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The Forgotten: Mood Swings

A film by Frank Perry, who at present is best remembered for _Mommie Dearest_, which is more of a career tombstone than a milestone.
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Frank Perry is at present best remembered, it seems to me, for Mommie Dearest (1981), which really is more of a tombstone than a milestone in his career. This is dreadful shame, since Perry's best work was inventive, sharp, and sensitive, words which might still be applied to the Joan Crawford biopic and shameless ham-fest, but not without considerable moderation.

Man on a Swing (1974) comes out of that historic moment when Joel Grey had just burst upon the world as the MC in Bob Fosse's film of Cabaret (1972), and some attempt had to be made to exploit his unique talent in subsequent feature films. The man was amazing; he had just won an Oscar; but what could you do with a talent like that? It was a very real problem. Grey had been in films since 1952, but had not been considered as a star before. Even as a character actor his persona was... unusual.

Perry's film, adapted from William Arthur Clark's true crime book by David Zelag Goodman (Straw Dogs), deals with the mysterious abduction and murder of a young woman, and more specifically with the "psychic" (Grey), who presented himself to the police with information about the case. The murder was in fact never solved, and the nature of the psychic's talent remained unproven, which means that this is really a meditation on the unknown and mysterious, the unresolved and uncertain. In this, the film it most anticipates is David Fincher's Zodiac.

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As the small town sheriff who has to struggle with the baffling case and the even more baffling offer of assistance from beyond, anotherOscar winner, Cliff Robertson, is excellent, but he must have known that he'd be relegated to the sidelines by Joel Grey's much showier performance in a much showier part. Nobly, Robertson doesn't try to push himself forward, he accepts his role as the still centre of the film and underplays the more his co-star sparks and jolts. And to be sure, Grey's performance is a thing of wonder.

As the movie begins, with one of those Don Siegel/Police Squad! cop car traveling shots, it swiftly establishes a brisk, no-nonsense tone and a certain forensic detachment. Goodman's script offers the kind of snappy transitions, following the line of the investigation even as it zips back in time to reconstruct witness statements, the kind of thing that usually gets put down to good editing. In fact, direction and writing (and Lalo Schiffrin's score) are all following the dance steps laid down by the screenplay (which is much superior in subtlety and suspense to the rather crude Straw Dogs, let alone Goodman's earlier work on, for goshsakes, Stranglers of Bombay).

What's uncertain at this stage is how such a movie, a police procedural constructed along rational lines of evidence-gathering and stoic civil service, can accommodate a show-stopping turn by a rogue musical comedy star. But it does, and rather smoothly.

Perhaps it was anxiety about this which led the script to introduce Grey's character as a voice on a speaker-phone, in a protracted and unsettling scene where he calmly delivers a series of facts about the crime which have not appeared in the press. But that serves the additional purpose of giving him an old-fashioned big build-up, so that when he walks into the station, unhesitatingly finding his way to the sheriff's office as if he's been here a hundred times, we're mentally leaning forward and trying not to blink.

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As you might expect, Grey's physical gifts as a dancer are exploited in his strange body language and spasmodic movements when he goes into a trance, or seems to. And his embodiment of the uncanny, very much part of his MC persona in Cabaret, is exploited to eerie effect when his character seems to turn into a demented stalker. Is he genuinely gifted or just a publicity-seeker? The evidence is overwhelming in both directions, and Grey never tips his hand. Is he perhaps even involved in the crime he's pretending to solve? In a way, he is the physical incarnation of the unknowable, as if the unsolved crime has called him into being to make manifest its enigma.

The film's fusion of the hard-factual-solid-procedural and the numinous-unresolvable-mysterious is compelling and practically unique, even if the movie at times looks like a TV cop drama. It moves like cinema, and its beating heart is Lynchian.

"It's a strange world."

jg

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

A very creepy movie. Perry is deserving of serious reappraisal. “Last Summer,” “Rancho Deluxe” and above all “Play it As it Lays” (with Tusday Weld singing “You Belong To Me” a capella as Tony Perkins kills himself) are all superb.
I’m on it! The Swimmer is also fantastic. I also have his last film: his response to getting cancer was to make a film about it.
Sydney Pollack directed part of "The Swimmer’ — reportedly the scene with Janice Rule.
I second the praise for “Play it as it Lays”: very intelligent (if seriously downbeat) film with two tremendous, grown-up performances from Weld and Perkins. I’m also a fan of Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Housewife”.
A DVD release for Mad Housewife is overdue. The first one I saw was Compromising Positions, when it was new, a mild but very enjoyable comedy with Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia on fine form.
I love Rancho Deluxe, probably the best film adaptation of the great, great Thomas McGuane’s work (though McGuane’s own ultra-flaky 92 in the Shade has great charm and probably the most psychotronic cast list of all time). I’ve been meaning to watch Play it as it Lays, and you’ve just jumped it to the front of the queue, David E. Man on a Swing also sounds quite wonderful – the only other Joel Grey turn I’ve seen is his excellent Master in Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous.
I felt sorry for Grey in Dancer in the Dark — whatever his performance was is chopped into goujonettes by Von Trier’s ghastly 100-camera approach… I’m hoping to see some more Perry this weekend, if the madness of marking student films lets up…
As I wrote many years ago (and did the world listen? no, and look at the results!), Play It As It Lays should have established Weld and Perkins as the Garbo and Gilbert of our time.

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