T. it.: Un uomo a nudo. Sog.: dal racconto omonimo di John Cheever. Scen.: Eleanor Perry. F.: David L. Quaid. M.: Sidney Katz, Carl Lerner, Pat Somerset. Scgf.: Peter Dohanos. Mus.: Marvin Hamlisch. Su.: Jack Fitzstephens, Willard Goodman. Int.: Burt Lancaster (Ned Merrill), Janet Landgard (Julie Ann Hooper), Janice Rule (Shirley Abbott), Tony Bickley (Donald Westerhazy), Marge Champion (Peggy Forsburgh), Nancy Cushman (Mrs. Halloran), Bill Fiore (Howie Hunsacker), John Garfield Jr. (Ticket Seller), Kim Hunter (Betty Graham). Prod.: Roger Lewis, Frank Perry per Columbia Pictures, Horizon Pictures, Dover Productions. Pri. pro.: 15 maggio 1968 DCP. D.: 95′. Col.
“It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying ‘I drank too much last night'”. There are many characters in American fiction who tell their life stories working through the after effects of a binge – in Fitzgerald and in Jay McInerney, in the commuters with grey flannel suits of Wilson Sloan and in the conjugal unhappiness of John Updike and Raymond Carver.
These opening words from John Cheever’s story, are therefore full of familiar resonance, and have a clarity so charged with foreboding that it was naturally used to establish the tone of the film produced in 1966, with several changes, two directors, sequences filmed again, a long wait before distribution, upon which it flopped (over time it would gather support). Ned Merrill, played by Burt Lancaster, has definitely been drinking too much at the many parties he goes to, but what he is facing now is “a moral hangover”, as the reviewer from “Variety” noted. He is a man in swimming trunks, who finds himself at a friend’s swimming pool, who as soon as he emerges from the water is greeted by a glass of gin and ice, and there, dripping wet and over euphoric, he gets the inspiration to go back home passing by, and swimming through, all his friends’ swimming pools in the county, a rich and hypocritical community which has colonized that part of Connecticut. The liquid track made of water, chlorine but also more Martini, champagne, even lemonade, is scattered with gloomy shadows: friends look less and less familiar, the leaves on the trees seem less and less green, it begins to get cold and Gilmartins’ swimming pool has already been emptied. Someone suggests what might have happened in Ned’s life, which he cannot recall, or his memory has been buried under a suspicious vitalism, an only apparent youth, his sexual vanity or a psychosis that comes from his ability to delude himself. While the sky fills with clouds, the idea of coming back home turns cold in the nightmare. Swimming pools are spaces devoted to allegory (Nanni Moretti’s Palombella rossa…). A sequence marks the threshold. At the edges of the last swimming pool, the main character meets a woman with whom he had previously had an affair, at a time which he cannot remember well. The sequence, which the director Frank Perry had filmed with Barbera Loden, is later entrusted to Sydney Pollack by Sam Spiegel. Something changes in the visual rhythm. Those “glamour mechanisms” that irritated Manny Farber (the slow motions, the blurring) are gone; it is as if the film undergoes a sudden densification. We understand that something has happened between this man and woman, maybe a bitter love story, that his insecurity has divided them, that perhaps this is where his undoing began. The emotional truth in this female character, very much in Pollack’s style, shines a stark light on the mechanical nature of the others: the Westerhazys, the Hallorans, the Binswangers, who stand permanently on their mowed lawns, at the edges of their swimming pools, almost not even living beings and more strange replicants, sinister extras who have been called in to magnify the joke in this American suburban tragedy. “The Swimmer is based on a John Cheever story from the ‘New Yorker’, and it’s the sort of allegory the ‘New Yorker’ favors. Cheever’s swimmer is a tragic hero disguised as an upper-class suburbanite. There are a lot of tragic heroes hidden in suburbia, I guess, perhaps because so many of them subscribe to the ‘New Yorker’. You are what you read. What we really have here, then, is a sophisticated retelling of the oldest literary form of all: the epic. A hero sets off on a journey. He has many strange adventures along the way, during which he learns the tragic nature of life. At last he arrives at his goal, older and wiser and with many a tale to tell. The journey Cheever’s swimmer makes has been made before in other times and lands by Ulysses, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn and Augie March. And Burt Lancaster is superb in his finest performance” (Roger Ebert, 1942-2013, we miss him a lot).