Save the Tiger(Paramount Home Entertainment, 10.25.2005)
Many consider the definitive portrait of early-'90s Los Angeles to be 1993's Falling Down, with Michael Douglas' disgruntled drone exploding within Gen X's multicultural milieu. Released 20 years earlier, Save the Tiger occupies that same territory with regard to early-'70s L.A. (and America), with Jack Lemmon's disillusioned dress manufacturer imploding as he's chewed into collateral damage by the capitalist machine. And, while watching Douglas fire rocket launchers and go ballistic in McDonald's provides a sugary chaser to Falling Down's vitriol, Lemmon's Oscar-winning slow burn into hopelessness makes the unflinching Save the Tiger a must-see that's as relevant today as it was when originally released.
Lemmon's Harry Stoner is an overextended WWII vet desperately struggling to keep his business afloat. News reports on Vietnam's casualty count stir zombified memories of his dead band of brothers that are unmollified by Stoner's heartsick, Ken Burns-esque nostalgia for American staples like baseball and jazz. Stretched to the brink, Stoner considers acts evincing a certain moral flexibility, including hiring a pro to torch one of his factories for insurance money. All this leads to a hauntingly foreshadowed conclusion that plays like the doppelganger to the upbeat ending of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic.
Director John Avildsen, who later connected with the one-two combination of Rocky and The Karate Kid delivers a generation gap punch to the gut that's in a vein similar to his underrated Joe. With an assist from frequent collaborator Jim Crab's (The Formula) cinematography, he immerses us in L.A.'s smoggy squalor by using natural lighting and real locations, as well as shooting the script in sequence, often with pages of layered dialogue unfolding in lengthy, unbroken shots.
Steve Shagan's (Primal Fear) script has been assailed in some quarters as tackling too many issues, but this critique misses the mark. Shagan's point was that the twin bill of Watergate and Vietnam was causing America to bust at the seams, almost to the point where a working class hero was no longer something to be.
There are shades of Glengarry Glen Ross' Shelley "The Machine" Levene in Lemmon's virtuoso performance, but here he mines a much broader emotional scale, employing talents that, by his own admission, he hadn't tapped in years. Oscar-nominated Jack Gilford (Catch-22) plays gloriously against type as Stoner's business partner and ostensible conscience. Don't think, though, that he's the proxy for Shagan's moralizing. His suggested alternative to arson is for the company to become a marionette jerked around by the mob's purse strings. Thayer David (Rocky) underplays his arsonist role with a mechanistic efficiency akin to Harvey Keitel's "cleaner" in Pulp Fiction.
The pic's presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 adequately supporting Marvin Hamlisch's (The Spy Who Loved Me) anachronistic Big Band score as it emphasizes Stoner's deracination. The sole extra is a wonderfully blunt commentary track with Avildsen and Shagan reminiscing like two veteran pitchers talking shop. Their memories include Walter Matthau being rejected as "too ethnic" for the role of the everyman Stoner, telling Lemmon to act "without the eyebrow" and other mannerisms to which he'd fallen victim and Robert Evans greenlighting the pic the day Ali McGraw dumped him for Steve McQueen. -- Colin Miller