My films are actors’ films, films of human relationships. I never think, “How can I dazzle the audience with my camera?” I want to dazzle them with the truth. And for that you need the human face. No landscape – and I mean this from the bottom of my gut – can compare with the human face. 

– Frank Perry1

While Perry said this about his work on Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), the same can be applied to The Swimmer. Filmed for the most part in 1966, but not released until 1968, The Swimmer focuses closely on Burt Lancaster’s facial expressions bodily gestures, not as a dreamboat star or Hollywood beefcake, but as a signifier of the embodied experience of human life. It is these things that most powerfully communicate the meaning, feeling, and loneliness buried deep within this film.

Lancaster’s body is centred in The Swimmer, a film that is perhaps more than any other (even 1956’s Trapeze [Carol Reed]) about the star’s fit and decidedly masculine physique. It is well known that Lancaster began his career as a performer working in the circus, and his fitness and athleticism was essential to many of his key earlier roles. Here his lithe, acrobatic figure is on display and fully emphasised as he never wears a shirt – an element that rhymes with his other notable shirtless scenes in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948) and From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). In fact, his only costume for the film were swimming shorts, and reportedly, his wardrobe for the shoot consisted entirely of around fifteen identical pairs. Although very fit in his mid-50s, Lancaster did not like swimming and undertook an intense training regime in preparation for the role of Ned Merrill, a man who spends a single Sunday swimming across Connecticut in the backyard pools of his friends and neighbours.

The release version of The Swimmer does not represent the film that the Perrys (Frank as director and Eleanor as screenwriter) wanted to make. During pre-production, William Holden passed on the lead role, and they considered other ageing stars like Cliff Robertson and Glenn Ford before producer Sam Spiegel pitched Lancaster. After shooting and presenting a rough cut, the Perrys were fired from their own film and Spiegel discarded about a third of their footage. Amongst other changes made during a series of reshoots, Barbara Loden’s performance was excised, and the role of Shirley Abbott recast with Janice Rule eventually filming a much longer scene. At least three additional directors – including Sydney Pollack – shot some replacement material, including for the opening and closing sequences. The finished film was subsequently shelved until its eventual release on May 15, 1968. It did not perform well with audiences. There are many accounts of what went wrong, but according to Christopher R. Brown, whatever it was “largely emerged out of conflicting attitudes towards masculinity in a confused transitional period”.2 It was the late 1960s, a time of change in the film industry that saw the breakdown of traditional Hollywood dominance and forms along with significant shifts in cultural ideals.

A significant aspect of The Swimmer is that it undercuts, in a very specific way, Lancaster’s masculine persona. Little is given away about who Ned is as a person, and while the film maintains that Lancaster is a spectacle worth watching, worth wanting, his body hides the scars of a deep sadness. While Ned’s is a body that can run and swim across a county, and his physical health is never in question, the film hints at severe mental disturbance, delusion, and depression. In an early scene, spurred on by boyish enthusiasm, Ned attempts to outrun a horse, provoking it to run alongside him. He is fast but quickly falls behind, still maintaining the façade of a kind of falsely determined joy. In his first few encounters with friends and neighbours, everyone seems absurdly happy to see him. As the film goes on, people become less tolerant and even cruel towards him. The more Ned mentions his goal – to get back to his own home and reunite with his wife and daughters – it becomes clear that something is a little off. As a product of the late ’60s he seems predestined to fail and cannot keep up his disguise. His face and his body betray exhaustion as well as something deeper.

Initially shot over eight weeks in continuity – an uncommon approach utilised here to translate the increasing fatigue of Lancaster’s body to that of Ned as he swims across Connecticut – The Swimmer reveals Ned’s increasing exhaustion as his body begins to reflect his mental scars. His gait slows, he limps, the brightness in his blue eyes becomes depleted. John Cheever, from whose New Yorker short story the film was adapted, has noted that the writing process started as a reflection on the myth of Narcissus. And while the story, and the film, remain intensely allegorical, it also became something else. It is not about a man obsessed with his own image he finds reflected in the water. It is about chasing a reflection that no longer exists. The Swimmer uses the pools and their glimmering surfaces to critique the false notion of class satisfaction; that achieving a particularly American kind of suburban perfection aligns with publicly and personally accepted ideas of happiness.

The Swimmer is also fascinating as an illustration of Eleanor Perry’s distinctive perspective. Eleanor had, early in her career, earned a master’s degree in psychiatric social work and had written various plays that explored mental health issues and other related subjects, notably for the Cleveland Mental Hygiene Association. When the Perrys were removed from the film, “devices like blurring, slow motion, speeded-up perspective shots, and the repetition of shots” were brought in to emphasise an identification with the protagonist’s frame of mind. As Brown notes, “Lancaster wanted the audience to identify with his protagonist, but also be left in no doubt that he was mad.”3 And although many of these changes were, according to Brown, examples of post-production manipulation that the Perrys had otherwise avoided4, Eleanor’s delicate attentions remained in place. Through the slow revelation of Ned’s delusion, we find a seemingly idyllic suburban America rotting beneath the surface. This is most apparent in the way Ned treats and is treated by his friends. Connecticut, which Stanley Cavell refers to as “a haven for snobs”, is its perfect metonym.5

In his audio commentary included on Indicator’s recent Blu-ray release of The Swimmer, Frank Perry’s biographer Justin Bozung suggests that the film takes place on a Sunday because Sunday is a day out of time, a day that does not demand achievements or action, and that therefore provides the perfect setting for Ned’s delusion.6 The result of so many varied and competing creative hands and voices, The Swimmer is both a perfect expression of its moment and a film that is out of time. After all, the environment of May 1968 into which The Swimmer was released was markedly different from the world just two years earlier. The jarring edits, the butchered scenes, the disruptions to continuity, the manipulations of perspective, all bring a sense of the surreal and bizarre to a film that offers few explanations. To me, The Swimmer mimics the feeling of looking at a photo album, of trying to reconnect to past ideals no longer within reach. During reshoots a supposed “happy ending” was filmed which overrode much of the film’s rich social commentary on modern America and the delusion of masculine perfection. Thankfully it was not used and the film ends, instead, with a powerful image of absence and loss.

The Swimmer (1968 USA 95 mins)

Prod Co: Columbia Pictures/Horizon Pictures Prod: Roger Lewis, Frank Perry Dir: Frank Perry Scr: Eleanor Perry, based on John Cheever’s short story Phot: David L. Quaid Ed: Sidney Katz, Carl Lerner, Pat Somerset Art Dir: Peter Dohanos Mus: Marvin Hamlisch

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Tony Bickley, Marge Champion, Nancy Cushman, Bill Fiore, Kim Hunter


  1. Frank Perry interviewed in the New York Times (1970). See Diary of a Mad Housewife, Blu-ray Booklet, Indicator, UK, 2022, 23.
  2. Christopher R. Brown, “Mad About the Boy? Hollywood Stardom and Masculinity Subverted in The Swimmer”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 29.4 (2012): 357.
  3. Brown, 360.
  4. Brown, 360.
  5. Stanley Cavell, “Leopards in Connecticut”, The Georgia Review, 30.2 (1976): 247.
  6. Justin Bozung, “Audio Commentary”, The Swimmer, Blu-ray, Indicator, UK, 2022.

About The Author

Eloise Ross is a co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. She has a PhD in cinema studies from La Trobe University specialising in Hollywood sound studies, and writes and teaches about film.

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