Forgotten Classics: The Swimmer (1968)

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I never meant to hurt you. Is there a more self-pitying phrase in the entire English language? Ostensibly a sigh of defeat, a heartfelt apologia for the wrongs of an entire race, it is, in truth, a mere cry of rationalization; the ultimate in the art of the self-serving. With full awareness of intent and expected result, it is the coward’s plea, a slobbering slouch on bended knee for a forgiveness that attempts only to erase the exercise of will. A knife thrust that resists the rip-tear of flesh. A groin kick without breathlessness. A clean, blood-free bludgeoning. Because incredulity in the face of one’s own malevolence, however explained away, can never be ascribed to ignorance. We are what we do. And we always mean it. For there is, in the words of John Cheever, the “irreversibility of human behavior.” Time, far from healing all wounds, only entombs them until, by necessity, they will be resurrected at a time of least appreciation. That is Ned Merrill’s conundrum – the eternal, human enigma – where we seek always to reverse the past, which inevitably sours the present. For we spend our days not in the act of living, but in the desperate dance to live anew.

Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, based on Mr. Cheever’s short story, is, in many ways, the product of its late-Sixties gestation and birth, but the end result bleeds a refreshing timelessness. Ned, played by a 55-year-old Burt Lancaster with a striking physique more suited to an NFL locker room, is a man so consumed with failure and defeat that he has time for little else but the attempt to outrun them. Hence his mission. On a sunny, summer afternoon, Ned will swim home. Not on the open seas, or through assorted rivers and streams, but in the pools of his Connecticut upbringing. Though he will do more walking than actual swimming, the pools are, to his mind, linked as one – a “Lucinda River,” in due deference to his beloved wife. From all appearances, it is a quirky, almost romantic adventure, where a man emerges, as if untethered to any discernible past, from the wilds of the unknown and into an even more unpredictable future. Ned is clad only in swim trunks from the opening bell, and we have no real idea why he’s decided to embark on this most esoteric of excursions. Despite its fanciful nature, we are intrigued, if only because the hoped for end of good cheer and expectant loved ones is almost certainly a mirage of Ned’s own making.

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Still, as Ned begins to dip into these assorted oases of crystal blue, there is much to feed his seemingly unlimited optimism. He is greeted by old friends as if having been missing in action, a soldier fighting an unnamed battle, with the smiles and offers of refreshment adding to his undeniable sense of belonging. Where has he been? What’s kept him from visiting more often? No pariah, this one, but a long-lost buddy with tales to tell and handshakes to exchange. Ned is almost giddy during his return, which is the surest sign that nothing is quite as it seems. For only in our memory are such encounters so unfailingly agreeable. His early visits, while brief, are like the holiday gatherings from our youth, where we conveniently – and quite deliberately – omit the seething resentments and bitter denunciations that always threatened to evolve from theory to practice. There’s a dream-like quality to these interactions, both as a reflection of Ned’s semi-conscious state and as commentary on the suburban drudgery so common to the period. Now, of course, it’s axiomatic that white flight hastened the surrender of true individuality, but in 1968, such truths had yet to become settled law. Ned, in some ways, was the last holdout.

Lithe and lean, his dives a flawless execution of technique, Ned continues along as if aping Lindbergh’s tickertape return to the masses. There are waves and wide-eyed wonder, cheers and flirtations, all in service of a man who has seemed only to grow by his absence. And when he encounters a young beauty, once the family babysitter in days gone by, he picks up with relative ease, becoming both parent and paramour in a matter of moments. She reveals an ancient longing, he responds as any man would in the waning days of erectile possibility, and soon, Ned and the girl are reenacting a paradise lost as if time itself had been stopped, reversed, and swallowed whole. What follows is a near-parody of clinging to youth’s promise, whereby Ned, reduced to a slow motion figure of Riefenstahlian fetishism, becomes a triumph not of will, but mad delusion. He’s in top form, we all can agree, every last muscle a rebuke to mortality’s hidden sting. Not once great, but great for all time; a leaping, lunging human male in the full flower of his dominance. But we know history. And the warning bells of great literature. Hell, life itself only plays in one direction. Something is amiss. Something’s always amiss.

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Being the decade of dashed hopes, and of course, the mind of Cheever, a man is only ever a man when he’s piling the lies as high as his missed opportunities. Young blond girls, armed with little more than idealism and a skimpy bikini, are good for a turn, but the monsters under the bed are never so far away that they can’t insist on interruption. Ned’s swimming gambit has begun to lose its luster, and the waiting throngs, once deeply devoted, have now turned sour, even hostile. A lonely, fatherless boy stands before a drained pool as if considering his future. Ned brings him along, expressing encouragement, only to leave him as bereft as ever. A party, the kind for which Ned might have once secured a most coveted invitation, becomes a spiteful harangue from which to retreat in shame. Overtures are ignored. Advances are admonished.  A man in demand has become a stranger, an unwelcome guest in a world that long ago passed him by. Even the most desirable destination of all, the pool of a past lover, offers no refuge. Once believed, he is now exposed. She’s heard it all before. His stories are familiar, played out. And, in the worst thing a man can ever hear from the opposite sex, the whole damn thing was apparently just an act. The greatest lie of them all to add to Ned’s personal collection.

It is only at his final destination, the lone public pool in the area, where Ned’s nightmare reaches its apex. Vague recriminations are now specific, formal charges, and in the face of naked defeat, he has little to offer save the same excuses that led to his ultimate downfall. In short, Ned is an apparition – not literally, in that he’s imagining the entire experience from the grave – but a figure so splintered by self-imposed tragedy that he’s barely recognizable as flesh and bone. His accusers are incensed – by his lies, his foolishness, his inability to detect the loathing from within his own home – and though they demand explanation, they’re more interested in the final burial. At this point (and what was the swimming but a flight from memory), he has no choice to run, a cornered rat in the last stages. He’s never listened before, so why start now? He retreats, at last, to the home he once knew, the place that held so much promise earlier in the day. It is overrun, neglected. Few things depress as much as the once beautiful left to the elements. It’s a ghostly vision, decidedly cheerless, right out of Grey Gardens. He runs to the door, a solitary figure in a downpour. His knocks become a relentless pounding. Again and again, to no avail. No one will answer, as he’s thrown it all away. House, job, family, distinction, honor. To drink? To lust? Does it matter? Nothing remains. An oft-told tale. And to think, he never meant to hurt anyone.

About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
Follow Matt: @mattcale52