It was like a quick mind-dip back into the past to enjoy a re-read of John Cheever’s short story and to revive Frank Perry’s The Swimmer from the limbo of unwatched classic videos. Swimming down memory lane, what joy to recall times when complex, serious movies came out of Hollywood, when names like Cornelius Otis Skinner, Kim Hunter, Frank Perry (really Frank and Eleanor) were still current names in the limelight. The star, too, Burt Lancaster had been a real film hero for young kids in the 40s & 50s in films like Jim Thorpe: All American, The Flame & the Arrow, Apache, The Crimson Pirate, and Trapeze. As in Birdman of Alcatraz, Lancaster was testing himself, portraying an existential character like neurotic, crazy Ned Merrill.
In The Swimmer (1968), his mind awash, his eyes lacking that knowing Lancaster stare, mistaking fall for mid-summer, Lancaster had a chance to relive his Jim Thorpe sprinting form (with camera-speed help, of course) and get into tight-gut fitness probably for the last time in his movie career. However, near-naked Ned is barmier than the Birdman of Alcatraz, literally swimming through his past, through times when he was in the swim with lush friends who accepted him, when he had a wife Lucinda and young daughters to return home to and a house in Bullet Park which he would arrive at after eight miles of crawling the string of watering holes from the Westerhazys’ place, portaging, as he calls the foot-padding, through the Biswangers’ and several others’ estates. (The zany names of the people--Crosscups, Welchers, etc.--imply a good bit of ditsiness, especially "Biswangers" --or is it "Whizbangers"?) Anyway, Ned sets off on his journey like the buff Submariner and arrives at his estate an exhausted, lame Ancient Mariner, a looney Odysseus whom any sensible Penelope would reject.
For me, rereading Cheever’s short story (11 pages, 4"X7" pbk. format) in conjunction with viewing again after many years the Perrys’ longish film adaptation (94 mins) made the enjoyment a fascinating compound experience. The story without the film would probably have drowned in my memory and the film without the story would have been chalked up as a curious satire on the vices of well-heeled suburban society. Together, through critical comparison and contrast considerations, they construct a more substantial whole, allowing the mind a deeper dive into Ned’s psychopathology. Comparing them is an interesting study in adaptation from one medium to another. Cheever’s narrator tells but the Perrys had to show.
As far as Ned Merrill’s dementia can be analyzed, the liquor habit would have contributed a good bit to his decline and is symptomatic of his need to escape or to blur the sharp edges of reality. He’s been a constant fantasizer and his triumphs have been vague successes among the party circles he’s now on the outs with. Cheever’s narrator questions Ned’s loose-brained state as follows: "Was his memory failing him or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth?" (Stories of John Cheever. New York: Ballentine Books, c1978, p. 718). Perhaps it’s both and that’s enough to go on.
The developed character and plot sequences the Perrys added in their interpretation of The Swimmer give evidence of a need to expand the story’s episodic meetings with people in order to reveal more clearly Ned’s warped psyche in film action. Besides that, the Perrys’ additions made a more interesting film than a literal adaptation of Cheever’s story could possibly have done. The new film-scripted scenes, one with the ingenue blonde girl and the other with a young boy, are the most developed dramatic engagements Ned encounters in his pilgrimage of baptisms across the county.
Early in his journey a mermaid emerges from the pool Ned’s about to use. It’s his daughters’ former babysitter, a 20 year-old blond, in looks a soft Sue Lyons with none of Lolita’s jadedness. Eyes sparkling like gems, she perks up at seeing Ned and gives him an ever-so-friendly greeting, showing him a giddy interest he had probably once been used to from women. She’s so innocent she doesn’t suspect a damaged Ned, even when he suggests he’d like to have her over to the house again. So innocent she divulges she’d had a terrific crush on Ned in the babysitting days, seeing him come home. Ned sucks it up and when he describes his afternoon’s swim fantasy, she’s ready in her bikini to share the madness as a lark, a fun-filled escape from the dullsville of the hungover grown-up company around the pool. Not only is she game for the swimming skit, but also morphs into the colt and filly skit as they pony trot together, knees pumping, and leap over the gymkana fences in an equestrian training ground. Ned’s fantastic ego gets the better of him when a too strenuous show-off jump brings him up lame. The girl is concerned and the nurse and patient skit results. They need to rest and lie back to get their strength; in her mind also to get back to reality.
It is the return to reason and rational possibilities that Ned finds difficult. He leans on his cocked elbow over his lovely playmate as she stretches out supine in her bikini’d naturalness. Not the brightest of girls, no college for her, she works in the city where she’s chosen to be a businessman’s pretty, blonde secretary. In the miasma of her recent fantasy, she confesses how the city can be creepy with an anecdote about a stranger who brushes her and cops a feel in an elevator. Ned immediately assumes the role of romantic protector, planning how he can drive her to work, accompany her to her office, and later they can meet for lunch. And onto what next? The strategy is already forming and Ned is carried away. When his hand takes a deliberate nape carress and his face draws closer, the young girl at last feels his strangeness, the hint of freaky intimacy again. She pushes away and runs from the grove of trees like a frightened fox. Ned’s good looks, effusive, gracious friendliness, and his imaginative schemes had worked magic in the past with partying folk in the county, but now the solitary, aging romancer is seeking game among the inexperienced. Perhaps Ned is now showing his arrested development, not having learned from his past affairs and marriage problems.
The dramatic scene from Cheever’s story with his old flame, Shirley Adams, presents a striking contrast with the ways of the blonde girl. His past mistress is none too happy to see him; Ned nevertheless fantasizes that she might be possibly want to resume their affair. Scorned, the experienced Ms Adams slams Ned: "Good Christ! Will you ever grow up?" Unlike the ingenue, she knows. His swimming through the county is sign of a delusional man whose courage and maturity she had tested the limits of. At this late stage of his pilgrimage, Ned is now just a silly old cad to her. He’s becoming obviously lame in mind, body and heart to us who watch him stagger away dejected.
The little boy playing the recorder (What a nice touch!) is the other significant character addition. Ned delays his journey home to have a kid’s drink, a home-made lemonade (the most healthful drink he consumes that day) from a boy on the sidewalk. The scene supports the idea that perhaps something of summertime remains. Accompanying the boy, hand in hand, up the garden path to the house, Ned’s interest took on potentially sinister shading since he’d asked the kid whether anyone was a home and learned he was more or less alone, except for a house-servant. It turns out innocent enough; in fact, this is Ned’s resumption of innocence. The house pool is empty, a sign now of summer ‘s passing. Not to be daunted, Ned gears up his fantasy life and teaches the kid to defy reality by pretend-swimming from the shallow end to the deep end, heaving the boy up to the ladder to exit the deep depression of the pool. As Ned leaves, he hears the boy jumping on the spring-board and in a nice flash of reality, he rushes back to caution the lonely boy that he shouldn’t take the fantasy too far. For once he acts upon the wisdom of his age.
The added scenes, ingenious fictions in adaptation from literature to film, agitate complex sensibilities and above all imply that Ned’s desire is to return to the innocent past, before he had himself gone off the deep-end. The Perrys, creators of the Oscar-winning psychodrama David and Lisa (1962), in their plot sequences created a brilliant enhancement of the story’s theme of the impossible return. To have meaning, life is an onward journey. You just can’t recycle and escape to the past; you can’t go home again, no matter what imaginative route you chose to go by.
I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars.