Release Date(s)1974 (May 6, 2022)
Studio(s)Jaffilms/Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor's Note: This is a REGION-FREE Australian Blu-ray import.]
Frank Perry’s career as a director wasn’t as prolific as many of his contemporaries, yet he turned out a variety of films including The Swimmer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Mommie Dearest. In Man on a Swing, Perry explores the murder of a young woman from an unusual point of view.
The film opens with the discovery of a body in a car in a shopping center parking lot. Police Chief Lee Tucker (Cliff Robertson) examines the crime scene and finds a young girl’s open-eyed corpse stuffed into the front passenger side of a Volkswagen. The police turn up no leads or suspects, but an unsolicited phone call changes the course of the investigation.
The phone call is from Franklin Wills (Joel Grey), who claims to be a psychic and says he sensed the police were looking into a serious case and feels he can be of help. As Wills speaks, he reveals extensive knowledge of confidential information related to the girl’s murder. Amazed, Chief Tucker asks Wills to come to the station.
Tucker assigns Wills to assist in the investigation, though his unorthodox manner and techniques are far removed from standard police practice. The cops take a back seat since Wills appears to be getting results. The initial murder investigation gives way to Tucker’s increasing focus on the psychic and whether he’s actually clairvoyant or perhaps involved in the killing. Tucker cannot dismiss Wills’ ability to know things that stymie the police, yet he is skeptical and suspicious of the man.
Though Cliff Robertson is top-billed, Man on a Swing is Joel Grey’s picture. As Wills increasingly dominates the investigation, Grey dominates the film. The role offers opportunities to convey a range of emotions to make the character more enigmatic, but Grey, with Perry’s blessing, goes the route of BIG with little nuance or shading. Perry starts with an interesting premise but nearly sabotages the film with a lugubrious pace and outrageous overacting by Grey, who contorts his face, spins around, slams into walls, falls to the floor, and stares into space as his character appears to communicate with the dead girl’s spirit.
In contrast, Cliff Robertson underplays his role, making the character of the police chief so low-key that he practically blends into the scenery. There are a few at-home scenes with pregnant wife Janet (Dorothy Tristan), in which she complains that Lee is devoting too much time to the case and not enough to her. But even there, Robertson appears detached and emotionless and simply coasts through the scenes, eliciting little sympathy for his character. When he listens to Wills’ phone call, the camera is on him a lot, but as Wills continues to surprise Tucker with details, Robertson never changes his expression. He simply takes it all in as if Wills is reading a recipe.
With this dialogue-heavy film, Frank Perry depends on performance and the screenplay to be enough to sustain attention. The lack of action is a detriment, and Perry fails to exploit cinematic possibilities for greater visual variety. The picture might as well have been a stage play. Because Perry never gives it spark, the interesting premise is sidetracked by lackadaisical technique.
Man on a Swing was shot by director of photography Adam Holender on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras and lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (Imprint’s Blu-ray features an aspect ratio of 1.78:1). The film has a yellowish cast in the early scenes. The Technicolor palette overall tends to darker tones, with few bold primary colors. The many indoor scenes feature warm lighting. Complexions are natural, with Grey’s face pasty and pale, giving him a somewhat off-putting look. Grey wears a white suit, which makes him stand out in scenes set at the police station. Details, such as driving rain, police uniform insignia, furnishings in the Tucker home, and facial stubble on the male actors are well delineated.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 LPCM. English SDH subtitles are an available option. In a film that depends a great deal on the spoken word, dialogue is clear and precise throughout. Cliff Robertson’s delivery is laid back and never varies from soft-spoken, though there were opportunities for him to show a more varied range. Grey, on the other hand, goes through multiple vocal changes when he’s in a trance—making odd sounds, abruptly shouting—unsettling those around him. His “normal” speech is deliberate and calm, exhibiting self-control and passive arrogance. Lalo Schifrin’s score, like the character of Franklin Wills, creeps up on the viewer as questions about his knowledge of the murder are raised. In an early scene, when a young woman first sees the corpse of the murdered girl, her scream is replaced by high-pitched strings that resemble a scream. As Tucker is heading to a crime scene in the opening credits sequence, the police car’s lights are flashing and the siren is blaring. Late in the film, a car makes a screeching turn and burns rubber, its engine roaring. A late-night knock on Tucker’s front door and phone calls with silence at the other end add tension. At one point, Tucker runs out into a rainstorm and the sound of driving rain dominates.
Bonus materials on the Imprint Films Blu-ray release include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Daniel Kremer
- Audio Commentary by Howard S. Berger and Justin Bozung
- Other Worlds (12:14)
- Schifrin on a Swing (12:52)
- The Show Must Go On: Frank Perry & The Framing of the American Dreamland (41:07)
In film historian and filmmaker David Kremer’s commentary, he concentrates on an extensive overview of Frank Perry’s career and filmography, and makes specific references to several of his pictures, including The Swimmer, Doc, Mommie Dearest, and Play It as It Lays. He notes that Man on a Swing begins as a crime drama but takes left turns and unusual dramatic beats when the case becomes much more. Perry and his wife, Eleanor, were a filmmaking team until their divorce and were well respected in Hollywood. Man on a Swing strives for character confusion. When the focus shifts to Franklin Wills, “Perry pulls the rug out from under us.” Kremer compares this approach to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which the theft of a large sum of money shifts gears to a tale of a crazed, elderly woman. Kremer relates behind-the-scenes anecdotes and says that Cliff Robertson, after winning the Academy Award for Charlie, had ego problems that didn’t sit well with Perry or the crew. Years later, Robertson was involved in the David Begelman embezzlement scandal, which caused him to be blacklisted in Hollywood until he was hired for Brainstorm.
The second audio commentary nicely complements the first, with little duplication. Film historian and filmmaker Howard S. Berger and Frank Perry archivist Justin Bozung refer to Man on a Swing as Frank Perry’s masterpiece. They note that Perry’s films are both respected and neglected. All of Perry’s films look at a banal middle class. His “mosaic style,” which marked a radical shift in his oeuvre, provides small glimpses of small-town life that, put together, provide a portrait of environment and characters. Each character, even minor ones, is given a good showcase. The class of people depicted in Man on a Swing is exposed by Wills. Perry’s screenwriters knew what characters and sets meant metaphorically. The characters in the film want to be known for something more than their routine, unremarkable lives. In discussing the power of the recorded image, the commentators discuss how the camera goes on little trips to highlight the banality of people’s lives. This adds to characterization while moving the plot along. The film is about control—Wills wants to reshape the way society looks at him. In terms of his work ethic, Perry was even-tempered and never had bad things to say about others, though he could be ego-driven.
Other Worlds – Joel Grey, who had been an actor since the age of 9, discusses how he approached the role of Franklin Wills. Robert Duvall was considered for the role, but was unavailable. Perry and Grey knew each other socially but had never worked together. Grey does research when he takes on a role, fully preparing so that he comes to the set with ideas. He doesn’t rely fully on the director to shape his performance. He notes with a wry smile that some of the people on set were afraid of him. The film was shot in Connecticut, where Grey and his family lived during filming.
Schifrin on a Swing – Film music historian Daniel Schweiger discusses Lalo Schifrin’s musical score. Frank Perry had a history of making films about psychologically unbalanced characters. Composer Lalo Schifrin was known for scoring crime/suspense movies. He had also written experimental jazz scores. There’s a “creepy, skin-crawling ambivalence” to the psychic’s personality. Examples are shown in which the music subtly underscores this feeling. A piano serves as the theme for the murdered girl. Schifrin’s score introduces suspense through ominous chords. Subsequent scenes feature traditional atmospheric touches. The score is a “gradual hypnosis” of the audience as more is revealed about Franklin Wills. During Wills’ trance, Schifrin uses a sustained electronic sound that brings the real and spiritual worlds together.
The Show Must Go On – This video essay by Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr establishes the political climate when the film was released in 1974, post-Vietnam and post-Watergate. The country was exhausted with these upheavals. Man on a Swing is many things—a compelling murder mystery, a perverse variation of the buddy cop movie, a straitlaced satire of middle America, and an exploration of cultural and personal myth making. Frank Perry is referred to as one of America’s most innovative filmmakers. He was drawn to characters in transformational crisis. Generous film clips from The Swimmer, Doc, and Mommie Dearest are shown as similarities in characters and themes are pointed out. All of Perry’s characters come to a dramatic realization. In Man on a Swing, Perry depicts the claustrophobia of a small town. Joel Grey, by the nature of his role, is playing multiple roles. The “swing” of the title represents the swinging watch of a hypnotist. In the final act of the film, Tucker snaps out of a kind of trance he’s been in for most of the film and reconnects with reality. He begins to recognize the false reality in which he’s been operating. The horror comes when Tucker realizes Wills is already pitching his next story to him.
Frank Perry’s direction in Man on a Swing is bland and unremarkable. The film is dominated by Joel Grey’s exaggerated, mannered performance. Grey had won an Academy Award for his performance in Cabaret two years earlier, which accounts for his landing such a showcase role. What may have been a captivating portrayal of an enigmatic psychic in Man on a Swing when initially released looks self-indulgent today.
- Dennis Seuling