“Extraordinary” is probably the best way to describe “The Swimmer,” directed by Frank Perry. This 1968 film, like the John Cheever short story it is based on, is drenched with symbolic metaphors and irony.
Set in Connecticut, the film shows one day in the life of Ned Merril but can be interpreted as representing the story of his entire adult life. Merrill, played by a fit Burt Lancaster, makes his way home after a night of partying by dipping into one friend’s swimming pool after another; he swims home in a chain of pools he decides to call the Lucinda River, after his wife. He always dives in and never uses the ladder to get out. This is Ned’s way of showing that he is still young and full of energy. Really, though, it’s a disguise. The only thing Ned has really dived into is debt and a broken relationship with his wife and daughters.
Toward the end, Ned can’t find the strength to pull himself out of Shirley Adam’s (a former mistress) pool and is forced to paddle to the ladder, suggesting that he can no longer hide from his age and decaying life.
“Oh, how bonny and lush were the banks of the Lucinda River,” Cheever explains to readers. We can see in the film just how truly lush these banks are, symbolic of the women Ned flirts with and/or has had affairs with. The irony is that these women are on Lucinda’s river, on Ned’s way home.
In suburbia, nothing is what it seems, as is currently illustrated in ABC’s hit “Desperate Housewives.” It is no surprise that Ned Merrill has such a distorted sense of truth. He represents the society in which he lives, one of money, property and appearances. Ned appears to be doing well, judging by his cheerful attitude at the start of the film. He talks about his home and tells neighbors, from whom he has borrowed money, that he will write them checks to repay them. Their reaction? They know that Ned is a “great big joke,” just as his daughters say.
Perry uses interesting camera techniques to show the distortion of reality and confusion in Merrill’s life. In one scene, Ned walks through the woods with his children’s former babysitter. During their conversation the camera blurs the two as if Ned is hallucinating. This camera work shows how Ned lives in a fantasy world.
Another example of brilliant camera work shows Ned beginning to come to his senses. Ned attempts to cross the highway but no longer has the blissful look in his eyes. He is haunted by confusion and the camera turns in circles as people in cars blow by him, honking and laughing. This sequence of shots is the first in which Ned begins to realize how his life has really turned out.
Ned is a man who turns to alcohol at almost every pool stop: to “warm him, pick him up, carry him through the last of his journey,” Cheever explains. He represents a sardonic depiction of the suburban husband and father. Ned’s uninhibited lifestyle has come back to haunt him by the end and he can no longer drink his denial away as he approaches his house. The gate is rusted; the tennis court where he loved to watch his daughters play is worn and untended. Rain accompanied by a dreary score ends the movie. Ned Merril, the once-sexy, playful man, is seen banging hopelessly on the locked door of his abandoned house.
“He had swum too long,” Cheever wrote. “He had been immersed too long, and his nose and his throat were sore from water.” This is yet another metaphor to explain that his heart and mind are sore from his sinful experiences. Ned has done what he set off to do; he swam home, only to find that he had lost his home and his love, all for the hyper-real, suburban life of fun.
I see this film as a classic because it goes against the grain of society and shows a man as he really is, and not how he appears.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.