Based on a short story by cult writer John Cheever, The Swimmer stars Burt Lancaster as Ned Merrill, a washed-up suburban man who decides to swim home, using all the pools in his Connecticut neighbourhood en route.
This is not only healthy – and Lancaster looks terrific in his trunks – it’s a metaphor for alienation from affluence, sexual desire, Vietnam – you name it, it’s all at the bottom of the deep end.
As his journey continues, Ned’s mood gradually changes. What starts as a boyish prank becomes a painful experience. Ned Merrill grows up before our eyes.
It’s all childish fun and enthusiasm at first. The friends whose pools he first visits welcome him warmly with drinks and conversation. When he is handed a rebuff at the third pool, he dismisses it as nothing more than an old lady telling him he’s a naughty, naughty boy. His fourth stop reintroduces him to his daughters’ former babysitter. She’s all grown up now, and lovely.
Ned Merrill is interested, and it seems the girl is too. But she’s not what she seems. Nothing is on this day. At his next stop, he meets an old couple who know he has lost his job and are surprised when he doesn’t ask for a loan.
He encounters a lonely young boy, to whom he behaves in a fatherly way, and then is thrown out of a party and ridiculed for his strange behaviour. Next, rejection comes from a mistress who says she considered his lovemaking a joke. This is followed by further rejection by everyone at a community swimming pool.
Ned Merrill is badly shaken when he arrives home. But this is not his home. The building has been empty – just like his life – for a long time.
Not to everyone’s taste, this weird picture now seems an oddly powerful companion piece to The Graduate (1967).
The Swimmer was later referenced in a Levi jeans advertisement where a hunk took a dip in a dozen pools to the strains of Mad About the Boy.