The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Swimmer

Like certain works of classic literature, movies and films can intimidate. I've avoided certain novels over the years because they're written by a certain author, about a certain subject, or in some cases, because that book is MASSIVE in size. As far as movies go, I've long been aware of 1968's The Swimmer. I've wanted to see it, but it hasn't been readily available and I'll be honest. It sounded like an imposing movie I was going to have some trouble with. Well, I caught up with it. Here we go.

On a warm late summer day in an affluent Connecticut suburb, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) walks out of the woods wearing nothing but a swim suit. He jumps into a neighbor's pool and does a couple laps, getting out and catching up with some of his old neighbors. As he dries off, overlooking the valley, Ned comes up with an idea. Stretching all the way back to his home, Ned realizes all his neighbors have a backyard swimming pool, one after another leading right up to his own. In theory then, he could swim all the way across the county right back to his home. It sounds pretty harebrained but Ned is off and running and swimming. One by one, he swims in each of his neighbors' pools, but he may not like what's waiting for him at the end of his trek.

This is a movie with a message, and dammit, it's going to get that message across one way or another! From director Frank Perry (and an uncredited Sydney Pollack), 'Swimmer' is a very interesting movie if not a very good movie. It is based off a short story by author John Cheever, one that is a criticism -- if not a condemnation -- of the culture that developed in America following World War II. A generation returning from war wanted to return to a better life. Families moved outside cities, suburbs becoming a known thing. Houses had to be perfectly furnished with all sorts of appliances, and maybe most importantly, a swimming pool in the backyard. A condemnation of that materialistic desire is a tad obvious, a little noble, mostly interesting and bogged down in a reliance on artsy/art-house style.

If there's a strength to take away from this flick, it's Lancaster in the titular role. This is a film that the Hollywood legend considers one of his best. Considering how many great parts he had in a great career, that means something. This is a part that meant a lot to him, a movie that meant a lot to him. Playing Ned Merrill, the All-American dad and husband, Lancaster runs the gamut. We're introduced to a man on top of the world. It's a beautiful day, sunny and no clouds, and he's got an idea to "swim" across the county. As the day develops, as he gets closer to home, we learn everything isn't so peachy. His perfect life is far from it. No spoilers though, check out the movie for yourself. Lancaster is ideal casting though. He spends the entire movie in an almost-Speedo swimsuit and is in ridiculously good shape for a 55-year old actor. Lancaster does a lot without dialogue, his face and emotions doing more than words can. His physical mannerisms wither as the truths reveal themselves as he gets closer to home.

The story in 'Swimmer' is one episode after another, Lancaster's Ned (or Neddie to a lot of people) visiting friends who apparently haven't seen him in quite awhile. He talks about his wife, his daughters and his business and gets odd stares when people hear him talk about the family. It's one perfectly manicured house after another, immaculate house and pools with crystal blue water. The people welcome first, and then the emotions switch. Friendly smiles and welcoming hugs and handshakes become stares and screaming and frustration. Some of those folks he meets along the way include Charles Drake, Kim Hunter, pre-plastic surgery Joan Rivers, and plenty other familiar faces if not instantly recognizable names. The movie's most dramatic scene (and most revelatory) is with a middle-aged woman, Shirley, played to perfection by Janice Rule, who holds quite a grudge against Ned.

There are positives but for me they mostly get bogged down in some stylistic choices that handicap the story. The soundtrack from Marvin Hamlisch -- for lack of a better description -- is too 1960s for its own good, dreamy, jazzy and soft rock, like we're watching a dream sequence. The look of the film is interesting, artsy and eerily beautiful, the transitions between pools adding to the dream-like qualities. One bizarre aside has Ned walking through the woods with Julie (Janet Landgard), his family's former babysitter who he meets at her parents' pool. Julie admits she had a crush on Ned growing up, the revelation sending the story down a weird, uncomfortable path. This all comes after an extended slow motion sequence where Ned and Julie run around a horse obstacle track. Bizarre much?

That's what the movie comes down to me. I think the message is worthwhile. The mystery and the tension kept me interested right until the end. Nothing is ever spelled out, a good and bad thing. I'd like a little more closure, a little more resolution. Unfortunately, the message gets bogged down in stylistic choices that are overbearing, acting that ranges from amateurish to over the top bad and a dream-like quality that never quite delivers. Worth a watch to experience it, say you've seen it, Burt Lancaster's performance the best thing going here.

The Swimmer (1968): **/****


  1. The 60s were punishing the old school manly man in this one, that's for sure. Funny thing... Hollywood Types were still just like The Swimmer, going from pool to pool.

  2. I would have loved some more description/background on what drove Ned to where he is. Tragic character, sure, but mostly because we're not sure what he's been up to....other than cheating on his wife.