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Film / The Swimmer

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"You see, if you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it IS true, for you."
Ned Merrill

A surreal 1968 drama directed by Frank Perry and an uncredited Sydney Pollack, starring Burt Lancaster, based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever.

One beautiful summer's day in Connecticut, middle-aged Ned Merrill unexpectedly drops by the house of some old friends as they're having a pool party. During their conversation about various mutual friends in their suburban neighborhood, Ned realises that the pools in their various backyards form a "river" leading directly to his own house, and decides on impulse to "swim" his way home by taking a dip in each pool. As he travels from house to house, however, it gradually becomes apparent that not everyone is pleased to see him, and that Ned's charming, enthusiastic outlook might be concealing the fact that things have gone terribly wrong for him...


First film score for Marvin Hamlisch. Joan Rivers appears briefly as a party guest who is intrigued by Ned. Director Frank Perry was fired after a screening of the first cut and replaced by Sydney Pollack, who directed much of the released film, including the entire scene with Ned and Shirley (Janice Rule).

Provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Area: Not only is Ned's mansion empty and abandoned, it has been abandoned for a long time. The gate has rusted, leaves cover the tennis court that he was reminiscing about, weeds and ivy have overgrown everything, and some of the windows are broken open.
  • The Alcoholic: Everyone's knocking back the drinks in this movie, but it is implied that Ned's life problems and breakdown may be related to his fondness for drink; notably, when confronting the tradespeople at the end, it is snidely noted that one of the businesses Ned owes money to is the local bar. Also worth noting that John Cheever, the author of the original story, struggled with alcoholism throughout his life.
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  • Ambiguous Disorder: Ned's inability to remember certain things about his life raises questions as to whether or not he's fully sane.
  • Cosmic Plaything: Left ambiguous and played with, to the extent that we don't know to what degree Ned is responsible for his situation. It's made clear the Ned has lost everything in his life: wife and kids have left him, he's lost his job, his house, his possessions, whatever social status he may have had in his neighborhood and community, and ultimately his sanity. To what extent this is his own fault is unclear - one scene hints at his heavy drinking, and another confirms that he cheated on his wife, but the film never resolves whether these were causes or effects of his downfall. Furthermore, many scenes suggest that his neighbors and former friends are more crass, superficial, and drunken than Ned himself, implying that there wasn't anything about Ned that made him particularly deserving of his plight.
  • Creator Cameo: John Cheever is briefly glimpsed in one of the party scenes along with his wife Mary.
  • Downer Ending: The film ends with Ned alone outside of his empty, abandoned house, in the middle of a raging storm, forced to face the awful reality of his situation.
  • Empathic Environment: The further Ned gets into his journey, and the more it becomes clear that his life is falling apart around him, the worse the weather becomes. By the time he reaches his empty, abandoned house, a storm is coming in. His situation is so dire that he can't even hide in his delusions that all is well any longer.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: A single day from dawn to dusk, as Ned makes a weird trek on foot across his Connecticut neighborhood, diving in every pool along the way. The original short story plays with this in a Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane way; it's still a single day, but there's added hints that Ned is somehow travelling weeks, months and even years further into the future without realising, hence his mystification at how increasingly hostile people get with him, and the seeming change of seasons going on around him.
  • Fanservice: There are several attractive women clad in swimsuits and bikinis, as well as Burt Lancaster, who is still in excellent shape for a man in his mid-fifties, spending an entire film in swim trunks. We even get to see his butt in what was a very daring shot for the mid-1960s. But in the latter portion of the film as the day turns colder and it becomes more and more clear that Ned is seriously disturbed, the Fanservice starts to morph into Fan Disservice.
  • Foreshadowing: A steady parade of hints that things have gone very bad for Ned and there is something seriously wrong with him.
    • Betty and Howard, owners of the first pool, are visibly startled when Ned says he hopes his daughters will be married at his home.
    • Mrs. Hammar, at the second pool, resents Ned for not coming to the funeral of her son Eddie, but Ned seems unaware that Eddie is dead.
    • Julie, who once was a babysitter for Ned's daughters, is confused when he says that he still needs a babysitter. Later dialogue indicates that Ned's daughters are several years past babysitting age.
    • At the Bunkers' pool, another guest makes remarks indicating that Ned lost his job to a younger man. The wrathful "CONGRATULATIONS!" that a horny lady at the poolnote  spits when Ned says he's meeting his wife Lucinda indicates that his marriage is over.
    • The Hallorans are worried that Ned will hit them up for money again and are surprised when he doesn't—and even more surprised when Ned blithely agrees to buy a $1000 table for Mrs. Halloran's next charity event.
    • Ned is startled to see his hot dog wagon at the Biswanger house: it seems that all his possessions were sold off.
    • And finally, the neighborhood folks he meets at the public pool mock him for leaving unpaid bills at the grocery and the bar.
    • Ned for his part doesn't understand any of the comments that people are making to him and seems unable to process what has happened. Indeed he's barely able to engage with anyone in anything other than his happy talk about swimming from pool to pool.
  • Hope Spot: In retrospect, the older gentleman who tells Ned about a potential job opportunity (and afterwards says to Ned that "there's no need to pretend around me" as he leaves) was the one person he encountered who offered him genuine concern, friendship and an opportunity to put his life back on track. Unfortunately, he was too far gone in his delusions to be helped at that point.
  • Humiliation Conga: For Ned over the course of the movie. Various people that he meets confront him with the fact that he has lost his job, he is broke, all his stuff was sold off, and his wife and daughters are all gone, and by the way they hated him. The hot young lady who recounts her Precocious Crush on Ned recoils and runs off when he tries to make a serious move on her. His former mistress angrily rejects him and claims that she was faking orgasms when they had sex (although the way the rest of that scene plays out hints that she may be lying). And even the common folk at the public pool sneer at Ned for being a deadbeat with juvenile delinquent daughters that can't stand him.
  • I Reject Your Reality: It becomes increasingly clear throughout the movie that whatever kind of mental instability Ned is suffering involves him firmly rejecting how bad things have become for him.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: More in the short story, which plays Ned's journey more as a Twilight Zone-style experience wherein he appears to somehow travel further forward in time with every swim without realising. The movie is still kind of ambiguous, but leans more towards the "mundane" with the heavy implication that Ned's just had some kind of psychotic break after his life completely fell to shit.
  • Naked People Are Funny: An entirely random gag has the Hallorans, an older married couple, be a pair of nudists. They're sitting on their front lawn porch naked when Ned shows up; ever the gentleman, Ned shucks his swim trunks. (This is proceeded by a phone call in which the Hallorans' daughter refuses to bring her children to visit if her parents won't put clothes on.)
  • Nice Guy: The owner of the bar who Ned meets at the pool knows that Ned has hit rock bottom and offers to pay his pool entrance fee even though Ned owes him a lot of money for unpaid bar tabs. He also tells his wife and another shopkeeper at the pool to stop trying to humiliate Ned, until Ned's delusions prove too much even for the barkeep to tolerate any further.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • We don't learn the precise details of what happened to Ned before he showed up at the first house, and he appears to have blocked it out of his own mind, but it's heavily implied that at some point he's lost his job and money, his wife's left him, and his daughters have been getting into trouble with the law.
    • For that matter, where the hell has Ned been? He shows up at a friend's pool in the morning, wearing nothing but his trunks, tanned and cheerful and ready to swim. But his house has clearly been vacant for years, and most of the neighbors know about the disastrous turn his life has taken.
  • Oblivious to Hatred: The response of the people Ned meets by the pool sides ranges from bemused tolerance to condescendingly humoring/pitying him to outright contempt and hostility. In each case, he's completely oblivious to people's feelings about him unless they just come out and say to his face that he's unwelcome.
  • Pool Scene: Pool Scene: The Movie, as the film is nothing but pool scenes of handsome Ned Merrill jumping into various pools, with several attractive women at each pool, even when those scenes are for moments of emotional devastation like when Ned finally makes it to Shirley's pool.
  • Precocious Crush: In the back story. Lovely young Julie remembers when she was so in love with Ned as a preteen babysitter that she stole one of his shirts so she could take it home and embrace it while thinking about him.
  • Riches to Rags: Ned was once very wealthy and successful but has since lost everything, including his home. It's implied his swimming trunks are one of the few things he has left.
  • Seamless Scenery: Ned takes a dive into Betty and Howard's pool—and when he emerges he's getting out of Mrs. Hammar's pool.
  • Shameful Strip: It isn't a strip, per se. But Ned, who once was rich and successful and hobnobbed with other rich and successful folks, is forced to take a shower and then show that his feet and toes are clean before jumping into an overcrowded public pool. It plays as a humiliating moment.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Ned is startled to see Julie Ann Hooper and find that the young girl that used to babysit his daughters has grown into a gorgeous 20-year-old woman. ("You're all grown up!") Of course, as events prove, this is probably because Ned has suffered a psychotic break.
  • Stepford Smiler: It's gradually made clear that Ned is this.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Ned's teenage daughters are stated to have become delinquents who have been in trouble with the law.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Eventually it's made clear that Ned is in denial so deep that he has had a full-on psychotic break. He has retreated into a fantasy world where his family is intact and happy and he still lives in the fancy house on the hill, when he has lost literally everything in Real Life—he appears to own nothing other than those swim trunks—and his wife and daughters are gone to God only knows where. Ned seems to have forgotten the last several years, down to thinking that his daughters still need a babysitter.
  • Walking Swimsuit Scene: Ned spends the entire movie dressed only in swimming trunks.


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