Mister Buddwing is kind of amazing. And exceptional. But only if both those descriptors are used as pejoratives. Like. Wow. What a mess it is.
What’s funny is how director Mann maybe sees what he’s trying to do with the film but doesn’t see how he’s not achieving it. The film wants to be edgy mainstream and is instead occasionally rather painfully square. Most of the problem is leading man James Garner. He hasn’t got a handle on the performance—getting no help from Dale Wasserman’s screenplay and then somehow even less from Mann. Worse, Mann uses a lot of close-ups on Garner during the movie, usually for reaction shots, and he’s never good enough. He’s rarely ever giving a passing performance. Like, he just doesn’t get the part. No one does, apparently.
Garner wakes up in the first scene in Central Park, with Mann shooting in first person point of the view. The titles roll as Garner (we’ll soon find out) goes into the Plaza Hotel and looks at himself in a mirror. Pretty soon we figure out he’s an amnesiac who remembers absolutely no details of his life. Not even his name. He gets his first name from Angela Lansbury, who he calls when he finds her number in his pocket. Lansbury’s not great, but she’s a lot of fun. And the film will go awhile without any fun. So she should be in it more.
The last name he makes up coincidentally, narrating about it. Though it makes no sense why he so desperately needs a last name other than the script is trying to make the title’s relevance painfully clear. Garner’s narration is terrible. Poorly written, poorly delivered. And then it’s gone, which is weird because regardless of it being good or not, it makes sense. Garner spends a lot of the movie wandering around Manhattan by himself. It might help to know what’s going on since his expression has three varieties of blank. Blank ought to work for the character. Wooden even. But it doesn’t, because Buddwing is so amazing in how it never works.
There’s this amazing scene where Garner has been followed by an old man—the first half of the movie is lousy with over-interested supporting players talking to Garner so there can be exposition. Garner will eventually yell about how he can’t remember his identity; almost every scene has him yelling about not remembering. So the old man (George Voskovec) wants to blackmail Garner into being his manservant. It’s a weird, dumb scene and does absolutely nothing. Doing nothing would be fine if the film wanted to do nothing and, until that point, it seems like it might not want to do much. Garner has just had the first flashback scene, with Katharine Ross appearing as Garner’s years ago love interest. He thinks he knows her—in the present—then we get this long flashback sequence of obnoxiously cut together scenes—Fredric Steinkamp’s editing is really bad, both conceptually and practically (though a lot of both have got to be Mann’s fault)—where Ross plays the woman she’s not. Just in Garner’s imagination. Only it’s unclear how much of the flashback he remembers and how much of it is just for the audience’s edification. Narration might help clear it up. Even bad narration.
Only there isn’t any. There’s Voskovec harassing Garner instead.
It’s such a bad, deliberate move. Especially since the return to the present sequence opens up the film’s periphery as far as people go; Buddwing’s New York is really empty. Except cars. Mann’s inconsistent if there are people around Garner—who never interact because the film’s just the story of one ant among millions—sometimes there are montages with people in the background, sometimes the city’s empty. But there are always cars in the distance. It’s like they couldn’t get the shot they needed so they took the one they got and it didn’t work, which is pretty much the movie overall.
Eventually Suzanne Pleshette comes into the movie and then there’s a flashback where she plays the girl Ross had previously played. Later it’s Jean Simmons. Now, the flashback sequences are written even worse than the present, because they’re hurried along stylistically, but basically they’re all about Garner becoming more and more of an abusive shitheel. Now, the film would never characterize it as abuse, but it’s scary intense. Mann and Wasserman need to keep Garner sympathetic in the present so they have to demonize the “girls” in the past. They even do it in the present when Lansbury makes a too minor but very welcome near third act return.
Only then in comes Simmons and her present tense mystery woman—infinitely wealthy and drunk and with a past sounding just like the flashbacks and Garner’s memories. At least it seems like he remembers the flashbacks by the time the movie gets to Simmons. He never really shows it, not in performance or dialogue, but Wasserman’s script definitely implies it by the third act. We just missing it, even though the movie is supposed to be about Garner finding out his identity, not the audience finding it. Instead, the film informs the audience first, Garner offscreen. Dumb. And weird.
The third act actually has potential. It’s the strangest thing. If they’d pulled off the third act, Buddwing would probably work, even with Garner’s flat performance and Mann’s jarred direction. Because Simmons is fantastic. In the present. In the past she gets into the problem Ross and Pleshette had; Wasserman writes the part something awful. But in the present, just having fun, Simmons is fantastic. Makes up for Garner even.
Pleshette is affected in the present, but still sort of sympathetic. She’s nothing but sympathetic in the past because she gets the brunt of Garner’s abuse. It’s not really interesting—her affected present day performance—but at least it’s distinctive. Ross is background in her section, which seems weird since Lansbury at least gets her scenes. Ross just gets to be stalked. But in that genial sixties way because Wasserman’s shallow.
Strange small part for Jack Gilford—who wants to convince Garner he’s Jewish because Wasserman’s script is weird in addition to shallow. Joe Mantell’s terrible as a cabbie who seemingly tells Garner an important story. Raymond St. Jacques comes off best, even if he’s poorly written. He’s in the Simmons section and gets to enjoy in its heightened quality. Nichelle Nichols has a tiny part and is phenomenal. More than anything else in the film—even Simmons, who’s stuck with Garner—Nichols seems like she’s visiting from the alternate reality’s Mister Buddwing where it’s great. She definitely gets cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s best work in the film.
Fredericks shoots a really flat New York city, seemingly unintentionally. Or is it supposed to be so dull even when it’s obviously not.
Kenyon Hopkins’s score is similarly disjointed. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s wrong. The one thing the music needs to be right about, it’s never right about, even when it’s good. But it gets bad and wrong at some point near the third act and never gets any better. Even when Simmons shows up. She succeeds in the harshest of conditions.
Mister Buddwing would need to be seen to be believed. But it doesn’t need to be believed.
Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Dale Wasserman, based on a novel by Evan Hunter; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Fredric Steinkamp; music by Kenyon Hopkins; produced by Douglas Laurence and Mann; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring James Garner (Mister Buddwing), Jean Simmons (3rd Grace), Suzanne Pleshette (2nd Grace), Katharine Ross (1st Grace), George Voskovec (Shabby Old Man), Jack Gilford (Mr. Schwartz), Joe Mantell (1st Cab Driver), Raymond St. Jacques (Hank), Nichelle Nichols (Dice Player), and Angela Lansbury (Gloria).