For a while now I have been seeing Burt Lancaster as an actor whose more than just an actor. Every film he’s appeared in he bring an aura of majesty and mystery. As if he’s a legendary figure from the heavens who has graced us with his presence. He was born to be a leading man you could say. Even from his early films he had the ability to leave his mark on the screen, even when he wasn’t present. I’m not so much drawn to his physical presence, more the aura that he creates. His performances were always compelling, even when the script was poor, tearing out its pages and delivering a something far better. Drawing the audience under his spell. Looking over his credits I can see that once he began to really mature as an actor he rarely put a foot wrong. Being it as Wyatt Earp in The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) to his mesmerizing Oscar-winning performance in Elmer Gantry (1960). He wasn’t afraid to take on challenging material with directors such as John Frankenheimer one of Hollywoods more liberal thinkers. Before forming an interesting working relationship with Luchino Visconti which I really want to see more of. So why all this praise of Lancaster you may ask? I find that as he got older, he too like his work matured to the point that even when he’s on screen for a few minutes in Local Hero (1983) he brings with his something intangible by just being to the screen.
I want to focus my attention to the cult film, The Swimmer (1968) from his back catalogue. On the surface it looks very much like a product of its time. It’s not your standard piece of Hollywood film of the time. With the new wave just getting underway, this could be seen as a conservative attempt to reach a new audience with a familiar face. Lancaster who had been on the screen for just over 20 years had not really shown much sign of aging. When it comes to The Swimmer who can see he’s starting to get a middle-spread, not that it stops him from making s film where his only costume is a pair of trunks. Gone also is the trademark hair, it’s all down and floppy. He’s more concerned with character than his own image, his consideration for his craft has deepened. He’s not acting with his heart on his sleeve, these are the sleeves of the character he’s inhabiting.
The plot is pretty simple really, Ned Merrill (Lancaster) decides to swim his way back home, plotting a loose course across the Connecticut countryside stopping to swim through his neighbors pools. That wouldn’t be most people’s first choice of travel. It does suggest he’s a free-thinker, ready to try something new. Allowing us to make our way through the film, meeting all walks of life on the way. It also better reflects the culture of the time, the free thinkers, opening your mind to new experiences. This is as free as the affluent are going to get, traveling the back way home and having a cheeky splash in a few pools along the way, sounds like fun.
Ned’s idea’s met with bemusement and excitement as he announces his plan, it doesn’t take long for the sun to go behind the clouds. Filled with enthusiasm he begins to the trail, named after his wife, Lucinda who he mentions all the time, as he makes his way back home to her and his daughters playing tennis. He paints a wonderful image of the perfect family life, one that he sells to everyone he meets along the way. First encountering Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard) who he invites to follow him. We learn that she once baby sat his daughters years ago. They have a long association that he hopes he can deepen. Today these scenes play very differently, he’s not just another older guy going for the young innocent girl. In the light of the Weinstein is scandal, the scenes take on a more sinister tone. Thankfully Julie is able to save her self from a fate that too many have fallen for. The classic screen convention of older man and young woman/girl is not allowed to develop, there’s a break to reality, fear enters her mind and the audience allow her to run away.
Already we are seeing a man whose begin to come undone, he can’t control himself. For her she sees a man she once had a crush, now older and full of ideas that don’t make sense to her modern and maturing way of thinking. Ned moves on through garden after garden some visits are longer than others, where we learn more about him, none of it leaves us assured of his past or future. When he comes to an empty pool he can’t just skip it and move on he has to imagine it, everything has to as if he were really swimming. It’s a disturbing scene, joined by Howie Hunsacker (Bill Fiore) who can’t swim is lead with him, taking on a paternal role to the boy, allowing us to see another side to him.
Visually the film is very soft, the vaseline is smudged over the lens at times to create a dreamlike quality to the film, a dream that Ned is creating of the perfect life of the suburban man who we believe has it all, a beautiful wife and children whom he loves dearly. A job in the city and money, everything the middle-class aspire to achieve in life. We have to listen carefully for the cracks to begin to show. The swimmer begins to limp from pool to pool with a memory that fails him, whats happening to the man, has he lost his mind? Every scene after the first stop is constructed to slowly chip away at him mentally and physically to reveal a broken middle-aged man who as we learn by the end of the film hasn’t got it all. In fact his own may not even be his, his wife and children are now just a memory to him, a projection to his friends and neighbors who paint a more realistic image of the modern family, one that could be broken and dysfunctional.
I didn’t know what to expect from The Swimmer, I knew there would be pools, a few parties, but not the revelations along the way. The undoing of the man we thought we knew at the beginning of the film. Where did he come from, we’ll never know for sure. Clearly a vehicle for Lancaster who as much as he is on display doesn’t indulge in that fact. It could easily be re-written as a one-man play that delves into the mind of the modern man who constructs the ideal image he wishes to project, yet it’s those around him who chip away at him to reveal a broken man who crashes back down to reality. I said earlier that this was a product of it’s time, which in part it is, visually. Conceptually it is more relevant now, as we each construct images on social media of ourselves for the world to see. Hoping our audience will buy into the images and lifestyle we are projecting. The challenge that Ned sets himself opens him up to his eventual undoing, behind the profile is a life as anyone else’s.