By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Arson is the solution.
Harry Stoner (Jack Lemmon) seems to be the embodiment of the American Dream living in a large house in an exclusive neighborhood and driving a fancy car, but underneath the facade he’s struggling. His apparel business is on the brink of financial collapse and he decides along with his business partner Phil (Jack Gilford) to torch the place so they can collect on the insurance money, but the closer they get to the date the more despondent he becomes.
The producers realized upfront that this was not going to be an audience pleaser and therefore made it on a small budget with Lemmon agreeing to waive his usual fee and instead working for scale, which at the time amounted to $165 a week. The effort though paid off as this film is able to tell its story with unflinching honesty without having to make the usual compromises in order to gain mass appeal.
What I really liked is how the main character gets attracted to the tantalizing aspects of corruption just like the world around him as opposed to how it’s done in most other films where the protagonist somehow manages to rise above the fray and remains magically immune from the corruptible forces. What’s even better is that it shows how sometimes even good people can be driven to do bad things especially when up against a system that is cold and unyielding.
John G. Avildsen’s direction has a nice day-in-the-life feel especially the way it captures Harry’s routine at work and all the contrasting personalities and egos he must deal with as well as a hectic and seemingly never ending pace. I also enjoyed Harry’s hook-up with a hippy (Laurie Heineman) and how despite their vast age differences and perceptions they’re still able to form an interesting bond. How a transient woman who has worked no job could somehow get a house sitting opportunity at a dreamy Malibu pad is a good question, but the scene there between the two is one of the film’s best moments and Lemmon’s raw meltdown at that point is what most assuredly netted him the Oscar.
I enjoyed Gilford’s performance as well and was impressed seeing him in a rare dramatic role, but his character seemed more like a metaphor to Harry’s conscience than a real person and his constant yammering about arson being a federal crime becomes redundant. Harry’s mental breakdown onstage brought unneeded surrealism to a film that otherwise pushed hard for gritty reality and the result is jarring. Having him see images of his dead army comrades sitting in the audience looks inauthentic as their dead pale faces appear to be covered with nothing more than theatrical make-up.
It also would’ve been nice had there been some conclusion to the arson scenario. The viewer is left hanging with the idea that they will go through with it, but nothing is conclusive. I realize with the budget restraints that showing a burning building as the final image would’ve been difficult but helpful and giving us some sort of hint whether Harry and his partner were able to pull it off, or got caught would’ve been nice too. Besides Thayer David, who plays the arsonist, is so good in his role that he should’ve been in more scenes anyways.
Overall though I liked the cynical tone and how the script doesn’t pull any punches while it paints a terse, vivid portrait of the so-called American Dream and how those that appear to be living it aren’t always so happy.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: February 14, 1973
Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes
Director: John G. Avildsen
Studio: Cinema International Corporation
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube