Ned Merrill , the character played by Burt Lancaster, does not put on either a shirt or a trowser during the entire runtime of 95 minutes. Neither does he shut his lips even once to deny us the grand spectacle of his shapely teeth. The Swimmer is that kind of a film, in which a man keeps swimming, running, grinning and getting snubbed by many people, but never puts on anything more than a swimming trunk.
While enjoying drinks at a pool party thrown by his friends , it strikes Ned that all the backyard swimming pools might form a longish river, so to speak, and through them he can ‘ swim his way home’. It is a juvenile resolution , if one considers himself a grown-up, and yet did not seem outlandish when a well-tanned, ripped man like Ned resolved to follow it.
There are sub-plots , hinted at , but not developed. There are leads and suspicions, which are not persued. There are multiple characters – complaining, patronizing, forgiving, hateful, unrelenting- but the narrative resists the temptation to cut into flashback and lapse into their backstory at any point . There is a lot of past baggage , the burden of which does seem to affect his friends and acquaintances , but Ned Merrill seems to be either forgetful, or unencumbered or plainly unbothered by all that is real and mundane. All that matters to him is to jump into one side of pools , and to emerge onto the other. It would have been hilarious , if the narrative had not turned strenuous , and did not hint at some tragedy.
The one who begins the routine is a stud. His muscles glisten, his chest is firm and smile broad, he frolics about with a young girl and gallops like a horse. Ned Merrill comes across as an ancient Olympian athlete, a virile middle-aged specimen of male beauty .He strikes cosy conversations with women, men admire his spunk and style. But gradually his posturing gets unraveled . But as the day passes by , physical exertion, snubs, complaints, insults and innuendos wear him down. Sun did not seem warm enough , and a limp appeared in his leg. There appeared gaps in his memory, and he came across as a disturbed individual.
During the adventure , he stumbles upon an empty pool , but maintains his sequence by jumping into it, performing swimming motions and crossing it on foot . He even teaches this technique to a lonesome kid, who is afraid of water, and consequently has never swam a full pool lap before. The Swimmer pontificates on the importance of make-believe, but as he is leaving behind this angry kid , who wants to dry-swim another lap, he hears the latter bouncing loudly over the diving board. This knocks daylight out of Ned , who rushes back to prevent the kid from jumping into the empty pool . Although it turns out to be a false alarm, this is perhaps a pointer to what might have happened (something similar) earlier .
Ned frequently mentions his wife, and his girls, back home playing tennis, and waiting for him. The climax shows Ned reaching his house amidst torrential rain , and banging frantically on the door . The house seems dilapidated, with broken windows and deserted tennis court. His wife and the girls are nowhere to be seen. Some tragedy has left its footprints. The wife might have just left him , maybe out of boredom (who knows ?), while it is suggested that the girls used to laugh at him, and had fallen into bad company.
He won’t take a cut on his next job . His insistence on paying back his debts via checks draw wide ridicule and invite sniggers .Something has happened , which everyone knows about, but does not seem to affect Ned ? It is obvious he is not quite well. He shivers, he limps. He most surely suffers from selective amnesia. Has he blocked some unpleasant memories ? From what can be gathered from the screenplay, Ned comes across as someone who has cheated his wife, dumped his girlfriend, owes people money, prepositions three women on a single afternoon and is turned down, and is a troubled soul who has chosen to or forgotten about his misfortunes.
The stallion of the suburbs – one whose immediate concerns are swimming, drinking and women is not a flat character. But his roundness has been held from the viewer. It is in this denial that the film bowls you over.What is it that has happened ? This hallucinogenic open-ended climax puzzle leaves us spellbound. Do our fears and troubles vanish or are overcome , if we ignore or block them ?
Burt Lancaster and the director, Frank Perry , bickered everyday on the set. Towards the end, Lancaster forced Perry out, and a young Sydney Pollack , ended up shooting some last scenes. Burt had a secret fear of water and took special lessons to overcome it. He was also a perfectionist, and like actors, insecure to the hilt, and ended up creating all sorts of problems for other actors. It reached a stage where Columbia (producers) pulled the plug, and Burt had to shell out $10000 to finish the last day’s shooting. This seemingly unfilmable 1968 drama film was based on a short story by John Cheevar. Eleanor Perry wrote the adapted screenplay . Despite such off-screen troubles, the film went onto to become a cult-classic on the back of strong performances and surreal quality of its plot.