THE SWIMMER belly-flopped on its dive into the public pool in 1968, sinking after just a lap at the box office. Some critics soaked it in, some maintained it was all wet. It’s done a long crawl (now I’m satisfied) back into competition, like other 60s meditations on Empty Modern Life—Seconds (ignored, now acclaimed), The Arrangement (scoffed, overdue for re-appraisal) and Mickey One (keep on waiting).
Audiences were showing themselves ready for harsh takes on Where(ever) It’s (we’re) At, but they preferred them in more accessible form– -straight drama (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf); with some jokes (The Graduate); wow! spectacle (2001:A Space Odyssey). They could synthesize the effects of and attitudes towards violence through historically malleable genres (The Dirty Dozen, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch) and sneak up on sex (Valley of the Dolls, Barbarella) but when they had to think during a movie they stayed away.
A 12-page John Cheever short story (I plead guilty: no fan, tried a dozen, they all tasted like bad milk) has a seemingly healthy (fit and glib) middle-aged guy in oh-so-well-off Connecticut (so much for all the poor slobs in all those other boring States) deciding to ‘swim home’ overland, navigating by using his neighbors pools. He’s met with different layers of puzzlement, pity, disdain and outright hostility. It’s a bit like the occasional bad dream you can’t get out of.
Shot in 1966, with much production hassle between director Frank Perry, producer Sam Spiegel and star Burt Lancaster. Daily re-writes, credit disavowals, funding hassles, editing fights, another director brought in (Sydney Pollack), rather pretentious marketing, limited distribution, critical puzzlement, box office thud. The current re-appraisal is almost universally rhapsodic. Not all of it works as intended (no surprise given the creative mixmaster it went through), but enough does to make for a strong recommendation if you are up to a bit of dislocation and soul-scarring. Lancaster outdoes himself—his pain and confusion is as bone-deep believable as his 53-year old body is impressive (go look in that mirror and cringe).
Marvin Hamlisch gets his first film scoring assignment and handles it well, the telling color photography is by David L. Quaid. Surreal script from Eleanor Perry. A vicious slice of bitterness comes from the underrated Janice Rule, and Lancaster’s agonizing 95-minute journey to himself is peppered with Janet Landgard, Kim Hunter, Joan Rivers, Marge Champion, Charles Drake, Bernie Hamilton and Diana Muldaur.