed public pool, he is confronted with his old middle-class friends, who give us deeper insight into the man Ned was even before his family was no longer with him. We get the image of Ned as a working man, but one who left his friends behind and treated them like dirt once he made it rich, giving him a sense of superiority that he would wield over them. He used his money and privilege to hide things, such as taking care of any legal issues that sprung up when his daughters got in trouble for drunk driving. We also learn that despite this, his daughters would laugh at him behind closed doors, knowing even then that he was the joke everyone sees him as now. 

Crawling away from this chorus of truth-tellers, Ned finally makes it home and we see the dilapidated structure that best represents his current existence. It looks like a haunted mansion, one that hasn’t been lived in for years. He presses his hands on the gated entrance to the overgrown, unkempt yard and rust from the gate bleeds off onto his wet hands. Rain starts to pour down as he walks barefoot across the disheveled tennis courts on his estate, hearing echoes of the laughter and happiness that once occurred there.

The Swimmer plays out in many ways like a dream sequence, though one from a man who doesn’t know that he’s dreaming. He’s caught in a reality that no longer exists, one he is desperate to cling onto, where those around him are awake and constantly at odds with his fairy-tale reality. There are even some audiences who question whether Ned is alive at all, or if he is a ghost haunting this all-too-cheery neighborhood. Maybe these folks are next in line, right behind Ned. Maybe their reckoning is just around the corner.

At the end of this bleary, treacherous adventure, Ned arrives at his front door, covered in rain with more of it pouring down on him, and he can’t get in. He bangs on the door, pulls on the locked knob. Nothing. We see the window on the ground floor shattered. Perhaps some neighborhood hooligans broke in and scrounged what they could. Perhaps this isn’t even the first time Ned has made this fruitless journey to recapture his lost American Excellence. We see inside the house, him still banging on the door outside, where there’s nothing left for him. There’s nothing left of him at all.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

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