Each year I like to write about a different horror film I recommend around this month, when we’re all in the mood for a good scare. This one’s a little different. It’s not a horror film. It’s not scary like a horror film, but it is remarkably haunting. It’s haunting in a way only true crime can be. I watched Man on a Swing earlier this month on Criterion Channel with no prior knowledge of the film and found myself in love with the thing. Go in blind if you can, stop reading this if that’s what it takes.
Based on the book “The Girl on the Volkswagen Floor” by William Arthur Clark, director Frank Perry’s Man on a Swing recounts the true story of an unsolved murder and a self-proclaimed psychic who involves himself in the case. Detective Lee Tucker (Cliff Robertson) is looking for a break in the of a murdered young woman when clairvoyant factory worker Franklin Wills (Joel Grey) calls him claiming to know details of the murder. Tucker begins an uneasy relationship with Franklin, never knowing for sure if he’s the real thing, a phony, or something even worse.
It sets the tone quickly of the procedural nature of the film that masterpieces like Memories of Murder and Zodiac would thrive on. Back in 1974, the only two other films that come to mind similar to Man on a Swing are Vengeance is Mine, In Cold Blood and The Town that Dreaded Sundown. This was a way of storytelling in film that hadn’t been popularized yet and was still in somewhat of an infancy. We open with the feet hitting the ground running, with the detective arriving at the scene of the crime. No fuss, just straight to business with this film.
It’s an incredible Cliff Robertson performance that captures so much of what was great about him. He’s so great at playing a pragmatic guy confronted with profound uncertainty and the unknown. He’s absolutely haunted by all this, and it colors each interaction he has throughout the whole film. Robertson always had a humble understatement as a performer, and it goes miles in this film as a determined detective faced with the fact he may never solve this case.
This was Joel Grey’s first performance after winning an Oscar for Cabaret, and he’s magnificent. He’s both prideful of his clairvoyance and weary of it. As the film goes on, he becomes more and more unsettling the more uncertain we become of his abilities and his intentions. There’s one scene where he’s insistent that Tucker’s wife take a handkerchief from him, and it’s pretty terrifying. Just watch it, you’ll understand.
Perry and cinematographer Adam Holender shoot and stage the whole thing very matter-of-factly. There’s no flash in the camera movements, no extravagant lighting or coloring, driving home the true crime aspect of this as well as the perspective of Tucker, an absolute pragmatist who is not quick to believe in anything superstitious or supernatural. A terrific, unsettling Lalo Schiffrin score is muted and understated but massively effective with sparse, haunting piano notes. Nothing fancy, just what’s necessary, that seems to be the rules they set for themselves when making this.
While this isn’t a horror film, it’s far more haunting than most. It’s eerie, unsettling and lingers in your brain long after you’ve watched it. I may be moving the goal posts here, but I just want you to watch this film. It’s a wonderful prototype of the true crime procedural that has made some of my favorite films. And yes, the fact it’s pretty scary doesn’t hurt.