When is a swimming pool not just a swimming pool? When it’s in a movie…
This feature contains spoilers for the movies list, as you might expect...
Swimming pool scenes are surprisingly common in movies. Or maybe it’s not that surprising, given that Hollywood is, after all, in California, where chlorinated water looks impossibly blue and shimmery in the sunshine.
But as well as giving filmmakers something pretty to film, swimming pools tend to be a good excuse to get deep. The way characters behave in and around swimming pools can tell us a lot about them, and how they interact with the world in general. After all, in Jungian psychology, water is a potent symbol for the unconscious, so having a character plunge into a pool is kind of like dropping them into an external representation of their own minds.
Or maybe they’re just there as an excuse to have cast members strip down to revealing costumes. Either way, here are 25 of the most striking swimming pool scenes in the movies…
All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)
Pool parties are a staple fixture of teen movies, but you wouldn’t want to go to this one. Right at the beginning of the movie, Mandy (Amber Heard) is persuaded to attend a party with the cool kids, most of whom have only just started to pay attention to her since she became conventionally hot. Trying to get her attention is a dangerous game, though, and one poor sod pays the ultimate price for his bravado when he attempts to jump off the roof into the pool… and misses.
It’s a massive gut-punch of a moment, and one that perfectly sets the scene for the rest of the movie. All The Boys Love Mandy Lane has its flaws, but that scene’ll stick with you.
Old School (2003)
Okay, this one’s tougher to justify as having any deep significance. But when Will Ferrell’s character Frank accidentally shoots himself in the neck with a tranquiliser gun and plunges into a nearby swimming pool, well, it’s just funny. Especially because it comes at the end of a chain of pratfalls that involved a clown and a birthday party’s worth of kids.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
So much for sparkling clear blue water. The swimming pool in Jennifer’s Body is abandoned, overgrown, and full of disgusting brown goop. It’s the site of the penultimate showdown between Jennifer (Megan Fox) and her bestie Needy (Amanda Seyfried), and the state of the water works pretty well as a visual representation of their ruined friendship.
Plus it’s just… gross. Being pushed into a swimming pool is an annoyance at the best of times, but when it’s as grimy and full of dead things as this one, it’s the last place you’d want to end up.
Who hasn’t felt like lobbing a few golf balls into a swimming pool from time to time, eh? Bill Murray’s Herman listlessly tossing balls into the pool is a weirdly melancholic sight, which doesn’t get any cheerier when he decides to cannonball into the oddly green water, not even bothering to spit out his cigarette first. It’s the contrast between expectations and reality that’s striking here. Herman’s surrounded by people – children, even! – who are talking and relaxing and having a good time, while he slowly sinks to the bottom of the pool, alone with his misery.
Taste Of Fear (1961)
Another gross swimming pool here, this time attached to an equally decrepit gothic mansion. When wheelchair-bound Penny (Susan Strasberg) goes to stay with her estranged father and step-mother, she’s disappointed to find that her dad’s not there… or is he? The scene where Robert (Ronald Lewis) dives into the murky swimming pool to look for a corpse is creepy as all get-out. Is it a metaphor for anything? Does it matter?
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
How do we put this lightly? A "dream" sequence. A tantalizing red bikini. A reason for the rewind button to be invented. When you think about swimming pools in movies, Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is likely where your head is at. It doesn't get more memorable than this.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Whose swimming pool was this? Director John Hughes said the kids broke into a random house to use the pool, which you obviously should try at home. But it’s starting to look like you need a swimming pool to have a proper existential crisis, which is more or less what Cameron (Alan Ruck) does – at first, he’s too anxious to swim, and then he just lets himself drop into the pool like a stone, sinking until Ferris (Matthew Broderick) pulls him out. The pool’s a pretty good stand-in for depression and anxiety here.
It Follows (2014)
Having failed to defeat the ghoul chasing them by shooting it in the head or passing the curse on to someone else, the kids in It Follows decide the best way to fight a supernatural threat is by… electrocuting it. In a swimming pool. With one of them floating in the middle of it as bait.
The finale of It Follows is nonsensical, but deliberately so; the director wanted to show how utterly out of their depth the kids were. Actually, there’s more than one swimming pool scene in this movie, too; Jay (Maika Monroe) spends much of her time in the pool in her back garden, just floating there by herself. There’s probably a 3,000 word essay to be written about it, at some point.
You’ve never seen anyone swim the way Suzy (Jessica Harper) and Sara (Stefania Casini) swim in Suspiria. Keeping all of their limbs below the surface of the water, barely even making ripples as they make their way across the pool, they swim in almost total silence, whispering to one another about the recent murders. It’s eerie anyway, but then the camera moves to the balcony overlooking the pool and the music ramps up, and it becomes terrifying.
It’s a minor scene, and nothing really happens, but director Dario Argento makes it feel significant.
James Bond doesn’t swim in just any old pool. Oh no. In Skyfall, 007 (Daniel Craig) swims in a glowing rooftop pool with glorious views over the neon-lit skyline of Shanghai. Or maybe it’s London? The scene was actually filmed at the very posh Four Seasons hotel in Canary Wharf, with Shanghai digitally added into the background afterwards. Either way, it looks stunning.
Whether it has any deeper significance is up for debate, but the scene was used in the marketing campaign for the film, which made it seem important. Plus did I mention that it looks awesome?
Ever thought about why swimming pools have to be chlorinated? Don’t dwell on it for too long or you’ll never go swimming again. The swimming pool orgy scene in David Cronenberg’s Shivers is disturbing in context, of course, as poor old Roger (Paul Hampton) realises he’s the only person not infected by grotesque alien parasites, but also out of context, because the body horror is a good reminder that other people are pretty gross at the best of times. Bleurgh.
Spring Breakers (2012)
And speaking of sex in swimming pools, well, Harmonie Korine’s Spring Breakers had to make it onto this list somewhere. The whole film’s a parade of hedonism and ridiculousness, so why wouldn’t the characters have a threesome in a swimming pool? It’s about as decadent and badly thought-through as anything else they do in the movie.
Sexy Beast (2000)
One of the most striking openings to a movie possibly ever, Sexy Beast opens with retired con-man Gal (Ray Winstone) sunning himself beside his swimming pool in his swanky Spanish villa, musing about how great his life is… only for a boulder to come crashing past. Gal narrowly avoids getting squashed, and the rock lands in his swimming pool instead, making a gigantic splash.
And yes, it’s a metaphor for the way something else is about to land in his life, disrupting his peace and tranquillity.
The swimming pool scene in the original Poltergeist is quick, but scary – in fleeing her haunted house, Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) tumbles into the murky swimming pool, only to find that it’s full of skeletons.
It’s a summation of the entire plot, really; Poltergeist is about how an unscrupulous land developer built posh new houses on top of a graveyard, only for the souls of the dead to make their displeasure known to the new residents. There’s some colonial guilt in there for sure, plus some more surface-level middle class guilt, which is all neatly encapsulated in the scene where the dead re-emerge right in the middle of that great status symbol, a backyard swimming pool.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Another swimming-pool-as-status-symbol here. One long tracking shot moves all the way around the pool, dropping in on one poolside conversation after another, eventually following one partygoer right down to the bottom of the pool itself. Striking and technically accomplished, the Steadicam perspective almost makes you feel like you’re right there in the middle of it all.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
The fact that Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio in the recent Baz Luhrmann version, though other films of the same story are available) is shot and killed in his swimming pool is something people really have had to write essays about, so I won’t go into it in too much depth here. It’s partly a status symbol thing again though. Gatsby’s made his money, but he still hasn’t got what he wanted, and that’s the end of him.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Another Luhrmann/DiCaprio collaboration, the swimming pool scene in Romeo + Juliet is very different – though, you know, there’s a similarly tragic ending to the story. Here, shortly after meeting for the first time, the star-crossed lovers end up tumbling into a swimming pool just as they’re falling in love. It’s sweet, it’s sexy, and it’s kind of impractical, but it looks cool.
The Swimmer (1968)
Not so much a scene as an entire movie in which swimming pools feature heavily, The Swimmer sees Ned (Burt Lancaster) deciding to swim home from a party by jumping from one backyard pool to the next, much to the concern of his neighbors. It’s an interesting conceit, if a little absurd, but there’s a sting in the tale, too – because once again, swimming pools are functioning metaphorically, here both as a symbol of something desirable and also, maybe, as a physical manifestation of denial. Ned doesn’t want to face the truth, so he immerses himself in the water instead, trying to recapture what he had.
I’ve made this joke too many times already, I know, but: deep.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Tim Curry’s choice of swimwear is decidedly bizarre here: Frank N. Furter wears a corset, high heels, and elaborate arm-warmers as he floats in a pool, singing "Don’t Dream It Be It" to himself before an orgy kicks off. (Yup, more sex in swimming pools.)
But there’s something else going on here, too – the ring Frank’s floating in is actually a life-buoy with an SS Titanic logo on it, which suggests Frank’s heading to his doom. Also, at the bottom of the swimming pool is a replica of The Creation of Adam, which is, obviously, thematically relevant.
Everyone remembers you’re not supposed to feed a Mogwai after midnight, but you’re also not supposed to get them wet. So when Stripe leaps into a swimming pool, you know it’s bad news.
Beyond being a large body of water, I’m not sure there’s any biggest significance to this pool, but it does look pretty creepy when it starts billowing smoke and glowing green. It’s a proper “uh oh” moment.
Let The Right One In (2008)
Let The Right One In is another film that stages its climactic moments at a swimming pool, and for once, the water itself poses a threat. The bullies who’ve been tormenting Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) throughout the whole film finally go too far, telling him to stay underwater for three minutes – and holding his head down to make sure he does.
That bit of nastiness provides a ticking clock and sense of urgency, but it’s also a fake out, because it turns out that Oskar’s not the one in trouble, and there’s something far more dangerous in the room. He, and we, are isolated by the water from most of the carnage that ensues when Eli (Lina Leandersson) arrives to wreak revenge. Although, depending on how romantic you find their relationship, Oskar might well be doomed anyway.
The Graduate (1967)
Another one you could write a dissertation about, The Graduate is a textbook example of a film that uses a swimming pool motif to tell us about its characters. Benjamin’s (Dustin Hoffman) listless floating demonstrates his ennui; even when he’s given a diving suit he just uses it to swim in the pool instead of exploring further afield. This movie undoubtedly influenced several of the others on this list, but if we’re supposed to find Benjamin’s swimming pool antics pitiable, it doesn’t entirely work – it looks quite nice, actually…
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
There’s not really any swimming in It’s A Wonderful Life. Or at least, no intentional swimming. Here the pool is used for a bit of silliness, as a spiteful classmate decides to destroy the dance floor where George (James Stewart) and Mary (Donna Reed) are showing off. Obviously, the gym has a swimming pool underneath, and George and Mary are too busy dancing to notice as they get right up to the edge… and then tumble over. But the prank backfires and it becomes a joyful moment; even more so when everyone else decides to get in on the pool action, too.
Cat People (1942)
Even in black and white, swimming pools look awesome on film, as Cat People proves. But rather than sun-drenched and tempting, this pool is terrifying. Alice (Jane Randolph) is heading for a swim in the basement of her building, but she’s startled by a noise and jumps in before she can switch the lights on. The only light in the room is reflected off the water, making weird shadows where someone, or something, seems to be hiding… Brrrrrrr. It’s scary in the best possible way.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
And, finally – it couldn’t be anything else. Sunset Boulevard opens with a body being dragged from a swimming pool by policemen, and rewinds from there to tell the story of Joe Gillis (William Holden), an unfortunate screenwriter who’s lured into working on an impossible script by fading movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Here, the pool is absolutely a metaphor – it’s artificial and confined, a symbol of wealth that looks glamorous but doesn’t really serve a purpose for anyone. It belongs to the world of celebrity that Joe yearns to be part of, but isn’t. Until it kills him.
Looking back over this list, maybe we need a swimming pool counterpart to Chekhov’s Gun: if you see a swimming pool in a movie, it’s virtually guaranteed that by the end of the film, someone will have died, had sex, or had an existential crisis in it (unless you’re watching a Frat Pack movie, in which case someone will probably just fall hilariously into it).