"Man on a Swing" is based on the real-life murder investigation of a young woman. Made in 1972, we have seen many movies about similar investigations before and since. However, this one still has something different to offer.
When the girl's body is found in her car in a small town supermarket parking lot, the sheriff, Lee Tucker (Cliff Robertson), investigates the case. Everything looks pretty standard for this kind of film until a self-proclaimed psychic, Franklin Wills (Joel Grey), comes forward with information only the police, or the killer, could have known. This sends the story in a direction that makes this movie standout in a very crowded genre.
Cliff Robertson plays it straight, and it's the right move because it's the perfect counterpoint to Joel Grey's fireworks. Grey gives a performance, which is every bit as eye-catching as the one he gave in "Cabaret", made about the same time. His Franklin Wills comes across as annoying, narcissistic, and more than a little creepy.
The real point of difference in the "Man on a Swing" is that it deals with clairvoyance, a subject that was debated around that time, especially as it related to solving crime. There were a number of baffling, high profile cases around the world in the 60's and 70's where psychics were called in - without much success if I recall correctly. You don't hear nearly as much about crime solving clairvoyants these days, could it be that computers and DNA have replaced the Ouija board and the psychic?
The movie ends on a slightly disturbing note, but doesn't take sides as to whether Franklin is a genuine psychic or not - it's left for the viewers to make up their own minds.
Frank Perry was an eclectic director. He didn't make many films, and although he covered quite a few genres from westerns and comedies through to historical sagas, psychological drama was his forte, often in collaboration with his wife Eleanor. "David and Lisa" and "The Swimmer" are two others that I always remembered. If his films have one thing in common it is that Perry chose offbeat stories that challenged his actors, and "Man on a Swing" fits nicely into that category. More than just a police procedural, it's the intensity of the human drama and the clash of wills between Robertson and Grey's characters that drives the film.
The movie was made 40 years ago, and although there are many superficial elements that date it to that time, not the least being Cliff Robertson's hairdo, I found it just as intriguing as I did all those years ago.
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