First Time Watch: Save the Tiger (1973)


By Christian DiMartino

The big draw of Save the Tiger is the fact that it’s headlined by Jack Lemmon. An even larger draw is that Lemmon won his second Oscar for it. If both of those elements sound enticing, then Save the Tiger will deliver.

Save the Tiger is a very busy film, and yet in sort of a contradiction, it’s also not really much of a film. What is it about? Simple: Harry Stoner. Who is Harry Stoner? Well, he’s played by Jack Lemmon, and frankly, that’s all you need to know before watching this movie. Lemmon is someone I can watch in anything. When he is funny, he’s hilarious. When he’s dramatic, he cuts deep. Typically, a Jack Lemmon role feel very Jack Lemmon-y, and thus, that is what makes his best films (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, The China Syndrome, Missing) such a thrill. Save the Tiger is a tremendous showcase for Lemmon. This is his film, front and center, through and through. Despite the fact that the film is pretty entertaining and features strong acting throughout, this is a film that rests purely on his shoulders, and it’s pretty plain to see why he won an Oscar for it (over Al Pacino for Serpico, which may be better, but it’s a tough call).

So yes, Harry Stoner. The film is essentially a day in the life of Stoner, a wealthy businessman who runs a fashion company. When we meet Stoner, he awakens from a nightmare, and when we leave him, he is tosses a baseball to a bunch of kids. Yeah, the movie is all over the place, but in ways that mostly feel organic. Throughout Stoner’s day, we see him converse with his business partner (Jack Gilford, playing off of Lemmon well here) as they order hookers for a potential business client (which results in a heart attack) and as they meet up with an arsonist who they want to torch one of their buildings to claim insurance. We also see Stoner pick up a hitchhiker/prostitute/hippie, for which he shares something of a connection with.

At the heart of these anecdotes lies a man who, internally, wonders where he went wrong. Upon the heart attack of the business client, Stoner’s partner is of course terrified that the man will die. Stoner’s reaction is actually a rather cold one; he doesn’t care that the man will die, and if he does, yes he’s losing a major client, but also, the guy kind of deserves it. Ouch. Upon this cold reaction, I feel that this is where the film’s focus really takes off. What has led him here? Has his success clouded his morality? Stoner is haunted by his days in the war, but also has a longing for his glory days.

Save the Tiger has a lot of commentary, and it covers a lot of ground. It also has quite a bit going on, which is strange for a film that ultimately isn’t about… much. This film probably won’t be for everyone because it doesn’t have a cut-and-dry storyline. That doesn’t bother me so much though, because what the film is going for is a slice of life, and in this case, it’s the life of a man who is filled with regret and longing. A man who has made a name and a career for himself, but wishes that he had done things differently. Whenever he finally meets up with said prostitute/hippie in the final act of the film, it is probably the best he’s felt in a long while- and yes, he does have a wife at home. Yet this woman is a free spirit, and for the first time in a long time, so is he.

Save the Tiger is directed by John G. Avildsen, who would go on to direct the best Rocky movie, and the worst, Rocky V. How these two films came from the same man is a mystery to me, but the film is well written and thoroughly well acted. For a movie about… not much, it managed to hold my interest. Perhaps because of Lemmon’s pitch-perfect, commanding performance.

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