Save the Tiger (1973)

May 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jack Lemmon and Jack Gilford (on the phone) in 'Save the Tiger'

Written by Steve Shagan

Directed by John G Avildsen

Starring Jack Lemmon

Jack Lemmon’s pinnacle performance of his career (he won Best Actor for the role), he manages to deconstruct his on-screen persona into a sadder, desperate version of his everyman persona, which he would echo years later in Glengarry Glen Ross. Lemmon is Harry Stoner, a successful businessman who has forged his little piece of success in the world through a life of hard work and honest business practices. He’s awoken on the day of his annual sales presentation to investors and potential clients he finds one thing after another going wrong. Stoner is beside himself with anger, regret and panic, but also must go about his day as if everything is fine while he deals with customers, employees and his family.

It’s a brilliant performance that utilizes the full range of Lemmon’s capabilities as an actor. He can be a very friendly everyman and plays a salesman like no other actor can, but at the same time the despair he can project in his crumpled up face or his slightly agape lips as his motormouth is brought to a grinding halt by the insurmountable problems he’s facing is exceptional. As well known as he is for his comedic timing and ability to sell any line, the physical side of his acting, particularly his dramatic parts, goes largely unheralded. Save the Tiger is the shining example his ability to go beyond what most actors are capable of as he bridges the old school theatrical acting with the new school style of subdued, realistic performing, juggling shaky business deals and a partner (Jack Gilford, nearly matching Lemmon’s realistic relatability) with a morally-ambiguous plan to recoup their livelihoods in a selfish and illegal fashion.

As he moves through his day, Stoner picks up a hitch hiking hippie with whom he has a relaxing tryst in which he gets to experience the care free nature of youth for a brief few hours. He doesn’t forget his problems, he merely has a chance to put them in perspective and consider his entire life in relation to this momentous day. The final denouement at the investor’s meeting is heart breaking and enlightening at the same time as Lemmon makes one last stand for his dignity in ill-conceived fashion.

Avildsen directs with a deft hand that avoids sensationalizing his scenes, attempting to create characters an audience could see as existing in the real world, perhaps characters we see much of ourselves in, no matter how big the story got. He’s the perfect director for this material, considering what he later did with Rocky and Lean On Me.

Save the Tiger is a brilliantly reserved modern day blue-collar tragedy that improves upon the universal ideas presented in the older play Death of a Salesman. Harry Stoner is a latter day Willy Loman, in a world in which life and death are measured more by checkbooks and profit reports than by our own mortal existence.

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