World War II veteran Harry Stoner (Jack Lemmon) is co-owner of Los Angeles fashion label. Business is struggling, and he and his partner Phil Greene (Jack Gilford) keep the wolves at bay with a combination of creative accounting and outright fraud. On the day of his latest collection launch, Harry is at his emotional limit as multiple factors converge to push him over the edge.
Save the Tiger (1973) is a fascinating character study, headlined by one of the best male actors in American history. Jack Lemmon was most highly regarded as a comic performer in such classic films as Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and The Odd Couple, but Save the Tiger finds him in full dramatic mode. Harry Stoner is one of the most interesting roles Lemmon ever played: a once-proud patriotic American who was psychologically broken by his war-time experiences, and now pushed to the edge of criminality by the pressures of a failing business. He is not overly likeable person, and often struggles to even be broadly sympathetic. Director John G. Avildsen (Rocky, The Karate Kid), to his immense credit, does not try to make him so. The film is a meticulously painted portrait of a deeply flawed human being, and through it finds something to say about the growing cynicism and bleak reality of 1970s America. At its best, it all feels somewhat like playwright Arthur Miller.
The film is modest in its plot, tracking Harry’s activities over the course of one day. It begins with his troubles already in full swing. It ends without any of them particularly resolved. In the middle it feels rather like a tragedy. One key element is Harry’s plan to save his business by paying a local gangster to burn the factory to the ground – something that his long-time partner Phil is struggling to accept. At the same time, with the launch of a new range of women’s fashion, there are buyers and clients to impress and seduce – and if that includes setting up business contacts with sex workers, Harry is not beyond that either. Harry is beginning to crack under the stress, and it is the unexpected inclusion of this process – particularly during the fashion launch itself – that showcases the film at its most interesting.
In all honesty there is not quite enough to the screenplay to make it hold together. Thankfully Lemmon’s exceptional and naturalistic performance both ties all elements together and ably accentuates the film’s overarching themes. It is one of the best pieces of acting I have ever seen him do; little wonder it scored him a Best Actor Academy Award. It is also boosted by Avildsen’s understated, effective style of direction. He remains one of Hollywood’s more underrated filmmakers.
Save the Tiger is available in Australia on an excellent new limited edition bluray from Imprint Films. Click here for more information.