Inspired by a true case, Frank Perry's Man on a Swing sees Cliff Robertson's police chief in a small town (the kind that still looks like it's stuck in the late 60s in 1974) out of his depth when trying to solve the murder of a young girl. The case is clearly going nowhere as he almost sleepwalks through the investigation as if numbed by shock, though that may just be because the police are too busy getting their fingerprints over the evidence and drinking Budweiser and making sure the logo is facing the camera at every opportunity: police stations, bars, at home - any time is Budweiser time for these cops. For the first couple of reels it's not much above TV movie of the week level, but it jolts into life every time Joel Grey appears as a clairvoyant who offers to help with the case even though he claims to have heard nothing about the murder. But just how reliable is he and what are his real motives?
It's certainly a fascinating performance, and a surprisingly controlled one. Even when he's throwing himself about in spasms or jumping up on tables he manages to make his behavior seem absolutely natural: it's a very physical performance but not a hammily overplayed one, as if the mind and the body are in complete opposition. It's an entirely credible but unknowable performance, disturbing not because he plays the usual horror notes but because of the quiet euphoric satisfaction he exhibits after each trance. All Cliff Robertson can do when he's up against him is to offer a study in contrast by dialling it down to the bare minimum and sit still and watch him intently. His best scene comes in a confrontation with his jealous wife Dorothy Tristan, who hates the fact that it's the murder victim's photo he carries in his wallet instead of hers.
Aside from a half-hearted and almost comically overcranked brief car chase at the end there are no directorial flourishes or action or suspense setpieces, everything kept low key to highlight the performance, which is part of the problem: it's just showcasing one performance. While Grey is mesmerising, no-one else gets much of a look in, with the supporting performances solid but never given much in the way of big scenes to work with - a shame, because the supporting cast is more than decent, including Penelope Milford, who would briefly make an impression a few years later in Coming Home and Valentino before disappearing into bit parts, future TV Buck Rogers Gil Gerard and plenty of and know-the-face-but-can't-remember-the-names like Lane Smith, Josef Sommer and Nicholas Pryor.
The detective angle is certainly ploddingly formulaic, with the usual interrogation of witnesses, the awkward scene with the victim's family, the break in the case that comes out of the blue and turns out to be a blind alley, the case going cold until it breaks again in the worst way. More curiously, Grey offers virtually no information to move the case forward as he increasingly becomes the film's central mystery. Things do get racked up a notch in the last half hour as Robertson becomes plagued by silent phone calls and midnight knocks on the door and the tension finally gives way to an emotional explosion, albeit a very one-sided one, but the crime almost becomes irrelevant to the question of just what Grey is. Is he a charlatan, a suspect, an accomplice or is he just desperate for recognition and publicity? The film never offers an answer, ending with an air of hostile ambiguity that leaves the question hanging in the air. The end result is a fascinating performance in an otherwise underwhelming film that never really delivers, one that offers more than enough reason to see it even if it's not enough to make you rush to see it again.
Olive's region-free Blu-ray offers a decent widescreen transfer, but it doesn't really gain anything on Blu-ray: it has that slightly soft, muted look that was so popular with directors and cinematographers in the 70s. There's not much in the way of damage in the print, though you won't be overwhelmed. No extras either.