Jack Lemmon’s Oscar-winning role in a landmark of 70s American cinema.
Character-driven studies of men and women in crisis are commonplace in modern cinema, especially featuring movie stars eager to expand their acting chops and resumes with a project that might get them respect or – even better – awards. To a greater or lesser extent, modern films like Michael Clayton, Sideways, American Beauty and even The Wrestler all owe a debt to 1973′s Save The Tiger, the pater familias of American men-in-meltdown character pieces and probably the apex of Jack Lemmon’s formidable screen career.
Lemmon plays Harry Stoner, a World War II veteran and dress merchant experiencing simultaneous career and personal meltdowns as both his business and personal lives take a turn for the worse. As he explains first to his wife and then his business partner Phil (Jack Gilford), Harry feels the world has passed him by. A veteran of the battle at Anzio, he feels deep survivor’s guilt that’s been complicated by years of ethical and personal compromises in his dress-making company. He expresses his guilt and nostalgia by reminiscing about the baseball of his childhood, reconstructing team lineups and explaining how pitchers wound up before throwing. In less capable hands such weariness would come across as heavy-handed and self-pitying, but Lemmon’s tightly controlled performance communicates such emotions as fatigue rather than self-indulgence.
Meanwhile Harry has some difficult decisions to make. The previous year, it seems, he and Phil performed some creative accounting to keep their business solvent. With a government audit looming, Harry considers hiring an arsonist to burn down their warehouse for the insurance money. Then, with a fashion line debut happening just downstairs, an important client has a heart attack while enjoying two prostitutes Harry arranged to visit him. Enraged at the client, the prostitutes and at himself, but reacting to the injury as if back on the Italian front, Harry nearly snaps. “This isn’t a man, it’s a casualty,” he tells Phil. Obliged to make a speech to his buyers, he visualizes the men he saw die in battle staring at him from the seats. The screen trick of putting the wounded on camera, visible only to Harry, will likely seem overly familiar to modern audiences, thanks to its legions of imitators. Director John G. Avildsen (Rocky) keeps the camera going back in forth in rhythm, making one of a series of clever camera movements that keeps the story’s momentum brisk.
Perhaps unfortunately Harry and Phil’s new line is a success, increasing the pressure to get themselves out of their financial hole. A mob Shylock breezes through, offering them money the banks won’t. Harry drags Jack to consult the arsonist (Thayer David) instead, a Sydney Greenstreet-esque professional who explains what he does as a faux-documentary porno plays on the movie theatre screen before them. Phil wants out, but Harry recognizes the grim necessity of the move.
“I want another season,” he explains later, to his senior tailor (William Hansen.) The rest of the film becomes increasingly loose in structure, as Harry spends the night stoned with a hitchhiker he’d met that morning. Aching and weary, he rambles a long monologue about 20th Century America while the girl (Laurie Heineman) looks on in helpless pity. “I want… to walk in that rain that never washes perfume away,” he tells her. “I wanna be in love with something. Anything. Just the idea. A dog, a cat. Anything. Just something.” The next morning, he agrees to the arsonist’s stipulations but begs him to keep Phil out of the deal.
The final scene is one of those symbolic 70s endings that people discuss and argue about until the meaning becomes clearer but always up for debate. Wandering the streets, Harry finds a group of children playing baseball in a park. Given the opportunity to throw the ball, he winds up and sends it soaring into the trees behind the dugouts. “Why’d you do that, mister?” one of the kids asks. “I wanted you to see it once,” Harry tells them. The children are unforgiving – “You can’t play with us!” one of them shouts – and the final image is of Harry watching the game go on from behind a fence, a short but crucial distance separating him from the events.
- Michael Kabel