John G. Avildsen has always been a champion of the underdog and his film SAVE THE TIGER is no exception; it is a beautiful tragedy of a man who has pushed himself mentally and physically past the point of no return and he’s fighting with all his might to claw back for a second chance. But does he deserve it; should he deserve it? He’s cheated, cooked the books, in arson negotiations – all to survive.
Jack Lemmon, in his Oscar winning performance, has never been better. He truly is heartbreaking as Harry Stoner. He navigates the waters of his hollow and inflated garment business, setting up buyers with kinky hookers, meeting with a mobster to burn his building down, and suffering from PTSD from his tour in Italy during WWII. Harry does all this, so he can survive one more year, because he is sure his business will recover – but what gain and what loss? Harry is positioning himself to enter into a never ending cycle of hustle where there isn’t a clear goal set before him – or at least one that is tangible.
Lemmon is not Jack Lemmon in this film. While his affability is certainly played on, Harry Stoner is a broken man with absolutely nothing left. His time in the sun is limited, and he knows it. Lemmon is on fire in this film, he chews up the dialogue, he briskly breezes by the camera; he is always on the move. He is looking down the barrel of his own extinction; there’s no stopping his character’s trajectory.
Steven Shagan pens a deeply layered and fertile script. It’s a construction of who Harry is as a man, while simultaneously deconstructing what it is to be a man. The dialogue written, particularly for Harry, is so stoic and to the point, he almost belongs in a hard noir genre picture, or at the very least a Michael Mann neo noir. The film is dark, perverse, and heartbreaking – yet rays of hope shine through the bleak world Avildsen creates.
There’s a kinship between SAVE THE TIGER and Avildsen’s seminal picture, JOE. While he had marked his career as the king of the underdogs, what’s more striking is a subsection of being the champion of the ones going extinct, the forgotten man. Harry Stoner’s world has rapidly evolved to him being phased out. The world doesn’t care about him, his patriotic sacrifices, or his struggles; yet all he ever wanted was a second chance.