Mister Buddwing is one of those films I knew about long before I ever saw it. I forget exactly how–I think I saw a vintage promotional film on TCM–but I also knew it had a couple of Oscar nominations, for its sets and costumes. Not because the sets and costumes were so memorable, mind you, but because it came out in the final year of the B&W/Color split for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design at the Oscars, and suitable nominees were scarce.
Wanting to finally see the film for myself, I checked it out of the library, and was not shocked to discover that it was no lost masterpiece, but an odd film with a few strong features that mostly earns its obscurity.
It begins with a man (James Garner) awaking in Central Park, unable to remember his name or how he got where he is. He finds a phone number in his pocket and calls it, and gets Gloria (Angela Lansbury, doing a rather bizarre New York accent), who calls him “Sam” and tells him to come by. Seeing a Budweiser truck and a plane passing overhead, the man assumes the name “Sam Buddwing”, but when he meets Gloria, she does not recognize him and suggests he go and find himself.
Walking down the street, he sees a young woman (Katherine Ross), and suddenly calls out to her, calling her “Grace”, but she does not hear him. He follows her to Washington Square College and waits for her, but she explains that she is not named Grace, and as they speak, he suddenly has a flashback to his student days, meeting Grace (also played by Ross) and falling in love with her, then remembers (there are scene changes and montages in his flashback) their getting married, before being jolted back to reality by a policeman, as he was apparently raving openly.
The policeman challenges him for his I.D., but unable to produce it, he is saved when the crowd around him (including a broad gay stereotype and proto-hippies) argues for his innocence, and he sneaks away unseen, though pursued by a man (George Voskovec) who tries to convince “Buddwing” that he is God and Buddwing should do his bidding. Buddwing refuses and knocks the man down, who screams for help as Buddwing flees.
He next encounters an actress, Fiddle Corwin (Suzanne Pleshette), who takes an interest in him and tries to puzzle out his occupation as a means of discovering his identity. He goes home with her, and while they are together has another flashback, this time with Grace played by Pleshette, where we see their marriage coming under strain as Buddwing (who we learn is a composer) is facing professional frustration and contemplating taking a commercial job for their sake. Grace then reveals she is pregnant, and Buddwing tells her that he must either take the job or she must have an abortion. One morning she heads out onto a bridge to commit suicide, but he stops her and convinces her they can make the world work in their favor–they’ll “be tigers and drink blood”.
Returning to reality, Buddwing leaves again, this time encountering a drunken blonde woman (Jean Simmons), who identifies him as the man she needs to find for a scavenger hunt. He joins her, somewhat reluctantly, and has another flashback–this time with Simmons as Grace–and recalls how their marriage fell apart after the forced abortion. The woman reveals that the hunt also requires her to get her name in the paper and to procure $100,000. The first can be done at a kiosk in Times Square (I think); the second at a crap game in Harlem, which a passerby (Raymond St. Jacques) informs them of.
They join the game (Nichelle Nichols is one of the other players) and start winning big, but Buddwing has a final flashback, of Grace attempting suicide, and realizes that the phone number in his pocket was actually that of a hospital in Mt. Kisco where his wife is. He leaves the game and goes to the hospital, repentantly confronting his wife’s uncle and asking to see her. Allowed a brief visit, he takes her hand (and she takes his), and the film pans over to the rising sun as the film ends, his true identity, her genuine appearance, and the reason for his amnesia never explained.
The aggravating non-ending doesn’t single-handedly sink Mister Buddwing, since it was rather a rough ride getting there, though there’s enough value in the film to make me annoyed that it wasn’t better.
There are two fundamental problems with the film. The first is that Garner is miscast–he’s good in the flashbacks, when he’s allowed to be snarky and funny and charming, which was Garner’s forte, but as the lost, confused amnesiac, he feels rather adrift, and is at times overwrought. The second is the film’s tone, which never seems very clear–is it a dark comedy, a psychological thriller, a character study? It’s too serious to be a true comedy and too goofy to be a true drama, and the utter lack of resolution could at best be chalked up to an attempt at Swingin’ Sixties ambiguity.
I wrote in my notes that I wasn’t sure if the film was intended to be offbeat, or if it was just bad. Certainly, much of the offbeat tone was on purpose; early on, Buddwing goes to a diner and chats with the owner (Jack Gilford), who assumes Buddwing is really a Jew trying to pose as a Gentile, getting off the best line¹ of the film in the process: “Don’t be ashamed you’re Jewish. Some of the finest Christians I know are Jews.” Most of the characters, indeed, are strange; Fiddle’s name (a stage name) is only the first weird thing about her, and the blonde has a line in bizarre mordant humor. (There’s also a scene early on where a cab driver describes taking a drunk young woman to a home in Oyster Bay; the behavior of the blonde later mirrors this.)
At times, the strangeness extends to the filmmaking. The first scene is done with a purely subjective camera, and it’s not until Buddwing looks in a mirror that we (and he) discover what he looks like. The device of having each of the women Buddwing encounters assume the role of Grace in his memories is an interesting touch as well, hinting at the fluidity and subjectivity of memory. There’s a French New Wave-ish quality to the editing, and the vagueness of the ending might have been intended to reflect the abstract narratives in vogue at the time (like Blow-Up). It doesn’t always work, and certainly it might have taken a more imaginative director than Delbert Mann to pull it off, but at least it gives the film some measure of distinction.
I mentioned before that it had received Oscar nominations for its sets and costumes, and kept an eye out for notable production or costume design. While both nominations were definitely a product of the shrinking pool of B&W films, at least the Art Direction nomination isn’t a total waste. There are some decent sets, especially the run-down apartment the newly-wed Buddwing and Grace live in or the various flats Buddwing visits during the day. The costumes are less memorable; there’s some sharp suits and flashy dresses, but nothing that really sticks in the memory.
Oddly enough, the film didn’t get a nomination for Ellsworth Frederick’s cinematography (though the Academy more than made up for it by nominating the great camerawork in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds). Besides the use of location filming in NYC, there are some fairly striking shots in the film, and the climactic crap game, with the single overhead light casting the characters’ faces in dramatic shadows, is extremely well-done. There are some chintzy-looking dissolves and a very bad use of freeze-frame at one point, but those are more the fault of the editor. All told, Mister Buddwing looks pretty good. (It sounds good, too; Kenyon Hopkins’ score is very solid indeed, and I’ve come to recognize him as one of the more underrated film composers.)
And, although Garner is miscast, the acting is at times really very good. Pleshette is immediately likable, odd without being quirky, and her affection for Buddwing is believable. She gives the film a boost of energy it sorely needs, and as “Grace”, she poignantly conveys the conflicts and inner turmoil which push her to the brink of suicide. If I ever do a set of my film awards for 1966, I’ll see about giving her a Supporting Actress nod. She’ll have to compete with Simmons, who gives the film her own shot in the arm. While the character is a pretty obvious plot device, she is utterly convincing at showing the profound unhappiness underneath her hedonistic behavior. It’s an unusually abandoned performance from the normally refined Simmons, but she makes her scenes come alive.
I’ve never read (or even heard of) the Evan Hunter novel the film was based on, but I do know Dale Wasserman’s script has its fair share of issues, most of which I’ve already mentioned. I was interested in Buddwing and his quest mostly because it was the matter in front of my eyes at the moment. I wanted him to find the answers so that I could get that sense of resolution. There is, of course, a lack of resolution, and while I was annoyed, I wasn’t invested enough to say I was truly angry.
That, I suppose, sums up Mister Buddwing pretty well. I cared enough to see what happened next, but not enough to move any closer to the edge of my seat. Some fine performances and a few strong scenes can’t raise Mister Buddwing above the ranks of mediocrity. More’s the pity.
¹It’s not the strangest, though. That honor goes to the exchange between the blonde and Buddwing as they head to the crap game in Harlem: “You’re not a segregationist, are you?” “Sure I am. I want to segregate all that money from its rightful owner.”