Page & Screen: Save The Tiger
Screenwriting aspirants are always taught a principle that Michael Hauge, in his book Writing Screenplays That Sell, articulates thusly:
Save The Tiger - the novel by Steve Shagan and John G; Alvidsen's film of it - can supply us with a really unique perspective on this concept. Shagan, a true Hollywood insider, appears to have written the novel and the screenplay concurrently, and the novel is indeed "everything about the main characters' lives from birth until their appearance in the story." Alvidsen's poetry of images is sufficient to get the main points across forcefully (this is a movie about having the midlife crisis), and the novel provides an encyclopedia of interesting background. There can't be too many movies that have remained so utterly faithful to the book that provided the source material. Here, the novelist's vision is reproduced with veritable 100% accuracy by the filmmaker, a rarity indeed.
Pauline Kael's book 5000 Nights at the Movies is a collection of very short reviews. The entry on Save The Tiger reads thus:
It's hard to understand how someone could so obviously and completely miss the point of a film, though of course the perspective of one's own life must have something to do with it. In my judgment this is a picture, as I said earlier, about the phenomenon commonly known as the mid life crisis. Although I haven't read it in a long time, I've always admired the book Passages by Gail Sheehy. Sheehy's often been accused of borrowing a little too heavily from the ideas of a psychologist named Roger Gould. One of Gould's main ideas refers to the years of our lives between the ages of 35 and 45:
This tumult is what the film is about - it, and Harry's inability to handle it (he is continually, silently, observationally, contrasted with his business partner Phil in this regard). Peripherally let me say here that Jack Lemmon, as Harry, gives what has to be one of the greatest performances in the history of motion pictures, and Jack Gilford, too, is excellent in the supportive/reflective role of Phil.
Anyone looking for a short summary of the story has a good start in Kael's synopsis above.
Page & Screen : Save The Tiger
Pauline Kael's book 5000 Nights at the Movies is a collection of very short reviews (many seem to be summaries of some of her full length reviews from her other books and her columns). The entry on Save The Tiger reads thus:
I don't know how it is possible to so badly miss the points and themes of a film; perhaps the perspective from which one comes is the overriding factor. In my judgement this is a movie about the phenomenon known as the mid life crisis. I'm an admirer of the book Passages by Gail Sheehy, who has been accused of borrowing a little too heavily from the ideas of a psychiatrist named Roger Gould. One of Gould's ideas refers to the years of our lives when we are between the ages of 35 and 45 He says that this is when
THIS is what the film is about, assuredly; and by the way, Jack Lemmon here gives one of the greatest performances in the history of motion pictures. The circumstances surrounding the adaptation are fairly unique in that Steve Shagan, a Hollywood insider, wrote both the novel and the screenplay concurrently. The film is essentially an outline of the novel, leaner, almost entirely faithful in those aspects that it chooses to bring to the screen. As directed by John G. Avildsen (who would later make one of the best known movies of them all, the first Rocky), the set ups are masterful I once wrote a quick review of the film on Ezine Articles that was picked up on a few different websites. I will reprint it here and then ruminate a little more fully by concentrating on the way the book goes into much more detail about things than the film does. As noted above, whatever parts of the novel the film elects to replicate, it replicates exactly, but there are considerably more characterizations, scenes and expositions in the book that flesh out the story much more fully. Many many years ago, in a screenwriting course in the Adult Ed program at NYU, I remember the instructor teaching us that we should write out reams and reams of biographical, background information on the characters that would not go into the movie and that no one else would ever read, in the hopes that this would allow us to create more living, breathing dialogue for the characters, make them more alive. Something like this is actually what the novel version of Save The Tiger is, and this is the function it serves for the movie.
"Early on in Save The Tiger the apparel executive Harry Stoner is trying to mediate a dispute in his dress factory between an ancient tailor and a young, flashy designer. The two quarrel ferociously; Harry, needing to keep both happy, tries to be diplomatic and not take sides. The designer storms off with a cruel barb to the old man: "I can't wait till they replace you with a laser beam!" All *he* means is to hurt the old man's feelings, but we take this remark, from our perspective in 2005 (the film is from the mid 70s) as a prescient comment about how quickly the world around us can change.
Just as an idea of how fast things move, let's look at another brief scene from Alvidsen's film (Rocky would be his next project): on his way into the office Harry stops on an LA boulevard to pick up a hitchhiker, a young hippie girl with nothing to do but smoke pot all day. He makes a call from his car phone, a huge contraption hooked into the dashboard with a long cord, and the girl is simply incredulous - she gapes, "My God! You have a phone in your car! Are you, like, super rich?" In just thirty years an episode goes from being so far out of the ordinary to being as ordinary as possible.
Such is life!
The plot of Save The Tiger is relatively simple: Harry and his business partner, Phil, have cooked the books in their apparel company for years and lived the high life. Now time has run out, there are no more accounting trick rabbits left to pull out of the hat, they're going bust. The solution: hire an arsonist to burn the factory to the ground, collect the insurance settlement, cash out.
Why is this so important? Because Harry is having a midlife crisis of major proportions. He screams in his sleep, remembers the names of baseball players from his youthful days in Brooklyn, recalls lovemaking scenes with his wife from twenty years ago, has mirages of his old company from World War 2 before his eyes. Upon repeated viewings one comes to understand that this is a movie about time - not clock time, necessarily, but psychological time, the time inside, Heidegger time. How you wake up one day and you're fifty years old all of a sudden and people you've known your whole life are dying all around you.
The brilliant metaphor of the title comes when Harry is walking down the street and an activist with a poster of a tiger that is going extinct calls out, "Hey mister! Wanna help save the tiger? Only a few thousand left in the world!" Even the mighty tigers die out, are not immune to the ruthlessness of time.
At the end of the film, after giving the arsonist a deposit, Harry walks slowly, in loneliness, past a park where some kids are playing baseball. One whacks the ball out of the park, and Harry gives chase and throws it back onto the field. A young player protests - "Hey mister! You can't play with us!" Harry at once seems to accept this remark, as he has not throughout - has in fact fought against accepting it. He sees himself among the youngsters playing, and comes to an understanding that only true reflection and contemplation can lead to. And we see with him."