Although never given the accolades he deserved, director Frank Perry was one of the many unsung iconoclasts working in Hollywood from the early ’60s up until his death in 1995. He is perhaps best-remembered today for his haunting film, The Swimmer (1968), starring Burt Lancaster, and Mommie Dearest (1981), the latter of which features a startling, unforgettable performance from Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford; truth be told, it never did—or does—deserve the ‘camp’ status it’s often been labelled with. However, a number of his other films, such as Last Summer (1969), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), and Play it as Lays (1972) also remain unsettling in their depictions of obsession, isolation and depression. But one film in particular that really stands out is Man on a Swing (1974), a little-seen, but genuinely unnerving film.
As the Paramount Studios logo opens the film, a car is heard starting, and then—over rather ordinary credits with no music and only the sounds of screeching wheels—an overhead shot shows a police car speeding to the scene of an apparent murder. Riding shotgun in this cruiser is laconic Police Chief Lee Tucker (Cliff Robertson), who soon becomes embroiled in the murder investigation of one Maggie Dawson (Dianne Hull), whose body was found stuffed down onto the passenger seat floor of her Volkswagen in a grocery store parking lot. All leads go nowhere, a state of affairs which leaves Lee exasperated; that is, until Franklin Wills (Joel Grey), a self-proclaimed clairvoyant who has intimate knowledge of the case, wanders into his office one day…
Based on William Arthur Clark’s book “The Girl on the Volkswagen Floor” (Harper & Row, 1971), Frank Perry’s cinematic adaptation begins with a typical disclaimer about places and names, which have all been changed, but also reveals “the principal events that you are about to see actually occurred.” Much like Clark’s book, Perry’s film treats the rather ordinary if compelling murder investigation as a mere subplot to the ESP angle, no doubt due to Joel Grey’s amazing, multi-layered portrayal of Franklin Wills. First heard over Lee’s crackly, office speaker-phone, Franklin’s cool, confident demeanor and his familiarity with the case makes him the primary suspect in the eyes of Lee, who then orders his deputy to “get him in here.” When Franklin does finally arrive at the police station later that afternoon, his rather wide-eyed, naive do-gooder disposition—he’s always perfectly attired in spiffy two-piece suits, despite working in a textile factory—only confirms Lee’s suspicions. Though he speaks very little, Lee’s somewhat insolent tone and facetious approach to his initial meeting with Franklin is wonderfully portrayed by Robertson and, although it’s Grey’s portrayal that earns most of the well-deserved accolades, in his own performance Robertson convincingly conveys such emotions as doubt, confusion and, later, utter frustration during the roller coaster ride his character takes over the course of the narrative. As his investigation develops, he consults with Dr. Nicholas Holnar (George Voskovec), an esteemed professor with an interest in psychic phenomena, who is intrigued by Wills and agrees to conduct a “test,” but also warns Lee that some psychics become too “absorbed in their own growing powers” and that he should be “guarded against this man.”
Throughout the entire film, Wills’ credibility always comes into question, despite (perhaps even because of?) his squeaky-clean persona, whether he is alluding to a previous case—which he helped solve—about a “teenage runaway,” or in his inability to answer any pertinent questions in regards to the ongoing case of Maggie Dawson. During a reconstruction of Maggie’s whereabouts at the scene of the crime with Lee, Wills, having gone into one of his “trances,” deduces that she was indeed strangled, but then, as he calmly swings back and forth on a swing at a children’s playground—hence the film’s rather ambiguous if eerily creepy title—he is unable to answer a simple question because, “I don’t seem to be able to go any further at this time.” Recognizing that Wills’ “gift” is probably “a crock of shit”, Lee moves on with the case, but when he begins receiving threatening letters and mysterious visits in the middle of the night, he becomes convinced that Wills must be behind it: but then, previous suspect Richie Tom Keating (Christopher Allport) comes back into the foreground…
Languid pacing dominates much of Man on a Swing, which perfectly encapsulates the small-town feel and the decidedly unhurried approach of the police department. At the start of the film, as Lee and his deputy, along with reporter Ted Ronan (Lane Smith), drive to the scene of the murder, Lee’s deputy turns the cruiser’s sirens on and, in an annoyed-but-calm voice, instructs him to “Cut that shit out, will ya!?” It’s a mindless line, but one that establishes Lee’s rather blasé attitude towards authority, or possibly pegs him as a veteran cop who has ‘been there, done that.’ Further proof of Lee’s laid back manner (or is it simply boredom?) comes in the form of him drinking can after can of Budweiser beer—even during interrogation scenes!—but once the investigation takes a much darker and more complex turn, the pace quickens and Lee’s drinking ends, most likely in the hopes of trying to keep abreast of Wills and his somewhat odd—but seemingly calculated—behavior, because Lee has a “gut feeling” about this guy. When Lee sneakily invites Franklin to visit some psychiatrists, Franklin, in an angered state, goes into yet another one of his “trances’ and predicts another murder; but anyone expecting a typical, neatly-packaged resolution will undoubtedly be left unsatisfied or even angered by the film’s end, very much like Lee himself.
As with David Fincher’s more recent, but equally brilliant and lengthy procedural, Zodiac (2009), director Perry and screenwriter David Zelag Goodman (who also penned Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs , Dick Richards’ March or Die  and Irvin Kerschner’s Eyes of Laura Mars , to name only a few) don’t offer any easy answers in Man on a Swing, but the film’s almost hallucinatory grip rarely lets up as Lee continues to urge Franklin on, despite his obvious trepidation. It’s a beautifully constructed film, which has many more layers to it than meets the eye. And to top it all off, it’s complemented by Lalo Schifrin’s uncharacteristically sparse but equally haunting music.
As the U.S. theatrical one-sheet poster proclaims, “Clairvoyant, occultist, murderer. Which?” However, the film refuses to provide any clear-cut answers to that question, which may well frustrate some viewers (as it did many moviegoers upon its initial 1974 release), but those seeking something different—something not pre-packaged for the masses—will find Frank Perry’s film a superbly rewarding experience.
Quietly released onto Blu-ray in 2012, Man on a Swing will always remain an obscure effort, but thanks to Olive Films, fans or newcomers intrigued by this unique film can finally develop a proper appreciation for it with this solid transfer, properly framed in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1. There are no extras, not even a trailer, which is unfortunate, as it would have been great to see how Paramount marketed this film back in ’74.