Friday, August 21, 2015


As the Paramount Studios logo opens this 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 is seen of a fast-moving police car racing to the scene of an apparent murder.  Riding shotgun is laconic Police Chief Lee Tucker (Cliff Robertson), who is soon embroiled in the murder investigation of Maggie Dawson (Dianne Hull), whose body was found stuffed down on the passenger seat floor of her Volkswagen in a grocery store parking lot.  Leads go nowhere, which only 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 filmed version begins with a typical disclaimer about places and names, which have been changed, but (quote) “the principal events that you are to about to see actually occurred”, and much like Clark’s book, Perry’s film also treats the rather ordinary but equally 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 demeanour 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, naïve do-gooder attitude – 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 Grey’s portrayal gets most of the well-deserved accolades, Robertson expertly conveys doubt, confusion, and later, utter frustration during the rollercoaster ride his character takes.  Over the course of his investigation, he consults Dr. Philip Fusco (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 eludes 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’s convinced Wills must be behind it; but then a previous suspect, Richie Tom Keating (Christopher Allport) comes back into the fore…  

Languid pacing dominates much of the film, which perfectly encapsulates the small-town feel and the rather 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 murder scene, Lee’s deputy turns the police sirens on, and in a rather 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 quite possibly pegs him as a veteran cop who has ‘been there done that’.  Further proof of Lee’s laidback manner (or is it simply boredom?) comes in the form of him drinking can after can of Budweiser’s – even during interrogation scenes! – but once the investigation takes a much darker and complex turn, the pace quickens and Lee’s drinking ends, most likely in the hopes of trying to keep abreast of Wills and his rather odd behavior, because Lee has a “gut feeling” about this guy.  When Lee sneakily invites Wills to visit some psychiatrists, Wills, 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, very much like Lee himself. 

Much like David Fincher’s more recent, but equally brilliant and drawn-out procedural, ZODIAC (2009), director Perry and screenwriter David Zelag Goodman (who also penned Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS [1970], Dick Richards’ MARCH OR DIE [1977] and Irvin Kerschner’s The EYES OF LAURA MARS [1978], to name only a few) don’t offer any easy answers in MAN ON A SWING, and despite the flat, almost TV-like visuals, immediately suck the viewer into the film’s grip, which rarely ever lets go; it’s a beautifully-constructed piece of work, which has many more layers to it than meets the eye, and to top it all off, it’s all complemented by Lalo Schifrin’s uncharacteristically sparse but haunting music.

As the US theatrical one-sheet proclaims, “Clairvoyant, occultist, murderer. Which?” However, the film doesn’t provide any clear-cut answers to that question, which may well frustrate some viewers (as it did to many upon its initial release in 1974), but those seeking something different – something not prepackaged for the masses – will find this a superbly rewarding experience well worth checking out.  

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 get a proper appreciation for it with this solid transfer, properly framed in its original theatrical aspect ration 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. Order it from Amazon here.