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The Swimmer (1968 film)

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The Swimmer
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFrank Perry
Screenplay byEleanor Perry
Based on"The Swimmer"
by John Cheever
Produced byFrank Perry
Roger Lewis
StarringBurt Lancaster
Janet Landgard
Janice Rule
CinematographyDavid L. Quaid
Edited bySidney Katz
Carl Lerner
Pat Somerset
Music byMarvin Hamlisch
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • May 15, 1968 (1968-05-15) (New York City)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Swimmer is a 1968 American surrealist-drama film starring Burt Lancaster.[1] 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.


In a woodland, bordering a well-off suburb in Connecticut, a fit and tanned Ned Merrill emerges wearing only a bathing suit. He drops by a pool party held by old friends and 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 begins his journey. Ned's behavior perplexes his friends.

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. After she tells him about two sexual incidents in her workplace, Ned 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, nudist, older couple, who are 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. He rushes back to remove him from the diving board, then departs.

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 consists of judgmental, well-heeled people intent on one-upmanship, and Ned is confused by hints that his life might not be as untroubled as he believes.

Ned walks into another party where the hostess calls him a "gate crasher". He encounters a bubbly girl named Joan, who does not know him. Ned asks her to join him, and Joan is intrigued until his speech becomes more fantastical. A friend leads her away from him. 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 hot dog cart that used to be his. Ned gets into a spat with the homeowner, who claims to have bought it at a white elephant sale.

Ned 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 with her own experience of being "the other woman". Unable to reconcile his feelings with the pain he caused, Ned wades into the deep end of the pool.

Ned trudges barefoot alongside a busy highway, then reaches a crowded public swimming pool. After being treated demeaningly by the gatekeeper, he encounters a group of local shop owners who derisively ask him "How do you like our water?" They indicate surprise at his appearance at such a plebeian location and ask him when he will settle his unpaid bills. When some of them make vicious comments about his wife's snobbish tastes and his out-of-control daughters' recent troubles with the law, Ned flees.

The skies darken and rain begins falling. 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. Anguished, Ned repeatedly tries to open the door, before huddling down in the doorway in the rainstorm.


Burt Lancaster filming with Barbara Loden, before she was replaced with Janice Rule in the role of Shirley Abbott

Casting notes[edit]

  • After working on several television series, Janet Landgard's first featured cinematic role was in this film.[3]
  • The Swimmer was comedian Joan Rivers's 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."[5]
  • Janice Rule replaced Barbara Loden in the part of Shirley Abbott.[5]
  • Author John Cheever has a cameo in the film in a brief scene greeting the characters played by Lancaster and Landgard.[6]


The Swimmer was produced by Sam Spiegel, a three-time Academy Award for Best Picture winner, who ultimately removed his name from the film (but the logo of his company, Horizon Pictures, remains). It was filmed largely on location in Westport, Connecticut, hometown of director Frank Perry.[7]

Although he was a trained athlete, star Burt Lancaster had a fear of the water and took swimming lessons from former Olympian and water polo coach Bob Horn to prepare for the film.[8]

After principal photography from July to September 1966, Perry expected to shoot additional transition scenes but was fired by Spiegel. The producers brought in the young director Sydney Pollack, Lancaster's friend, and cinematographer Michael Nebbia for January 1967 reshoots in California. Pollack reportedly shot several transitions and scenes, including scenes with Kim Hunter replacing Sally Gracie, Charles Drake replacing Larry Haines, Bernie Hamilton replacing Billy Dee Williams and Janice Rule replacing Barbara Loden. According to Eleanor Perry, both Sam Spiegel and Elia Kazan had an interest in getting the scene where Merrill assaults Abbott toned down and subsequently each blamed the other for Loden's replacement. In addition to the above scenes, Pollack and Nebbia shot the scene with Lancaster and the horse as well as some retakes of the Song of Songs scene. According to Lancaster, when the film still needed an additional day of shooting, he paid $10,000 for it out of his own pocket.[5]


The Swimmer
Soundtrack album by
ReleasedMarch 2006
LabelFilm Score Monthly

The score was composed by a first-time film composer, 24-year-old[5] 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.[9] Hamlisch got the job after Spiegel hired him to play the piano at one of his parties.[5] 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.[10]


The initial box office response to the film was "lackluster."[11] Film critic Roger Ebert called The Swimmer "a strange, stylized work, a brilliant and disturbing one."[12] 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."[13] Variety wrote "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."[5]

In the 21st century, the critical response has improved, with the movie gaining cult film status.[14][15] On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 100%, based on reviews from 26 critics, with an average rating of 7.8/10.[16]

Home media[edit]

The Swimmer was originally released on DVD in 2003.[17][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.[17][14]

In 2014, Grindhouse Releasing/Box Office (in co-operation with Columbia) released The Swimmer on Blu-ray in high definition. 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."[18]

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.[19] 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."[18] Brian Orndorf of Blu-ray.com commented: "The Story of The Swimmer...is 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."[20]

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.[20][19][21] The cover sleeve comes with new cover art from illustrator Glen Orbik.[22] There is also a separate 2013 interview with Champion.[20] The International Press Academy has recognized Grindhouse Releasing's restoration of The Swimmer with a 2015 Satellite Award for "Outstanding Overall Blu-Ray/DVD".[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Newell, C.H. (September 13, 2016). "The Swimmer: Decadence, Decay & The American Dream". Film Inquiry.
  2. ^ "Film details" TCM.com
  3. ^ "Janet Landgard in Lancaster Film". Pasadena Star-News. April 21, 1968. p. 41. Archived from the original on January 4, 2014 – via Newspapers.com.
  4. ^ Robinson, Tasha (November 5, 2012). "1965's Hootenanny A Go-Go teaches us that boats and folk songs are the key to getting lucky". The A.V. Club. Archived from the original on September 23, 2014. Retrieved April 30, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Stafford, Jeff "The Swimmer" on TCM.com
  6. ^ Buford, Kate (2013). Burt Lancaster: An American Life. Aurum Press. p. 242. ISBN 9781781312001.
  7. ^ "Notes" on TCM.com
  8. ^ Randazzo, Michael (January 12, 2019). "Passages: Bob Horn, U.S. Olympic and UCLA Men's Swimming and Water Polo Coach, Passes Away at 87". Swimming World.
  9. ^ "Music" on TCM.com
  10. ^ "The Swimmer (1968)" Film Score Monthly
  11. ^ Hastings, Michael "Review" at Allmovie.com
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (July 2, 1968). "The Swimmer movie review & film summary (1968)". Chicago Sun-Times.
  13. ^ Canby, Vincent (May 16, 1968). "Cross-County 'Swimmer': Burt Lancaster Stars in Cheever Story". The New York Times.
  14. ^ a b c "The Swimmer (Grindhouse Releasing Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack review)". Schlockmania. March 27, 2014.
  15. ^ Murray, Noel (March 31, 2014). "Reviews: The Swimmer". The Dissolve.
  16. ^ "The Swimmer (1968)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 10, 2020.
  17. ^ a b Naugle, Patrick (April 29, 2003). "Review - The Swimmer". DVD Verdict. Archived from the original on October 19, 2003.
  18. ^ a b Howarth, Troy (April 4, 2014) "The Swimmer" (Blu-ray/DVD combo review) Eccentric Cinema
  19. ^ a b Dursin, Andy (March 24, 2014) "Aisle Seat 3–25: The Swimmer, Wolf of Wall Street". Film Score Monthly
  20. ^ a b c Orndorf, Brian (March 24, 2014) "The Swimmer Blu-ray & DVD Combo Pack" review. Blu-ray.com
  21. ^ Kastenhuber, Ken (April 10, 2014) "The Swimmer" (Blu-ray/DVD combo review), McBastard's Mausoleum
  22. ^ McClannahan, Sean (April 4, 2014) "The Swimmer" (Blu-ray review) Agents of Geek
  23. ^ "Current Nominees – 2014 Awards" International Press Academy

External links[edit]