As if being one of the best character studies of the ’70s wasn’t enough, Save the Tiger occupies an important place in the career of actor Jack Lemmon, a rare Hollywood star who was equally adept and comedy and drama. Not only did the picture net Lemmon his only Academy Award for a leading role (he’d nabbed a Best Supporting Actor prize for 1955’s Mister Roberts), but Save the Tiger contains a genuine tour de force performance—Lemmon is nearly every scene, cascading through myriad emotions as he meticulously illustrates the psychological dissipation of an everyman whose pursuit of the American Dream has driven him to the brink of financial and moral ruin. Written by Steve Shagan, who adapted his own novel of the same name, Save the Tiger is an unapologetic attempt at a Big Statement about the costs of capitalism. However, because Shagan and director John G. Avildsen keep their focus squarely on the life of one specific man, the filmmakers mostly evade the pitfall of pretension. (A few florid speeches and the obtuse title, which stems from a minor plot element, are among the handful of minor missteps.)
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, the movie tracks a day in the life of Harry Stoner (Lemmon), a clothing-company executive who has stretched the firm’s finances too thin. As the day progresses, Harry contemplates and executes various schemes for righting the company’s fiscal ship—his attempt at wooing a client with the services of a prostitute proving especially disastrous—while slowly accepting the grim reality that nothing can extricate him from the trap he’s built. Concurrently, Harry wrestles with the existential questions that are brought up by seeing the consequences of his life choices, and he also faces the sobering fact that he’s lost touch with the carefree rhythms of youth.
Borrowing a page from Arthur Miller, Shagan defines his protagonist as a victim of the quest for the almighty dollar, but unlike Miller’s Death of a Salesman protagonist Willy Loman, who struggles to find dignity while stuck in the grind of a dehumanizing career, Harry Stoner wants it all—excitement, fulfillment, stability, success. In a sense, therefore, Harry’s disease is the mere act of wanting, so the reckless moves he makes to gain position and wealth are symptoms of the disease. Fitting that analogy, Harry’s wildest idea involves a form of surgery to remove the cancer of financial burden: He tries to involve his business partner, Phil Greene (Jack Gilford), in a plan to burn down the company’s building for insurance money. Could there be a more potent spiritual metaphor than the idea of resurrection through self-destruction?
Because Shagan’s storyline employs such dexterity in dramatizing concepts, occasional sins of theatrical flamboyance are easily forgiven, although it’s harder to overlook the contrived finale. Nonetheless, Save the Tiger is so purposeful and truthful for most of its running time that it’s virtually a paradigm for intimate storytelling. Earning every golden ounce of his Oscar, Lemmon is on fire from the first scene to the last, revealing the tumult boiling inside every Mr. Nice Guy he’s ever played. Led by the wonderful Gilford, the mostly anonymous supporting cast works efficiently in Lemmon’s shadow. Avildsen captures every nuance with a documentarian’s restraint, transforming Save the Tiger into an unvarnished portrait of modern life as a slog through a callous social system.
Save the Tiger: RIGHT ON