Composer Marvin Hamlisch passed away on Monday, August 6, leaving behind memories of songs like “The Way We Were” and “What I Did for Love,” songs that can still make me instantly weepy, even when I’m annoyed by them.
One of Hamlisch’s earliest uber-dramatic scores was composed for THE SWIMMER (1968). The film, based on a story by John Cheever, is awash with Hamlischian musical interpretations of a variety of human emotions — triumph, distress, tenderness, wonder, grooviness, foreboding, dreaminess, despair. While the emotive bits are mostly over-the-top or silly cliches, there is a lovely Hamlisch theme that survives. It’s a glimpse into the beginning of a legendary career.
In THE SWIMMER, Burt Lancaster is perfectly cast as Neddy Merrill, a virile, proud man in a bathing suit (and for a few minutes, no bathing suit at all) who is on a “vision quest,” attempting a journey home by swimming pool-to-pool and jogging across the pretty backyards of his wealthy Connecticut neighborhood. In between dips, he has time for a few martinis and interactions with his neighbors, all of whom are surprised to see him. Neddy has been gone for a couple of years. We slowly discover he’s not at all who he first seems to be. He admires himself as a man of integrity and strength, and he is reduced to nothing but a big lie.
The film is a visual treat of sixties’ style and an indictment of the shallow people who live in a particular space in time. Neddy, too, is a visual treat, but he’s no prize either. He’s at first charming, but then as his journey continues, we get glimpses into a man with a lost soul. We have some sympathy for him because he has been betrayed by people he loves and there is a heart of gold in there somewhere, but we also learn that Neddy is an opportunist, narcissist, philanderer, a bit of a pervert, potential pedophile and rapist, unknowing racist, and generally delusional loser. He has nowhere to go but down the drain.
The film is filled with unsavory moments, especially between Neddy and his former babysitter, who at least has sense enough to run away from him. But the ultimate creepiness occurs when a guard at a public pool demands that Neddy “spread his toes” so he can inspect them to make sure they’re clean. Neddy simply obeys. It’s a scene that is seriously gasp-inducing. (Wonderfully jarring and groan-worthy moments like these make THE SWIMMER an excellent choice for a group watch.)
An additional reason for watching this film now is that there’s a little homage to the Olympics when Neddy and his former babysitter run some hurdles — in slow motion! — while accompanied by the swelling Hamlisch score.
The ending of this movie will deflate the end of an evening soiree so make sure you have drinks ready to lighten up your audience after Neddy faces his dismal reality in the rain. Everyone will eventually cheer up.