When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand


Center:  Nichelle Nichols, Jean Simmons, James Garner

Centuries ago a Hindu poet wrote that humans are “…a bit of sky reflected in a jar destined to shatter.”

It’s a challenging image for the mortal and immortal elements in mankind — and it also works as a symbol for our psychological engagement with movies:  after a film takes us to new, foreign levels of escape or awareness, we re-awaken to a familiar and fragmented reality as the lights come up and the end credits roll. 

Similarly, MISTER BUDDWING is a familiar-yet-fragmented film on the familiar-yet-fragmented idea of human identity.  No way does it reach the poetic level of the quote above (in the hands of a team who could develop the ideas and visuals further, it might have) but as the film’s and character’s identities unreel, the weaknesses of the movie itself prevent the audience from being swallowed up in the illusions that movies give us. Instead, we have a detachment from the proceedings, while still following the puzzled matrix of the film’s search for Mister Buddwing’s true identity.  The concept and execution of MISTER BUDDWING are strong enough to keep you watching, but the mental laziness (or lack of creative juice, or just poverty of vision and imagination) in developing the material keeps you imagining how it could have been better:  it gives you just enough breathing space where you can think about the nature of the illusions of both film and personhood. 

This is one of those movies where you ask yourself “Why am I watching this??” and you actually get some interesting answers back from the film.

I haven’t read the Evan Hunter novel BUDDWING is based on, but after the first half hour it seems that the plot is an allegory, as an amnesiac (James Garner) without identity is seeking someone called “Grace.”  Dale Wasserman’s screenplay doesn’t fully translate this allegory to the screen, but only gives the outer lining of its events and characters.  As I said, those events and characters are interesting enough to keep you from bailing on the film, but the script just goes through the motions on the surface. 

James Garner's lovable-hunk style doesn't translate well to this film.

Supporting this superficiality is the inappropriate performance of James Garner.  Garner definitely has talents as an actor, but probably hadn’t the training to get to the depths required of this character.  He plays the “lovable hunk” quite well as usual (which works with the way several women care for him as he searches for his identity) but the terror and anxiety of being a nameless nobody never registers in his work.

But to compensate for this, most of the other actors are so hypnotic that you can’t take your eyes off them:  Jack Gilford, Angela Lansbury, STAR TREK‘s Nichelle Nichols, former Dead End Kid Billy Halop as a cab driver, etc.  They all hit a high mark in their characterizations; plus I have never seen Suzanne Pleshette give a more fully developed, deeply committed performance.  Credit must be given to director Delbert Mann for these great turns by actors. 

Delbert Mann (like his homophone colleague Daniel Mann) was the Stephen Daldry (THE HOURS, THE READER) of the post-Studio Era of the 1950s.  That is, his talent was not for the visual but for bringing out great performances from his cast.  If you watch a Mann film or a Daldry film with the sound off, there are absolutely no visual clues as to what is going on in the film…the director makes you totally dependent on the spoken text to understand the scene.  That — unfortunately — is how MISTER BUDDWING unfolds, visually unfocused yet with great performances accumulating throughout the running time.

Angela Lansbury as Gloria

Thanks to filming on location on city streets, the key visual delight in the film is seeing how New York City looked in 1966.  Manhattan is definitely one of the players in this puzzle-game movie.  [Sometimes on TCM, you can catch a way-cool promotional short for BUDDWING called SEARCHERS FOR A SPECIAL CITY shot cinema-verité style for M-G-M that shows the cast and crew working in Central Park.]  For 1966 this movie really made an effort to enumerate all walks of life in the city, from hippies to Gays to the homeless and de-institutionalized.

So, if you’re curious, take a look at this movie:  read the episodes and examine the gaps.  Even while you’re telling yourself “This could be a lot better,” you can also think about the relationship between you and movies in general.  The movie allows us (like the film’s amnesiac protagonist) to examine the dislocated and searching parts of ourselves and the needs we try to have met by surrendering ourselves to the magic of movies.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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