ManOnASwingA 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 Joel Gray.

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 film’s 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 didn’t 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 “trance state.” To prove his case Wills goes into just such a state in Tucker’s office.

Tucker investigates Wills’ life, and discovers that his psychic powers seem to be genuine. After a false report leads Tucker’s 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 can’t seem to recall the identity of the killer. Later that day Wills approaches Trucker’s 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 Wills’ “talents” are a “crock of shit.”

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 can’t 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 latter’s 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 Tucker’s research into the paranormal; nowadays it’s common (in fiction and reality) for cops to use psychics to help solve crimes, but it wasn’t back when this film was made. What’s 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 film’s most pressing mystery, involving Wills’ possible culpability in the killings, is left unsolved.

Vital Statistics

Paramount Pictures

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