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