The Swimmer (film)

The Swimmer is a 1968 American Technicolor drama film and starring Burt Lancaster. The film was written and directed by Academy Award-nominated husband-and-wife team of Eleanor Perry (screenplay adaptation) and Frank Perry (director). The story is based on the 1964 short story "The Swimmer" by John Cheever, which appeared in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker.[2] The 95-minute movie adds new characters and scenes consistent with those in the original 12-page short story.

The Swimmer
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFrank Perry
Sydney Pollack (uncredited - scenes with Janice Rule)[1]
Produced byFrank Perry
Roger Lewis
Sam Spiegel (uncredited)
Written byEleanor Perry
Based on"The Swimmer"
(short story)
in The New Yorker (1964)
by John Cheever
StarringBurt Lancaster
Music byMarvin Hamlisch
CinematographyDavid L. Quaid
Edited bySidney Katz
Carl Lerner
Pat Somerset
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • May 15, 1968 (1968-05-15) (New York City)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States


On a sunny day in an affluent suburb in Connecticut, a fit and tanned middle-aged man in a bathing suit, Ned Merrill, drops by a pool party being held by old friends, the Westerhazys. They offer him a cocktail while nursing hangovers from the night before. As they share stories, Ned realizes there is a series of backyard swimming pools that could form a "river" back to his house, making it possible for him to "swim his way home". Ned dives into the pool, emerging at the other end and beginning his journey. Ned's behavior perplexes his friends, who apparently know worrisome things about his recent past which he seems to have forgotten.

As Ned travels, he encounters other neighbors. He meets 20-year-old Julie, who used to babysit his daughters (whom he repeatedly refers to as "at home playing tennis"), and reveals his plan to her; she joins him. They crash another pool party and sip champagne. While chatting in a grove of trees, Julie reveals that she had a schoolgirl crush on Ned, who begins talking about how he will protect her, making plans for the two of them. Discomfited by his intimate approaches, Julie runs away.

Ned meets a wealthy older couple, unbothered by his eccentric behavior but also unimpressed by his posturing. He then encounters Kevin, a lonely young boy, whom he tries to teach how to swim. They use an abandoned, empty pool, which Ned urges the boy to imagine is filled with water. The boy warms to this method, and soon is "swimming" the length of the empty pool. As Ned takes his leave, he glances back and sees the boy bouncing on the diving board over the deep end of the empty pool.

Ned fails to make more than a superficial connection with the people he meets, being obsessed with his journey, and becoming increasingly out of touch with reality. The neighborhood is full of judgmental, well-heeled people intent on one-upmanship, and Ned continues to be confused by hints that his life might not be as untroubled as he believes it to be.

Ned carries on with his plan. He walks into another party where the hostess, who seems to have had a past encounter with him, playfully calls him a "party crasher". There, he encounters a bubbly girl, named Joan, who does not know him. Ned asks her to join him, and Joan is intrigued until she is warned off by a friend. Ned jumps into the pool, making a big splash which grabs the attention of the guests. When he emerges from the water, he notices a cart that used to be his, being used to serve hot dogs. Ned gets into a spat with the homeowner, who indignantly claims to have bought it at a white elephant sale.

Ned then shows up at the backyard pool of Shirley Abbott, a stage actress with whom he had an affair several years earlier. His warm memories of their time together contrast sharply with her own experience of having been "the other woman". Unable to reconcile his feelings with the pain that he has caused, Ned wades into the deep end of the pool.

Ned continues on, showing up at a crowded public swimming pool. He is confronted by hostile local shopkeepers who ask him "How do you like our water?", indicate surprise at his appearance at such a plebeian location, and ask him when he will settle his unpaid bills. When some of them let loose vicious comments about his wife's snobbish tastes and his out-of-control daughters' recent troubles with the law, it is too much for Ned to take and he flees.

Ned trudges barefoot alongside a busy highway as the skies darken and rain begins to fall. Amid a downpour at sunset, a shivering, limping Ned staggers home; the tennis court where his daughters were supposedly playing is in disrepair, and his house is locked and deserted, with several windows broken. Ned repeatedly tries in vain to open the door before slumping to the ground in the doorway.


Casting notes

  • Janice Rule replaced Barbara Loden in the part of Shirley Abbott.[3]
  • The Swimmer was comedian Joan Rivers' film debut as an actress. She had appeared as herself three years earlier in Hootenanny a Go Go, also released as Once Upon a Coffeehouse.[4] In The Swimmer, her short scene took an unexpectedly long time to film, which she blamed on Lancaster. She later wrote in her autobiography; "he redirected every line...Frank (Perry) wanted a happy girl who then got hurt. Lancaster was going to be Mr. Wonderful who came up against a mean bitch, and was right not to go off with her. Trying to please both men, I was going back and forth between line readings, and nothing made sense."[3]
  • After working on several television series, Janet Landgard's first featured cinematic role was in this film.


The Swimmer was produced by Sam Spiegel, a three-time Academy Award for Best Picture winner, who ultimately removed his name from the film (although the logo of his company, Horizon Pictures, remains). It was filmed largely on location in Westport, Connecticut, hometown of director Frank Perry.[5] Principal production took place during the summer of 1966, but the film was not released until 1968.

Although he was a trained athlete, star Burt Lancaster had a fear of the water, and took swimming lessons from former Olympian and UCLA water polo coach Bob Horn to prepare for the film.

According to Rivers, Lancaster and Frank Perry had several confrontations on the set. Perry was ultimately fired by Spiegel sometime after the first cut of the film was screened. The producers then brought in Lancaster's friend, the young director Sydney Pollack, to salvage the project. Pollack reportedly reshot several transitions and scenes, including redoing the Shirley Abbott scene, with Janice Rule now playing the part originally played by Barbara Loden. According to Lancaster, when the film still needed an additional day of shooting, he paid $10,000 for it out of his own pocket.[3]


The Swimmer
Soundtrack album by
ReleasedMarch 2006
LabelFilm Score Monthly

The score was composed by a first-time film composer, 24-year-old[3] Marvin Hamlisch, and was orchestrated by Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes. The music has dramatic passages for a small orchestra along with a mid-1960s pop sound.[6] Hamlisch got the job after Spiegel hired him to play the piano at one of his legendary parties.[3] The soundtrack album was originally released as an LP by CBS Records in 1968, while the complete score was released in 2006 by Film Score Monthly.[7]


The initial box office response to the film was "lackluster"[8] but the critical response has improved in recent years, with the movie gaining cult film status. Film critic Roger Ebert called The Swimmer "a strange, stylized work, a brilliant and disturbing one."[9] Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote: "although literal in style, the film has the shape of an open-ended hallucination. It is a grim, disturbing and sometimes funny view of a very small, very special segment of upper-middle-class American life". Variety said; "a lot of people are not going to understand this film; many will loathe it; others will be moved deeply. Its detractors will be most vocal; its supporters will not have high-powered counter-arguments."[3]

After the film's restoration and re-release by Grindhouse Releasing in 2014, Brian Orndorf of gave the Blu-ray release five stars, commenting; "it's a strange picture, but engrossingly so, taking the viewer on a journey of self-delusion and nostalgia that gradually exposes a richly tortured main character as he attempts to immerse himself in a life that's no longer available to him", commenting that Lancaster gives a "deeply felt, gut-rot performance...and communicates every emotional beat with perfection".[10] Commenting on the same release, Ain't It Cool News reviewer Harry Knowles commented "This is also Burt Lancaster's journey to ...The Twilight Zone... it is friggin brilliant! ... It is fascinating! Spectacular film!"[11]

The aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 100%, based on 21 critic reviews, with a weighted average of 7.83/10.[12]

Home media

The Swimmer was originally released on DVD in 2003.[13][14] The 2003 release was considered a "ho-hum looking widescreen transfer ... (with) a number of imperfections (including grain and dirt aplenty)", the image suffering from "a true lack of detail and bleeding colors" and was criticized for having few special features.[13][14]

In March 2014, Grindhouse Releasing/Box Office released The Swimmer on Blu-ray in high definition. The release received positive reviews, with giving it a rare five stars.[10] Eccentric Cinema praised the company, saying "Grindhouse have been establishing themselves as the Criterion of offbeat cinema... They have taken a previously rare, and quite obscure, title and given it the special edition treatment that its fans have long dreamt of. The two-disc DVD/Blu-ray combo pack is attractively packaged and is stuffed to the gills with extras, but first things first: the film itself looks stunning in a new high definition, 1.85/16x9 transfer."[15]

Extras on the release include a five-part documentary, The Story of the Swimmer, which includes comments from surviving production and cast members including Janet Landgard, Joan Rivers, Marge Champion, first and second assistant directors Michael Hertzberg and Ted Zachary, Bob Horn, as well as Lancaster's daughter Joanna, and archival interviews with composer Marvin Hamlisch and editor Sidney Katz.[16] Reviewer Troy Howarth of Eccentric Cinema remarked: "It's a brilliant piece of work by editor/director Chris Innis and it definitely raises the bar of what one can expect with such retrospective featurettes."[15] Brian Orndorf of commented: "The Story of The a miraculous five-part documentary from Innis that dissects the feature in full...the candor put forth here is outstanding, generating a riveting tale of a Hollywood tug of war...It's an exhaustive documentary, but there's never a dull moment."[10]

Also included in the release are title sequence outtakes, Frank Perry's storyboards, production stills (including Loden's deleted scene), trailers, TV spots, an audio recording of Cheever reading the original short story, as well as a 12-page color booklet with essays by filmmaker Stuart Gordon and Innis.[10][16][17] The cover sleeve comes with new cover art from illustrator Glen Orbik.[18] There is also a separate 2013 interview with Champion.[10] The International Press Academy has recognized Grindhouse Releasing's restoration of The Swimmer with a 2015 Satellite Award for "Outstanding Overall Blu-Ray/DVD".[19]

See also


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