The Marvin Hamlisch score is pitched like a requiem mass before the camera trails behind Burt Lancaster’s initial dive into a pool. Ned Merrill (Lancaster) is a social butterfly and Lancaster magnetizes every plutocrat within his orbit except for a select few to whom he is a persona non grata. The gimmick is Ned cogitates a quest from his neighbors’ recreation areas to “swim home”. Based on a short story by John Cheevers, Ned’s river expedition is soulfully existential as he often gazes skyward to pontificate in pregnant pauses.
The pools represent the painstaking care for their own lucre and the roots that they’ve laid before them (one of them filters out “99.99.99” of excess waste). Not only is this one of Lancaster’s shibboleth, protean performances but it is also one of his most athletic as he backstrokes and races with horses.
Potentially lecherous, polarizing scenes with nubile, Lolita-esque babysitter Julie Ann (Janet Landgard) are deloused by Frank Perry’s telephoto lens, soft-focus photography and avian point-of-view. Since it was a novella previously, montages of Ned caprioling over hurdles are self-indulgent padding.
Some of the film is rudderless (no pun intended) and pretentiously formalist as it meanders toward a bombshell about Ned’s past. The onion layers to Ned are slowly peeled back to reveal his wretched reputation as a “deadbeat” in his later years. The community pool scene is especially vituperative as Ned is cudgeled by the “working-class” proletariat creditors who he is still indebted to.
Nonetheless, the last stretch and conclusion is a powerhouse as it crystallizes Ned’s psychogalvanic “suburban stud” disorientation. There is nothing quite as haunting as Ned’s trek through the vacancy of his condemned property. For rumpling effect, certain shots of Lancaster are clearly a sprinkler spotlight above his head. It’s the stratification of movie that almost stipulates a second viewing for the breadcrumb trail within this implicit mind-bender.
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