A profoundly creepy, arrestingly eccentric but ultimately unsatisfying
slice of fact-based horror from the seventies.
MAN ON A SWING (1974) was one of several highly
eccentric late sixties-early seventies films directed by the late Frank
Perry (others include THE SWIMMER, PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, DOC and LAST
SUMMER). The clout he exerted is evident in the top notch (for the time)
cast assembled here, headlined by the Oscar winners Cliff Robertson and
The murder investigation laid out in this film was
based on fact, and chronicled in the 1971 book THE GIRL ON THE
VOLKSWAGEN FLOOR by William A. Clark. The case, alas, was never solved,
which explains the filmís irritatingly open-ended finale.
Police chief Lee Tucker investigates the baffling
murder of a young woman, whose corpse is found in an abandoned
Volkswagen parked in a busy shopping center. Suspicion for the killing
falls upon an old boyfriend who steadfastly proclaims his innocence.
One day Tucker receives a call from a self-proclaimed
psychic named Franklin Wills. He describes things about the case over
the phone that the newspapers didnít report, such as the fact that the
murdered woman was on her period at the time of her death and that she
wore prescription glasses. Tucker calls Wills into his office,
suspecting him of the killing. Wills claims not to remember anything he
said over the phone, as he was in a ďtrance state.Ē To prove his case
Wills goes into just such a state in Tuckerís office.
Tucker investigates Willsí life, and discovers that his
psychic powers seem to be genuine. After a false report leads Tuckerís
men to the wrong suspect, Tucker takes Wills to the shopping center
where the killing occurred. There Wills goes into another trance and
comes up with more unreported details of the crime, but he canít seem to
recall the identity of the killer. Later that day Wills approaches
Truckerís wife and acts seriously creepy.
The following day Tucker and his fellow cops give Wills
a psychic test, which he fails miserably, getting a score of 2 right out
of 25 questions. Tucker concludes that Willsí ďtalentsĒ are a ďcrock of
Weird things begin happening: Tucker receives odd phone
calls and knocks on his door in the middle of the night, and his wife
finds an envelope containing a Christmas card bearing a cryptic warning.
Tucker decides Wills is the culprit, but canít seem to confirm it--and,
frustratingly enough, never does.
In this film Frank Perry effectively offsets the
craziness (and potential unintentional comedy) of the narrative with a
tightly controlled, almost clinical style. Perry always had an expert
touch with actors, and coaxes excellent performances out of his lead
performers Cliff Robertson and Joel Gray. The latterís trance sequences
are especially striking in the way Perry allows the actors to set the
flow of the scene without a lot of excess cutting or distracting music
cues. The effect is mysterious and deeply unsettling.
Many of the narrative elements are quite dated,
particularly those relating to Tuckerís research into the paranormal;
nowadays itís common (in fiction and reality) for cops to use
psychics to help solve crimes, but it wasnít back when this film was
made. Whatís most frustrating, however, is that, as in the real-life
case that inspired the film, nothing is ever really solved. A killer is
arrested in the final scene, but the filmís most pressing mystery,
involving Willsí possible culpability in the killings, is left wide
MAN ON A SWING
Director: Frank Perry
Producer: Howard B. Jaffe
Screenplay: David Zelag Goodman
Cinematography: Adam Holender
Editing: Sidney Katz
Cast: Cliff Robertson, Joel Gray, Dorothy Tristan, Elizabeth Wilson,
George Voskovec, Ron Weyand, Peter Masterson, Lane Smith, Joe Ponazecki,
Christopher Allport, Patricia Hawkins