The "based on real events" disclaimer is usually a turn-off when it comes to horror films, but murder mysteries are a different story altogether. David Fincher's Zodiac was one of my favorite films of the last decade, pairing an immaculate eye for detail with a suspenseful, unfinished atmosphere. Frank Perry's Man on a Swing (1974) also revolves around a series of unsolved murders and a man desperately obsessed with finding the truth, seems to exist on slightly smaller scale. Our hero is Lee Tucker (Cliff Robertson), a small town police chief who toils with the dead-end investigation and drinks dozens of Budweisers before he's contacted by Frank Wills (Joel Grey), a self-described clairvoyant who offers to help with the case. As his predictions become more and more reliable, Tucker begins to suspect Wills is somehow involved. But, as hinted at earlier, Man on a Swing doesn't tie everything up in a neat bow: like Zodiac, it strongly hints at the guilty party without providing a definitive answer.
Man on a Swing is more insular than your average mystery. As the case unfolds, our attention is rarely diverted elsewhere; the only real exceptions are conversations about Wills' potential "condition" and the new pregnancy of Tucker's wife, Janet (Dorothy Tristan). Yet Man on a Swing manages to constantly evolve along the way: new paths are taken and red herrings occasionally pop up, but it's as much of a character study as it is a murder investigation. Joel Grey's entertaining performance as Wills is the most obvious reason for Man on a Swing's sporadic flirts with greatness: he's over-the-top and unpredictable, keeping us at arm's length much more effectively than the stoic, one-note character of Tucker.
Not surprisingly, the film doesn't seem particularly concerned with flashy visuals, but its stripped-to-the-bone editing style is pretty hard to ignore. We aren't forced to endure two hours' worth of "ping pong" close-ups in the style of Dragnet, but a number of clever scene transitions and implied actions help to maintain a sense of momentum without padding the length. Character interactions are often brief and go directly to the point. The only time when Man on a Swing's efficient editing feels like a distraction is later in the story, when a handful of daily "stalks" by the unknown suspect are crammed back-to-back in just under five minutes. Knowing director Frank Perry's habit of working economically fast, such ups and downs are expected and often forgivable. Overall, it gets a lot more right than it does wrong.
Man on a Swing never really garnered a great deal of attention during the last four decades, but Paramount's continued licencing deal with Olive Films paved the way for DVD and Blu-Ray releases of this underrated mystery. Today's review looks at the former---and while it's certainly not a true standout in any technical category, those with a soft spot for the genre will find Man on a Swing hard to resist.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1) and enhanced for widescreen displays, Man on a Swing looks good but won't amaze viewers by any stretch. Occasional dirt and scratches lead me to believe that there wasn't much restoration work done here, but a fine layer of film grain has been preserved and no major digital imperfections could be spotted along the way. Colors are mostly drab and muted and black levels are somewhat inconsistent; the overall image is definitely on the soft side, though some of these problems are likely due to the source material. It's a watchable but plain-wrap effort overall, so I doubt the separate Blu-Ray release will offer much of an upgrade.
Similar news on the audio front: Man on a Swing is definitely not a sonically ambitious film, but this Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono does what it can with limited source material. Several louder moments definitely sound a bit blown out and shrill, though Lalo Schifrin's quirky score seems to be presented this way by design. Dialogue is usually crisp and understandable; unfortunately, optional English subtitles are not provided.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The menus are extremely simple but creepy, with the only sub-menu being a chapter selection screen. This one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase and includes one promotional insert. The cover art doesn't exactly stand out in a crowd...and let's face it, those washed-out images on the back cover aren't doing the film any favors, either. Is anyone from Olive Films looking for a graphic designer?
Nothing, unfortunately. Though it's extremely hard to justify a $25 barebones DVD release in this day and age, the lack of extras does
maintain (if not amplify) the film's ambiguous, enigmatic atmosphere.
I walked into Frank Perry's Man on a Swing completely blind, and it managed to pleasantly surprise me with an unpredictable, mysterious tone that kept things interesting from start to finish. This lesser-seen gem is more than a little dated in some respects, but the solid lead performances, capable direction and economical editing make Man on a Swing a true example of substance over style. Olive Films' DVD presentation is somewhat disappointing overall, though I'd imagine most fans will be thrilled just to have it on disc. A Blu-Ray release is also available...but given the lackluster visuals, a 1080p transfer may not present much of a difference. Recommended for fans of true crime and offbeat mysteries.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.