The Swimmer Review: A Beautified Surreal Nightmare

Burt Lancaster, an icon of old Hollywood and one of my all-time favorite actors, grew up in the rough sides of New York, so when he made his debut in the motion pictures, the gritty personality he crafted for the mean streets made its transition to the silver screen.


The Swimmer: A Different Side of Lancaster

He played the lead in many noir films and fit the roles perfectly: in his screen debut with Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, Lancaster plays the lead, a tragic hero who suffers the consequences of betrayal in silence, but still a frightening force and screen presence. In the following years, Burt Lancaster starred in many classic noirs and his gigantic figure and intimidating presence made him a perfect fit for the genre. From Desert Fury to I Walk Alone, Brute Force to Criss Cross, Sorry Wrong Number to the much-celebrated Sweet Smell of Success…still under the rough performance Lancaster always put out, there was a softer side to him, one that he didn’t reveal until much later on in his career. 

His performance in The Swimmer is perhaps the best example of a softer, more tender Lancaster, a performance that reduces his intimidating 6’2 feet, muscular form to a deranged, sad individual hanging on to a sugar-coated past long gone.

Dream or Nightmare?

The Swimmer, directed by Frank Perry, and adapted to the screen by his wife Eleanor, is simply put an incredible film. Often overlooked, misunderstood, or altogether ignored, The Swimmer deserves a hell of a lot more attention than it usually gets, and Lancaster’s performance in it remains one of my absolute favorites from his impressive career. It has a new tenderness and humility, but also a new level of profoundness and complexity that it gives it a very disturbing aura.


The story revolves around Ned Merrill (played by Burt Lancaster), a middle-aged, fit man in a swimsuit who realizes that there are a series of pools owned by friends all the way to his house, giving him the idea to “swim home”, but as he moves from one pool to the next, we learn more about his disturbing past which he apparently doesn’t remember. 

Shot in gorgeous Technicolor, with a moving and tender score, smiles all around, and a glamorous depiction of the high class of American society, The Swimmer creates an incredible contrast between this beautified vision it aesthetically crafts and its very dark and disturbing subject matter. 

Is it a criticism of this lifestyle? Is it simply saying that darkness can be found even at the top? No one is safe from trouble? The film may have different interpretations depending on the viewer and their experience with it, but whatever it may be, this surreal contrast is almost immediately noticeable. 

The Swimmer: Dissecting Hazy Truth


In an episodic tale of drifting from one pool to the next, Ned’s story evolves as he gets closer to his home, and so do the reactions he receives, getting more unfriendly and even hostile as he approaches his home. Consequently, as more of his back-story is revealed, it doesn’t take long to realize that something is off. 

He keeps insisting that the “wife is fine” and that “the girls are at home playing tennis”, but the reactions he receives range from sympathetic disbelief to outright anger: his story is not true, and he’s the only one who believes it. Ned’s character is a man of dualities, not exactly a bad person, but definitely not good either. 

He’s both hero and villain and that’s another contrast that goes toward giving the film that overall disturbing feel I keep bringing up. While he sympathizes with a young fatherless boy and tries to teach him how to swim and gives him a friendly talk on life, he makes advances on his former babysitter and eventually scares her away, and while his story is a perfect depiction of the happy American life, a wife and two daughters who love him and respect him, his encounters with former mistresses suggest otherwise…we never truly find out what really happened to Ned, but we know it’s not his version of the story, and that it’s nowhere near that beautiful. 

For me, The Swimmer in its entirety plays like that last scene from Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-Up, a beautiful dream that only exists as long as you don’t look too deep. The Swimmer is one of the best films Burt Lancaster ever starred in, something that is unlike anything he has ever done, and something that is definitely unlike anything I’ve ever seen: surreal, nightmarish, and captivating.

  • February 7, 2024