We may not know for sure whether David Fincher had this film in mind when he made Zodiac, but odds are good he's a fan of Man on a Swing, a gripping thriller with occult overtones that somehow got lost in the shuffle of paranoid conspiracy thrillers in the mid-'70s. Based on a true crime story, this marked another quirky success for Frank Perry, one of the era's most undervalued directors, who was on quite a hot streak after solid work on films like David and Lisa, Ladybug Ladybug, The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Play It as It Lays. And this film is every bit as good as the rest of them.
When a young woman goes missing and is discovered smothered to death inside her Volkswagen parked in a supermarket parking lot, police chief Lee Rucker (Robertson) withholds a few key facts from the press to sift out false leads from the real ones. Soon after he gets a phone call from Franklin Wills (Grey), a manufacturing plant employee who claims to be a clairvoyant and correctly rattles off several confidential facts in the case, including a description of the dead girl's prescription eyeglasses. Rucker decides to call Wills in and test his abilities, even consulting an outside expert on the paranormal to come up with a method of proving whether these psychic abilities are real. Prone to drifting into trances and bouts of wild, eccentric behavior, Wills is more than a little unsettling at times, even showing up unannounced at Lee's home and frightening his pregnant wife (Tristan) to apologize for a violent walkthrough of the day of the crime. Is Wills the genuine article, or could he be the actual murderer?
Yes, this one may sport a PG rating, but remember -- that's a 1970s PG, which means this is still really creepy, intense stuff. The anonymous harassment Robertson receives would be enough to make this more tense than the average crime thriller, but Grey's performance really puts it over the top. Terrifying, hilarious, and often downright inscrutable, he's a real wonder to watch, sort of a spastic, slightly domesticated version of his emcee role in Cabaret. (The real-life basis for his character, Bill Boshears, is a little less flamboyant, and his experience also inspired the more factual book, The Girl on the Volkswagen Floor.) Robertson got a lot of dismissive notices for his role as the ostensible lead, but he's actually quite good here as he grounds the potentially unbelievable progression of the story with plenty of gravity and a wry, doubting expression on his face. As with his later role in Obsession, he could ground a thriller very well and proved that playing an all-American identification figure isn't quite as simple as it seems. Adding to the unnerving mix is an unusual music score by the great Lalo Schifrin, who somehow managed to work this in between his back-to-back work on Magnum Force and Golden Needles.
A pretty hot collector's title among cult film fans who'd either caught this in the theater or stumbled upon it on late night TV, Man on a Swing (whose title barely connects even if you've seen the film, which has Grey briefly hopping on a playground swing in some sort of metaphor for his character's oscillating demeanor) never even merited a release back on VHS. That's pretty shocking for such a terrific film, and since there aren't really any music rights that could have held it back, one can only wonder what kept it hidden for so long. (Sadly, Perry's other major films from the period are mostly MIA now, too, but you can find his Mommie Dearest everywhere.) Olive's Blu-Ray (with a DVD released at the same time) is a real revelation for anyone who's only seen mediocre TV broadcasts over the years; the colors really pop (love those blue and red police lights), and the super-colorful '70s fashions and decor look fantastic. As usual there hasn't really been any digital cleanup here, so you'll see a few little white flecks pop up from time to time. Basically it looks like you're watching a mint repertory print, which suits this one just fine. Very enthusiastically recommended.