Friday, August 04, 2006

Mister Buddwing (1966)

As close readers of this fine site have surely realized, TCM aired Mister Buddwing early on August 2. To recap: Buddwing was directed by a lesser Mann, Delbert, 40 years before the second-greatest Mann released Miami Vice, and one year after the greatest Mann released the thoroughly respectable WWII Norwegian resistance film The Heroes of Telemark . But more importantly - Mr. Thomas Sweeney viewed Budd a few months back - and feverishly espoused its mastery to me over the phone. This man is my father - and so I honored him by watching it.

He explained to me he liked it for the location shooting - at Central Park, Washington Square Park, and their neighborhoods. He didn't mention how utterly weird it is. It opens with a first person POV camera sequence of a man searching through his pockets in Central Park, and then wandering into the Plaza Hotel. The action begins in earnest - after the freeze-frame mirror and swooshing credit introduces James Garner's reflection as our lead. The clues: a busted ring, phone number on scrap of paper, and two pills.

Most of the pleasures in the film come from the character actors he bumps into during his journey - the first is Angela Lansbury playing a boozed up hooker/housewife with a gloriously nasal accent. She asks him a series of questions - he can't remember shit about his identity. Then: "How do you like your coffee?" He weeps and nuzzles his head into her bosom. He can't remember his name - but its how he takes his coffee that sets him off. It's one bizarre little detail in a film packed with them.

Then he begins his journey through NY and his memory - a series of three girls he meets on the street remind him of his wife, Grace - which elicit flashbacks starring these different women. The first is the eeriest - with Garner in a sweater talking about the "slow movement in my jazz octet" to his young beloved (Katherine Ross). She says her favorite month is October because that's when everything dies - and she enjoys weeping. Then, snapped out of the memory, he wakes up screaming in Washington Square Park, whereupon a cop stops him - a crowd surrounds, and an impromptu protest is stirred up because of the cop's crackdown. This surreal imaging of a mid-life crisis most reminded me of Frank Miller's The Swimmer, with the equally stoic Burt Lancaster hiding a secret of his own while swimming in every suburban pool back to his home. A journey of a different kind. But both about the loss of idealism in the 60s and both prone to fits of camp - Swimmer with a party at Joan Rivers' place, and Buddwing with Garner trying to act like a composer (also with an insane close-up of a bum telling Buddwing he's God - and that BW should be his disciple).

It reaches it's delirious peak when Garner as Buddwing (he saw a Budweiser van and a plane once he walked out of the Plaza) hooks up with another drunk - this time Jean Simmons as a slumming rich girl. She's on a scavenger hunt and needs a tall man in a grey suit. Another thing: it's a film of bizarre coincidence - where we're never sure if Buddwing is simply mad - especially when characters start echoing each other's lines - as Simmons does when she tells her cabby he's "had the ride of his life" and shimmies on the stoop. An earlier cab driver told BW a story of a fare who did the exact same thing.

Part of the scavenger hunt is getting $100,000 and your name in the paper. At this point it starts feeling like David Fincher's The Game, as tasks become more opaque in service of some unkown destiny. To win the hundred grand - a man walks up out of nowhere and says they look lucky - and takes them to a high stakes craps game where Nichelle Nichols is raking in the dough. The camera looms under everyone in uncomfortable, sweaty close-ups, and the cut speed up with each roll of the dice, as Garner starts remembering his past with each win. It's quite mad.

The ending is ambiguous, not as deadening as The Swimmer, but certainly eerie - especially since we never see what his wife truly looks like - all we see is a hand behind gauze.

Note: it's based on a book Buddwing, by Evan Hunter (who changed his name later to Ed McBain, crime novelist, but who was originally Salvatore Lombino) - who also wrote the screenplay for The Birds.

Thanks Dad.


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