A middle-aged man decides to swim home using the pools of his friends and neighbors. That is essentially the plot of the 1968 Burt Lancaster film, “The Swimmer”; and yet, the film is much more than that. Based on the John Cheever story of the same name, the story is an examination of the psyche and society. Whether or not you’ve read the story in a literature class, the film offers an interesting journey into the degradation of the mind. What makes the film just as interesting more than 40 years after its theatrical release, is how relevant the issues presented in the film are to modern society.
On its release, “The Swimmer” received some favorable reviews, including one from the late Roger Ebert, but it ultimately failed at the box office. Since then, the film has developed a cult following by fans and special interest in film studies circles. However, this new Blu-Ray + DVD combo pack release by Grindhouse Releasing — also responsible for a wonderful restoration of the classic western “The Big Gundown” — is sure to please fans but also offer newcomers the opportunity to discover this underrated classic.
This new release features a new 4K transfer of the film. Colors are bright and vivid. However, there are shifts in the picture quality, but may be due to the quality of the source material used for this restoration, rather than the restoration itself. The audio is crisp and clear and Martin Hamlisch’s film score is prominent in the sound mix with its sweeping cadences. Accompanying the film are a mixture of bonus features, including an informative two and a half hour documentary and an audio recording of John Cheever reading his original story.
But the real gem in this release is the film itself.
The film follows middle-aged Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster in a standout performance), recently returning to his upper class neighborhood. He drops by the home of two of his acquaintances, donning only swimming trunks. Based on their reactions, it is clear that Ned has been gone a long time. Despite that, they welcome Ned. While socializing with them, Ned notices that many more pools have been installed in other friend’s homes, pretty much in a straight line that goes all the way across the county. He then suddenly decides to swim home, pool by pool, to reach his wife and children. He even names this “river” of pools after his wife, Lucinda. The idea of swimming home seems ludicrous to Ned’s friends, but he does it anyway.
Through his subsequent interactions along the way, we learn that something is wrong. Ned’s references to home and his family surprise people, and occasionally Ned’s memories contrast with those of others. But does the viewer actually know what happened to Ned before he started swimming across the county? Not necessarily. However, the power of suggestion reveals an undercurrent in the film as powerful as Ernest Hemingway’s white elephants. This paradox between reality and memory results in a near hallucinatory experience for Ned. The film’s ending, especially, brings reality home for Ned, no pun intended.
In addition to the film’s exploration of Ned’s psyche is the biting commentary of social customs of the time. Through Ned’s conversations, the viewer is exposed to the exclusive and materialistic mindset of upper class society.
The film is not for everyone given its non-standard plot, its age, and its depressing outcome, but it will raise questions. The original tagline for the film was “When you talk about ‘The Swimmer’, will you talk about yourself?” The phrase prompts viewers to examine how they’ve been leading their own lives and who or what they associate themselves with in the film.
In addition to Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-Ray / DVD combo pack, “The Swimmer” is also available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.