This is an unusual movie, a perfect fit for Burt Lancaster. We cannot imagine anyone else playing the part. It has become a classic cult movie.
It was released in 1968, and Roger Ebert called it a “strange, stylized work, a brilliant and disturbing one,” and proclaimed it Burt Lancaster’s finest performance. It occasionally comes up on TV. Don’t miss it.
The movie closely follows the original short story in The New Yorker by John Cheever. The main character, Ned Merrill, played by Burt Lancaster, is having cocktails at a friend’s upscale suburban pool gathering one lazy Sunday morning. (Those were the days when having your own pool was the ultimate sign of wealth.) He is one of the beautiful people, aloof and self-centered despite his good-old-boy friendliness—the rich kid all grown up, immersed in the trappings of upper-class life where appearances are everything.
As he gazes over the landscape, he realizes he can get all the way home, 8 miles away, by going from one friend’s pool to another, all on adjoining properties. He plans to do just that, swimming one length in each pool. He calls the route a river, and names it for his wife.
His journey home starts out as he planned, but we soon learn the story is an allegory where many years have passed unnoticed. He seems detached from these so-called friends and we question if they are really friends at all. Many now hate him. We slowly learn he has done hurtful things that he blithely ignored in self-delusion, but were resented. He, himself, has suffered the loss of his wealth and family. We are seeing him in his future, but he is still in the present. He is puzzled when his former mistress does not want to see him. A couple in a social class lower than his, wants him to leave. At best, the pool owners consider him a shallow, back-slapping buffoon. He owes many of them money. The weather turns cold and leaves are falling. He has to wait out a passing storm, shivering and alone in a bath house.
A young Joan Rivers makes her film debut in this movie as an actress. They are strangers who meet at one of the pool parties he is passing through. He automatically hits on her, asking her to join him. She is warned off and declines.
He began his journey proud of his boyish vigor, but he has become weaker and older at each stop. He is clearly approaching death and is increasingly alone.
He finally reaches home, but finds the house empty of furniture, the door locked, his wife and children gone. It has apparently been abandoned for some time. That is the end where the movie leaves us to ponder the meaning of it all.
(The original author, John Cheever, was alcoholic and bisexual. He was immortalized in a Seinfeld episode when Susan is handed love letters he wrote to her father, all that remained when the cabin burned down.)