Sunday, March 3, 2013

Two by Frank Perry: Man on a Swing (1975) and Dummy (1979)

I’ve written about the work of Frank Perry before, both on this blog and elsewhere. He’s one of the great unsung American filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s, though he’s now known primarily for the ill-fated Mommy Dearest (and, to a lesser extent, The Swimmer). During the 1960s, he and his then-wife Eleanor, who wrote his scripts, had a remarkable run of magnificent films, many of which are still hard to find: Last Summer, Trilogy, and Diary of a Mad Housewife among them. After their divorce, Frank continued to create work of genuine interest – even if it couldn’t quite match what he did with Eleanor. Recently, two of his films from the 1970s made their way to home video, through Olive Films’ lovely Blu-ray/DVD of 1975’s Man on a Swing, and Warner Archive’s excellent DVD of 1979’s Dummy. This came as a shock to me: While both films were well-known at the time (the latter in particular was an award-winning TV movie written by Ernest Tidyman, screenwriter of The French Connection and the novelist who gave us Shaft), I didn’t think they’d ever be properly released.

In a Moving Image Source piece I did on the Perrys some years ago, I discussed the clinical aspect of their films, brought about perhaps (I speculated) by Eleanor’s work as a psychologist. All the films they did together have the quality of scientific inquiries, as if their subjects were under a microscope. Indeed, this is partly what makes the films so compelling: Eleanor’s psychological precision crossbred with Frank’s sensitivity to performance results in something both Olympian and very human.

Man on a Swing and Dummy, though made in the post-Eleanor era, display a similarly clinical quality. I’d argue it’s even more overt in these films. Both films portray extreme cases: In Man on a Swing, the titular character is an odd, flamboyant little man (played by Joel Grey), who claims to be a clairvoyant and may or may not also be a sociopath. The film itself is a mystery film in which Grey’s character comes forth to help a no-nonsense police chief played by Cliff Robertson as he investigates a grisly murder. In Dummy, the protagonist is Donald Lang (LeVar Burton), a young, deaf-mute African-American man accused of murder. Having never been taught to read, write, or communicate in any meaningful way, he is essentially imprisoned inside his own mind -- and thus incapable of expressing himself to plead his innocence. Based on a true story, Dummy is a film about the deaf lawyer (played by Paul Sorvino, in the best performance I’ve ever seen him give) who took Lang’s case and tried to find ways to bring him out of his shell -- The Miracle Worker reimagined as a legal thriller.

Man on a Swing: Cliff Robertson and Joel Grey
It shouldn’t surprise anybody, of course, that after his decade or so of working with Eleanor, Frank found himself drawn to these types of characters. Again, in both cases, his feel for performance and character elevates the material from the simple, effective little procedurals they might have been otherwise. But despite their similarities, the films also display his versatility as a director.

Man on a Swing is a film of broad performances, and Perry really lets Grey run with it here: The actor is alternately haunted, dancerly, childish, tormented, unfeeling, over-sensitive, and – in one remarkable scene – almost monstrous. Ordinarily, mixing in a performance like this into a police procedural, a film in which everyone else is very seriously going about their job, would be toxic. But it works, because Perry seems to realize that the tension here between Robertson’s chief investigator and Grey’s pixie shaman is the real story. Indeed, we could say that Perry eventually turns his microscope on Robertson’s character, and the obsessive, paranoid effect that the investigation, and his interactions with Grey, have on him. This tense, no-nonsense man, addicted to his work, is at first put off by, then fascinated by, the strange, hyper-dramatic, supposedly paranormal being that has entered his life. The contrast between them, which could have become fatal in the hands of a lesser director, becomes the engine that drives the film.

Dummy: LeVar Burton and Paul Sorvino

Dummy, for its part, is less about contrast than it is about insularity and ritual -- perhaps appropriately so, for a film about a character essentially lost inside his head. For Donald, navigating his world is a genuine challenge, and the film presents him as being the kind of person who can pick up certain social signals, but is unable to process others. He lives in a tough neighborhood with his brother and sister, walks to work at his job every day, and has found a job where he can put his considerable physical strength to work. He manages to blend in in all these places, but once he’s taken out of this world and placed in the machinery of the justice system, with its prisons, mental institutions, courtrooms, etc., he’s lost. And the film effectively places us inside his head, where even the slightest gesture gains almost monumental importance and can send one for a loop. (I guess this is also where I add that Dummy is one of the most upsetting films I’ve ever seen. I mean that as very high praise, but, well, buyer beware, I guess.)

Watching Dummy, I was reminded of Perry’s earlier Last Summer, a film whose themes and plot in no way resemble this in any way whatsoever. But Last Summer also had a very methodical, almost elemental approach to building character and emotion, and it also displayed a certain insularity: We barely ever saw the adults who shared the teenaged protagonists’ world, and the film effectively placed us in a universe where every social signal seemed skewed. Dummy has a similarly alienating, disorienting quality; for all its ostensible realism, it feels at times as if it’s taking place on another planet. Let’s face it -- that’s because it is.


  1. Wow, would love to see both of these. DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE is in my top ten all time favorite movies. I really hope that Perry gets his due someday soon--his work is shamefully neglected.

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