Man on a Swing (1974) poster

Man on a Swing (1974)


USA. 1974.


Director – Frank Perry, Screenplay – David Zelag Goodman, Based on the Novel The Girl on the Volkswagen Floor by William A. Clark, Producer – Howard B. Jaffe, Photography – Adam Holender, Music – Lalo Schifrin, Production Design – Joel Schiller. Production Company – Jaf Films Inc.


Cliff Robertson (Lee Tucker), Joel Grey (Franklin Wills), Dorothy Tristan (Janet Tucker), Peter Masterson (Willie Younger), George Voskovec (Dr Nicholas Holner), Elizabeth Wilson (Dr Anna Wilson), Ron Weyand (Dr Philip Fusco), Lane Smith (Ted Ronan)


Police investigate after the body of Maggie Dawson is found strangled inside her Volkswagen in a supermarket parking lot. Police Chief Lee Tucker receives a call from a Franklin Wills who claims to be a clairvoyant. Speaking in a trance, Wills is able to describe details of the case that only the police know. Suspicious of the strangely intense Wills, Tucker decides to cautiously trust his offer of help. Wills starts uncovering clues that lead them further towards finding the killer. At the same time, Wills’s obsessive behaviour starts to make Tucker suspicious about his involvement.

Man on a Swing was a film that was little seen when it came out but one that nevertheless obtained some good reviews. Alas, it languishes largely forgotten today, except for occasional appearances in graveyard tv schedules. Unearthed however, Man on a Swing proves to be a fascinating effort. Nominally, it falls into the theme of the clairvoyant murder mystery that was the subject of a number of tv movies around the time – Baffled! (1972), The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), and Visions (1972). Though Man on a Swing seems initially to offer up one of the routine thriller plots that most of these engaged in, it soon becomes a unique film all of its own.

Man on a Swing is loosely drawn from a true-life murder investigation. It is based on a non-fiction book The Girl on the Volkswagen Floor (1971) by journalist William Arthur Clark. Clark described the murder of a girl that occurred in Dayton, Ohio where psychic Bill Boshears led him and the police department on a chase claiming to be able to solve the case. The case was never solved. The film keeps general faith to the book, although changes Clark’s reporter to a police chief and provides an arrestee at the end, even if we cannot entirely be sure that this is the right person. Today Bill Boshears is a well-known radio host who runs a Cincinnati-based syndicated radio show Sci-Zone, which deals with matters paranormal and conspiratorial.

The film however should largely been considered a fictionalisation. It begins with clever deception. The opening scene starts out almost like a documentary-styled investigation of the murder. However, this proves misleading as the film quickly opens out, letting the initial detail-heavy background of the investigation act as a stage for Joel Grey’s performance as the enigmatic Wills. Joel Grey was a hot name at the time and Man on a Swing came directly on the coattails of his Academy Award winning performance as the MC in Cabaret (1972).

Joel Grey as psychic Franklin Wills in Man on a Swing (1974)
Joel Grey as possibly fraudulent psychic Franklin Wills

When Joel Grey gets to do his live wire performance, Man on a Swing is never less than utterly captivating. The thrilling little scenes that Grey creates, solely by a series of bizarre pantomimes in which he switches roles between protagonist and victim, physically reaching out to grasp for clues or collapsing in the middle of rooms, is incredible. The accompanying dialogue couches everything in tones of careful fascination.

Most intriguing is the tone of ambiguity the film takes towards Wills – providing enough detail to let us see that his powers are indeed plausible, yet at the same time maintaining all the emotional requirements that make Joel Grey the villain, although never entirely confirming the latter. The film’s end comes on a decidedly sinister note.

Frank Perry’s direction throughout is bland and unremarkable – the show is almost entirely carried by Joel Grey’s performance. Cliff Robertson has a rather staid role as the police chief, playing the entire film with a grimly intent stare, although he does essentially all that is required of him in the part – that of providing sceptical counterpart to Joel Grey. Man on a Swing though is a fascinating film that is richly deservous of a wider profile.

Director Frank Perry was probably best known for the melodrama Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and the trashy Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest (1981). His one other venture into genre material was the insipid comedy Hello Again (1987) with Shelley Long as a resurrected housewife.

Trailer here

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