The 1973 feature Save The Tiger won an Oscar for Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), plus nominations for Supporting Actor (Jack Gilford) and Original Screenplay (Steve Shagan, who also produced). As is often the case, Lemmon and Shagan seem to have been honored as much for the quantity of their work as its quality. Save The Tiger—which has just been released on a frustratingly no-frills DVD, sans even the requisite trailer—is an extraordinarily dense film, not just in terms of the sheer volume and speed of its excessively wordy dialogue, but also in the sheer preponderance of ideas being shoved down the audience's throat.
On the surface, the film might appear to be about one extraordinarily stressful day or so in the life of a Los Angeles businessman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But it never allows viewers to forget that it's also about the ethics and morality of capitalism—capitalism as warfare, capitalism as prostitution, and the conflict between a rosy, idealized conception of nostalgic American innocence and the raucous, irreverent rebellion of the counterculture. It's the kind of movie that never allows subtext to simply remain subtext. It underlines its metaphors and themes, then follows them with rows of exclamation points, just in case those in the cheap seats might miss them.
Of course, it helps that nobody ever conveyed the clammy desperation of patrician WASPs quite as indelibly as Lemmon, who stars as the co-owner of a struggling garment company. Over the course of about a day and a half, he helps secure prostitutes for a lonely client, orders the arson of one of his factories, wigs out while giving a speech at a fashion show, and has sex and smokes pot with a hippie space cadet whose idea of seduction is blurting out "Wanna ball?" He also talks obsessively about jazz and baseball, two subjects that connect him with his romanticized childhood, far from a sick, sad adult world spinning madly out of control.
On top of everything else, Lemmon has to deal with a nasty case of post-traumatic stress disorder. But Save The Tiger creates such a corrosively acidic portrait of the compromises and corruption endemic in the business world that it's hard to tell whether he's haunted by the dead bodies he witnessed in World War II, or the inhuman pressures of launching the previous spring's line of sporty casual wear. Save The Tiger is overwritten and overstuffed, but frequently gripping and infused with grimy period detail and sweaty intensity. In particular, Lemmon's beautifully modulated performance helps make it a worthy addition to the canon of films about how the system can drive ordinary citizens insane.