Save the Tiger (1973)

Where does Jack Lemmon fit into the pantheon of great film actors? He was hardly an iconic leading man in the mold of Bogart or Brando, although he could play a leading man in a pinch, as in The Apartment (1961) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962). He seemed equally comfortable in small character roles and comedic ensembles, happy to share the spotlight. He won his first Academy Award for his supporting role in Mister Roberts (1955), and his work in Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Odd Couple (1968) inspired the absolute best performances by Tony Curtis and Walter Matthau. A gifted comedian, he was also a devastatingly effective dramatist. His utility and versatility have contributed as much as anything to his quiet reputation: he did so much, and did it so well, that it is almost impossible to pinpoint any one career-defining performance.

Save the Tiger is not that performance. Despite the fact that this is arguably Lemmon’s best work, the film is also relentlessly depressing. Within moments, we see that this is not the same Lemmon who appeared in trifles like The Great Race (1965) or Under the Yum-Yum Tree (1963). Or rather it is, but under radically different circumstances. The decency that Lemmon carried like a talisman throughout his career is twisted here, crushed by the weight of memories. There are few things more heartbreaking than to see a good man undone by the unfortunate consequences of good intentions, and this is why Save The Tiger remains such a raw and unsettling film.

Lemmon plays Harry Stoner, a clothing manufacturer who finds his life slowly unraveling. Despite years of success, he wakes up one day to find his business swimming in the red and deep in questionable bookkeeping practices. On the day devoted to the unveiling of the firm’s new fall line, Stoner finds himself contemplating massive insurance fraud — in the form of a warehouse fire — simply to maintain operating expenses. The question at the heart of Save the Tiger is no less nagging for its familiarity: didn’t it all used to be so simple?

How is it possible for a man who sacrificed and strived his entire life, who fought heroically in World War II, to be reduced to scrounging whores for clients and catching dirty movies with arsonists? It would be incorrect to state that the movie was about the Vietnam war, Watergate or the ’70s energy crisis; it’s about all those events, the basis of a massive crisis of confidence, an entire decade’s nervous breakdown captured on film.

If the term had existed, Stoner would have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD didn’t enter the clinical vocabulary until the early ’80s). Stoner sees the ghosts of his friends, dead on the beaches of Anzio in World War II, all around him. He ricochets between maudlin reminiscences and ruthless focus. He can’t get a grip on the world around him, even going so far as to break down in front of the audience assembled for the fashion show. As events begin to spiral out of control, the illusion of mastery recedes further and further into the past. Save the Tiger is one of those rare movies buoyed by the leading man’s presence in every scene. It is a testament to his ability that we never doubt his essential veracity, even as he caroms from nervous hysteria to grim determination, sometimes in the space of a single scene. As an actor who came from a primarily comedic background, Lemmon brought a discipline and control to dramatic work that enabled him to approach emotionally demanding material in a consistently understated manner.

Considering the film’s quality, it’s a shame to see it released on a bare-bones DVD without a hint of fanfare. Lemmon often talked about certain scenes edited from the theatrical cut of the film for the sake of pacing. Was it impossible to locate and include these scenes on the DVD? Save the Tiger is an unsung classic, and that is a damn shame.