The Swimmer is a pretty astonishing, strange and disturbing film. I first saw it many years ago on a late-night tv screening on a Friday or Saturday night, and it has, frankly, haunted me ever since. Its an arthouse movie by way of The Twilight Zone, starring a major Hollywood icon. There is just something about it- its something of a dream, richly nostalgic, full of joy of life at first but eventually slipping into a suburban nightmare. Very much like the kind of short story the great Ray Bradbury would write. Its a disturbing film that lingers in your head for days.
Its a fairly obscure movie, its strangeness pretty much condemning it to Cult status even back when it was first released, and it’s 1960s setting possibly limiting modern audience attention (I asked at work if anyone had ever seen/heard of it and got the usual blank response). And yet it features arguably Burt Lancaster’s finest performance. How can a Hollywood icons finest performance be lost in such an obscure movie? Its one of numerous questions raised by this enigmatic movie.
Its a hard film to review because it’d be too easy to reveal the films twists and conceits, and I’m certainly not here to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of such a great little movie. It really needs to be experienced with a clean slate, the viewer not knowing what is coming.
So, where to start?
Burt Lancaster stars as Ned Merril, the Swimmer of the title. He’s a middle-aged man who at the very start emerges from woods wearing only swimming trunks, entering the poolside garden of some old friends of his. He plunges into the pool and swims across, luxuriating in the water and the sunshine of a glorious summers day, reminding him of innocent days of his youth. He is far from home, further than he really knows. He looks down on the wooded valley below, his old neighbourhood, all those homes of old friends, and reasons he can trek back home across the countryside from home to home, each of the homes having a pool that he can swim across and old friends to visit. An odyssey, an adventure like those of his youth! Swimming back to his own home and his loving wife and daughters that are waiting for him.
But already something is a little off- his friends haven’t seen him for a year or more, a spell of time that Ned seems ignorant or ambivalent about; they seem to exchange quizzical glances at some of Ned’s remarks. They ask where he has come from, what he has been doing; Ned doesn’t have a towel or shoes, just the trunks he is wearing. Where has he come from? Why is he so far from home? There is a mystery here. For the rest of the film the story takes an episodic form as Ned crosses the countryside swimming across each pool he finds, and revisiting old friends along the way; some are friendly, some far from it, and clues to the truth that Ned is ignorant of are slowly revealed. All the while the film proceeds with a dreamlike feel. Some of it is extraordinary- a sequence where Ned races a horse is a breathtaking combination of joyous acting, soaring music, beautiful photography and remarkable editing. Its the very cinematic definition of the exhilaration of being alive, an astonishing sequence of timeless cinema.
Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray (a US release that is thankfully region free) is very impressive. The film itself is lovingly restored from a 4K scan, with vibrant colours and rich detail. The lack of commentary tracks is negated by a series of documentaries chronicling the making of the film totalling over two and a half hours, the original short story read by its author, stills galleries, trailers and informative booklet. Its a tremendous package for such a cult 60s movie; indeed if this isn’t one of the releases of the year come December I’ll be amazed. I haven’t been this surprised/pleased by a package since Arrow’s superlative Lifeforce from last year.