Early on in John G. Avildsen‘s 1973 feature Save the Tiger, Phil Greene (played by the great Jack Gilford) laments to the main character, despondent businessman Harry Stoner (the inimitable Jack Lemmon), that “they” (the film industry) haven’t made a “…good movie in 30 years.” This casual disparagement of an industry comes across almost as a throwaway line. Yet, upon closer inspection, the line is also a summation of the complex themes at the heart of this terrific character study. Both the central characters in the story (business partners Greene and Stoner) are at odds with an America that they feel has been in perpetual decline, and whose best days lie in some sort of earlier golden age.

Harry Stoner is a man possessed by a nostalgic fixation on an imaginary past, a time filled with baseball games and men willing to lay down their lives for their country. Estranged from his wife, and under assault on all sides by irate buyers and feuding co-workers, Harry is a man who feels consumed by the modern world. Exacerbating all of this is the tumultuous finances of his dress-making company, which prompts him to consider arson to obtain much needed insurance funds.

Save the Tiger is an actors’ showcase. Playing the part of Harry Stoner, a cynical, financially strapped, middle-aged businessman, Lemmon has probably never been better in a dramatic sense (with the exception of Missing). Equally impressive is Gilford as Greene. The conversation pieces between the two men, where they debate the presence of morality in an American landscape, are one of the film’s main highlights.

Jack Lemmon lying on a pillow in Save the Tiger

Set in Los Angeles, the cityscape of Save the Tiger consists of dingy store-fronts, cavernous theaters and aggressive inhabitants. Clearly, Avildsen’s depiction of an American city of the early 1970s is meant to be indicative of Stoner’s subjective perspective. The city reflects his pointed disillusion with a world that increasingly seems to have little use for men of his generation and character. While the film’s depiction of Stoner’s world view is certainly hyper-realistic, it effectively communicates a great deal about the complexities of his cynicism. Three years later Avildsen would employ a similar technique to an opposite effect in the Oscar-winning Rocky. In Tiger, the citizens of Los Angeles exist primarily to hurl resentful verbal barbs at Stoner. Conversely, the Philadelphians in Rocky continually project a gritty yet kindly benevolence, a quality which strengthens the nature of the film’s theme of special people existing in the most blighted of areas.

Save the Tiger is certainly not a subtle film, with theatricality pervading both Steve Shagan’s script, the story’s metaphorical allusions (Can you guess who the tiger refers to in the film’s title?) and finally in its aesthetic choices. This is particularly apparent when Stoner experiences a debilitating vision of his wartime experiences. While this attribute does occasionally make the film feel like it’s pandering to its audience, it remains a forgivable quality because the film has so much to say. Shagan’s script covers a lot of ground, including the previously mentioned debates on moral conduct in one’s professional life, but also the gap between generations, expressed through Stoner’s run-ins with an affable albeit aimless hitch-hiker (played with an appropriate level of stoned-out, hippie warmth by Laurie Heineman).

Still, what truly makes the film click is Lemmon’s intense and powerful depiction of a man who has lost sight of what gives life value, and whose confidence in being able to control his own destiny is rapidly evaporating. Lemmon controls every scene he’s in; he’s flat out fascinating to watch. From his anxious stalking through the bowels of his company’s production facilities (which are partially captured in an impressive, gliding, single shot) to his unhinged babbling while under the influence of good ol’ fashioned grass, Lemmon paints one of cinema’s great portraits of a common man under extreme personal, professional and even existential duress. He deserved his Oscar win and then some.

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An underrated yet quintessential 1970‘s character study, Save the Tiger is marred only slightly by possessing a subtext which feels overly simplistic and obvious. However, Lemmon and Gilford’s powerful performances, paired with Avildsen’s assured direction and Shagan’s rich script, deliver a complex, adult drama about trying to find value and morality in an age of changing mores and perpetual transition.

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