Using a murder mystery to draw viewers into the peculiar life of a factory worker who claims to have ESP, Man on a Swing is among the most unusual detective films of the ’70s. Although clairvoyance was not uncommon as a plot device in cop shows of the same era, Man on a Swing offers multiple levels of psychological weirdness, depicting not only the strangely contoured existence of the self-proclaimed psychic but also the ways that his presence affects the tightly wound policeman investigating the murder. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the picture is Joel Grey’s performance as the mentalist—this was Grey’s most significant screen work in the immediate aftermath of his Oscar-winning turn in Cabaret (1972). Although Grey’s portrayal is not wholly compelling, it’s interesting to watch this film and wonder where his career might have gone if his focus had been screen work, rather than stage acting. Whether he’s creepily riding a swing while talking about murder or throwing himself against walls during trances, Grey seems game for just about anything.
Allegedly based on a true story, the movie begins with police detective Lee Tucker (Cliff Robertson) investigating the murder of a young woman. Clues lead nowhere until Franklin Wills (Grey) comes forward, claiming he’s psychically aware of helpful information. What ensues is a bizarre dance between the characters, because even as Lee wrestles with frustration over the slow-moving investigation and marital tensions at home, he grows to believe that Franklin knows about the murder not for supernatural reasons but because Franklin was involved. Concurrently, Lee experiences harassing phone calls, so he becomes convinced that Franklin is playing some sort of mind game.
In its best moments, Man on a Swing is eerie and offbeat, with flashes of unnerving saw music by composer Lalo Schifrin juicing the mood. In its worst moments, of which there are many, the movie becomes tedious. Long passages elapse with nothing much happening, creating the impression that Lee sits around waiting for Franklin to make the next move—not exactly the formula for exciting cinema. Director Frank Perry, partway through a unique run that includes The Swimmer (1969), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), and Rancho Deluxe (1975), displays his usual knack for unexpected moments, but his failure to render the satisfying rhythms of a whodunit is a fatal flaw. Not helping matters is Robertson’s somnambulistic leading performance, because his low energy compounds the problems of a poorly conceived characterization. Grey ends up dominating Man on a Swing by default, but even he is trapped by the limitations of the script.
Man on a Swing: FUNKY