SAVE THE TIGER (John G. Avildsen, 1973)

Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his middling portrayal of Harry Stoner, partner in a Los Angeles dress-manufacturing firm who is at loose ends as he desperately tries to keep the business from going under, in Save the Tiger, a drama that’s occasionally rich but more often as frayed as Harry’s hopes and dreams. Partner Phil Greene’s “ballet with the books” has kept the firm afloat, but an I.R.S. audit is a constant threat, and now Harry is arranging for a warehouse arson to collect the needed insurance money. “The government has a word for survival,” he snaps at Phil. “It’s called fraud.”
     The film covers less than two days, but Harry’s head drifts back in time as Harry keenly feels he is being left behind. This is Richard Nixon’s America, and the current Southeast Asian war revives memories of World War II. Nothing seems to be going right for this endangered tiger; a major client, the day of the firm’s important show, is close to death after a session with a prostitute that Harry arranged for him goes horribly awry. The red paint involved is another reminder of war.
     Steve Shagan’s script, despite a few good lines, and John G. Avildsen’s clumsy, clueless direction are both at the TV-level. But two good performances matter: Jack Gilford as Phil, who is always prepared to let Harry do what he (Phil) says he doesn’t want Harry to do; Patricia Smith as Harry’s much concerned wife, Janet.
     His Oscar was largely the result of something that Lemmon did that his fellow actors admired—guiltily, since few would be caught doing this themselves: believing in the material, Lemmon performed for scale ($165 a week), to keep down production costs, thereby helping to get the project greenlighted.

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