Mister Buddwing (1966): A neo-realist astringency

Mister Buddwing (1966)

Mister Buddwing is a late monochrome portrait of amnesia played out in almost surreal fashion on New York City streets.  There is only a tenuous connection with noir, and this relates more to the loss of identity trope than a broader concern with alienation in the modern metropolis.

James Garner wakes up in Central Park with amnesia. The only clues to his identity are a couple of pills, a phone number scrawled on a slip of paper, a train timetable, and an engraved cygnet ring. He is well-dressed in a suit and tie, and well-polished brogues. The opening scenes are from the protagonist’s POV, as in Dark Passage and The Lady in the Lake, until Garner sees himself reflected in a glass door. Embarking on a search for his identity he rings the telephone number and begins a day and night spent traversing the city and encountering a series of women he strangely mistakes for a woman called Grace. Meantime he gives himself the moniker of  “Sam Buddwing”. The encounters and the city’s streetscapes grab your attention.  Overall the script is uneven with the overarching story weaker and less convincing than the episodic vignettes that propel the action.  It is these episodes that entertain, with some rally sharp absurdist humor, and great cameos from the actresses who variously portray the women Sam pursues.

The film is best described as a crazy dream disturbed by waking moments of  lucidity and lapses into banality.  Garner as Sam has a certain charm but his less than stellar performance means the heavy load is carried by the other players.  The first encounter is with the scruffy dame who answers Sam’s phone-call, played nicely by an ageing Angela Lansbury, who “puts out” offering the guy coffee, a hug, and some lucre; and sends him on his way.  A hungry Sam then has an hilarious breakfast with the Jewish owner of a hash-house.  Followed by a taxi-ride – a deftly written and sharp New York cabbie vignette – with Sam pursuing a female college student (Katharine Ross), who he thinks is his wife Grace. This interlude is the weakest with an overly long and overwrought fantasy sequence, but is redeemed by a coda that brings together a menagerie of Greenwich Village types; a hapless cop, nascent hipsters and beats, a gay guy, and a vagrant who thinks he is God – “really Kooksville”. Sam then hooks up with a quirky young off-broadway actress payed beautifully by Suzanne Pleshette.  She breathes real life into the picture at this point with her beauty, her charm, and her street-smarts.  While the fantasy episode this woman provokes tends to melodrama, Pleshette invests the sequence with a real pathos. Finally, Sam encounters a wealthy lush who likes to slum it in taxis, played with relish and boozy charm by a blonde Jean Simmons.  The best scene in the picture then follows when Garner and the blonde crash a high-stakes crap game  in a low-rent gambling den. This is a darkly-lit bravura sequence where the camera of DP Ellesworth Fredericks goes into contortions. The bit-players do a sterling job in creating the emotion and rising delirium of being on a roll.

The movie has received a bad rap from critics, including a withering review in the New York Times on its release.  There are deep flaws, yes. The direction could have been tauter and the screenplay less melodramatic – the final scene is overly cliched and a let-down. But what director Delbert Mann and cameraman Fredericks have done is created a memorable portrait of a great city with both its grandeur and its desolation, together with a cavalcade of worthy denizens that give a real flavour of the zeitgeist.  There is certainly also a high degree of elegance and craft in the intelligent use of close-ups, tracking, aerial, and low-angle shots that command and sustain visual interest. The outside deep-focus scenes have a neo-realist astringency and sad beauty, and many compositions linger in the memory.  An edgy minimalist jazz score by Kenyon Hopkins adds a nice contemporary feel.

A must-see portrait of New York on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties, which follows in the tradition of films like The Naked City, Odds Against Tomorrow, and Sweet Smell of Success.

Thanks to Cigar Joe for the heads up on this recent Warner Archive DVD release.

5 thoughts on “Mister Buddwing (1966): A neo-realist astringency”

  1. “But what director Delbert Mann and cameraman Fredericks have done is created a memorable portrait of a great city with both its grandeur and its desolation, together with a cavalcade of worthy denizens that give a real flavour of the zeitgeist. There is certainly also a high degree of elegance and craft in the intelligent use of close-ups, tracking, aerial, and low-angle shots that command and sustain visual interest.”

    Tony, you should be proud of this review. It’s one of your very best, and will remain a textbook example of how to shed the padding, and make riveting use of every observation and every vital component that frames this films exceptionally well. As it is I have not seen this film (neither has my site colleague Allan Fish in fact), but I do know quite well the neo-realism of American cinema in the 50’s and the work of Delbert Mann, whose affecting study of a butcher and his first love, MARTY, is a benchmark in this type of slice-of-life chronicling. I know the locations here of course quite well, living right outside the city, and the ethic-social milieu you so compellingly describe. And I know the kinds of people who frequent these areas. Sorry to hear that Garner, a usually reliable actor, is not exceptional, but I am not at all surprised that Pleshette gives a great performance in some of the films most unforgettable scenes. The subject did make me think of D.O.A., as well as the films you rightly recall in your final sentence. I am also thinking here of the location-dominated LITTLE FUGITIVE, set in and around Coney Island in Brooklyn. Kenyon Hopkins’ jazz score does have me excited alone to see it, as well as the deep focus “dreamy” camerawork of Ellesworth Fredericks. I also applaud Cigar Joe for his sharp-eyed attention to the Warner Archives releases, which I normally keep close watch on. It’s clear enough this is an essential acquisition for all kinds of reasons.

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  2. More folks should try and catch it, TCM shows it occasionally, but its great that it’s now available on DVD, and it really is a film that needs multiple viewings to fully comprehend.

    Its one of those films on the cusp between Classic Noir and Neo Noir with similar elements that I get a gut feeling for that seem to be sui generis.

    Other candidates could possibly be (I’d have to watch them again):

    “Requiem For a Heavyweight”
    “A Streetcar Named Desire”
    “The Fugitive Kind”
    “On The Waterfront”
    “The Hustler”
    “Walk on the Wild Side”
    “Anatomy of a Murder”
    “Le salaire de la peur”
    “The Pawnbroker”
    “Cape Fear”
    “The Manchurian Candidate”
    “I Want to Live!”
    “A Face in the Crowd ”
    “Psycho”
    “Carnival Of Souls”

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  3. Thanks Sam! Don’t know how I didn’t recall D.O.A. I will have to check out LITTLE FUGITIVE – never heard of it?
    I may be a bit hard on Garner. He has an earnest goofiness, which just may be how the character should work.

    Thank Cigar Joe for the list, which includes some titles I need to investigate.

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  4. Glad to see the appreciation for this vastly underrated movie.

    The one element many have missed is that Garner’s “amnesia” is caused by severe PTSD. Two people I know with the condition happened to be with me when it played on TCM. They recognized Buddwing’s confusion and mind paranoias right away. The depiction, they said, was right on target. And Garner’s portrayal on point.

    I think that this against-type casting is what put people off: Garner, notoriously private, and who trademarked a wisecracking persona in the majority of his roles, is more different here than in any other character he played.

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