[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Save the Tiger is the sort of film that can give a well-intentioned film teacher nightmares. It’s so easy to imagine an equally well-intentioned, beginning student turning in a scene-by-scene breakdown of the narrative that faultlessly demonstrates as serious a thematic—indeed, didactic—purpose and as constant and consistent a stylistic application as one could ask to discover—all without realizing that the film itself remains dead, dead-ended, its conclusion foregone from the first. Producer Steve Shagan’s screenplay themes the viewer right into the ground with its highly unspontaneous collection of invocations of what we have lost as a nation: baseball played on real instead of plastic turf, oriental-dream movie palaces featuring The Best Years of Our Lives instead of skin flicks with selfrighteous, socially redeeming narration, garments cut by a master craftsman, Cole Porter, a sense of what World War II was all about (or even a memory that it was fought)….
Focus of the pile-driving point-making is Jack Lemmon as co-owner of a fashion supply house who lives in Beverly Hills where it costs him $200 just to get up in the morning, who thinks of making love to his wife only when they’re about to be separated by a journey (and even then too late to do anything about the idea), and who no longer has any dreams, anything to be in love with. He and his partner (Jack Gilford) have a great line for the new season but won’t be able to bring it out unless they get together about a hundred thousand dollars to prevent the discovery of some creative arithmetic in the previous year’s books. The film focuses on one day plus the next morning in Lemmon’s existence as he scrambles to wow the fashion buyers with a styles show, accommodate one of them with a high-class call girl more or less under contract to the firm, convince his partner they need to burn a subsidiary factory for the insurance money, and in general hold together the detritus of his existence for one more season.
John Avildsen (of Joe fame and, not insignificantly, a skin-flick veteran) gives Shagan’s script just a little bit better direction than it deserves, but he doesn’t work miracles and a miracle is what’s called for. Lemmon is intense and thorough but fails to generate any excitement, even in his ostensibly big scenes; quite understandably, he seems to be hoping Billy Wilder will come along and transform this grim document into the sort of comedy of self-loathing which that director-star team has pulled off before (and beautifully transcended in the recent Avanti!). Cinematically the only interesting effect is the way Avildsen intrudes memory-hallucination into the fashion show at which Lemmon presides. The character has been talking on again, off again about his buddies killed in the war. Customarily a contemporary director would have been cutting visual references to this motif into the picture right along, if only as (make that probably as) subliminal flashes. That Lemmon and we suddenly see one, then several, then many of his muddy, bloody comrades among the preened and well-fed audience out there beyond the spotlights is a genuine shock and surprise. There is room in which to argue whether Avildsen is simply reaching for effects left and right or whether he saw that the effectiveness might be lost through conventional (over-)preparation. At any rate the sequence is unsettling, as little else in the picture manages to be.
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson
SAVE THE TIGER
Direction: John G. Avildsen. Screenplay and production: Steve Shagan. Cinematography: James Crabe. Music : Marvin Hamlisch.
The Players: Jack Lemmon, Jack Gilford, Laurie Heineman, Patricia Smith, Thayer David, Lara Parker, Ned Glass.