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Mr. Buddwing (1966) Jazz Noir


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I have posted these before but since it's recent showing on TCM lets discuss.


Oscar-winning film director Delbert Mann ( The Outsider (1961), Marty (1955) - TV, Playhouse 90, Goodyear Playhouse, Omnibus, roducers Showcase, Playwrights ‘56, Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Schlitz Playhouse, Masterpiece Playhouse) adapts Evan Hunter’s novel “Buddwing” and with the cinematography of Ellsworth Fredericks (Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Seven Days in May (1964)) and a great original jazzy score by Kenyon Hopkins (composer for Baby Doll (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), The Fugitive Kind (1959), The Hustler (1961), to create a stylized “Jazz Noir”. 


Filming in 1965, Mister Buddwing is one of those lost films that are on the cusp between Film Noir and Neo Noir. Sort of a psychological noir rather than a “crime” noir. A melancholy film that plays with time, space and your mind as the various vignettes overlap it's eerie and noirishly suspenseful, but at times darkly comic. It requires multiple viewings to fully comprehend.


The film stars James Garner in a role that really displays his acting chops in a performance far removed from his wisecracking Bret Maverick (disregard his contention that this is his worst film, he sells himself way too short). Garner plays one of Film Noir’s touchstone tropes the amnesiac. The film opens with an unfocused shot of the sky sliced diced and fragmented by bare branches . As the frame focuses and our view pans we see the branches are trees, we see buildings, and Central Park at the corner of 59th and 5th. In an homage to Robert Montgomery‘s “The Lady In The Lake” and the beginning of “Dark Passage”, the film displays an intriguing POV sequence that begins when hands “rub” the eye of the camera, it also begins a faint jazz heartbeat increasing in tempo and volume as “we” the character sitting on a park bench search frantically through out suit pockets (for identification) combing out a train timetable, a scrap of paper with a phone number and some pills. A ring on his finger has an inscription “from G.V.”. The POV sequence continues until we stumble into a mirror at the Plaza Hotel when Garner is revealed. He has neither money or ID but he does remember the name of a woman, a woman named Grace.




Using a lobby phone and giving a fictitious room number he calls Gloria (Angela Lansbury) to try and discover his identity. Gloria a divorced floozy with a heart of gold, takes pity on him and gives him money so that he can find himself. So begins his jazz odyssey through the streets of New York. 



In his quest for Grace, Garner meets three women, Janet (Katherine Ross), Fiddle (Susanne Pleshette), and The Blonde (Jean Simmons), each of the women he at first mistakens for Grace. So at first we see Garner interact with each woman in their true identities and at some point they become a vivid flashback to his relationship with Grace at different stages of his life with Grace, the starry eyed young love stage, the struggle with real life, and the consequences of wrong decisions made. All this makes the viewer a little disoriented, a little lost, exactly how James Garner's character feels throughout the movie.



The film features the neighborhoods of midtown Manhattan, Times Square, and the Queensboro Bridge as its backdrop creating a cinematic memory link to classic Noirs, The Sweet Smell Of Success, Kiss Of Death, Killers Kiss, The Unsuspected, it also seamlessly fuses with the occasional studio backlot segments. Wonderful melancholy jazz compositions accompany Garner as he wanders the streets.


The Blond


All the three actresses are outstanding in their dual rolls.


Watch for Joe Mantell’s cab driver character’s hilarious monolog then pay attention for its echo with the 2nd cab driver Billy Halop, the original leader of the Dead End Kids. Watch for Nichelle Nichols appearance as a dice player, Raymond St. Jacques as the tout for the crap game, and Jack Gilford‘s interaction with Garner in a lunch counter.

Nichelle Nichols 


The cinematography during the crap game sequence is excellent, I don't recall a crap game segment, as well done for is length, taking time to visually introduce each of the participants. It does recall the boxing sequence and the ringside vignettes from Robert Wise's 
The Set Up

Available on DVD from the Warner Brothers Archive Collection. 9/10

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Even though Garner didn't particularly like this film, I think it's pretty awesome.  Now, entertainers can knock their own performance in a role, and you can think one of three things:  1) they're right, that it was a lousy performance  2) they're fishing for compliments  3) they truly are humble about what they do, and still can't see the goodness of what they've accomplished.


The women in this film really shine.  Katherine Ross was a newbie in the film industry at this time, and she gives a solid performance.  But for me, Jean Simmons and Angela Lansbury are revelations.  I've never seen them in such roles before, especially when Gloria tells Sam in their second phone conversation to come over and she'll give him another 'hand job'!  Simmons had played a lot of upright characters in most of her films, but in this one, she's a cynical, crusty dame who's in the middle of another bender.  For Suzanne Pleshette, she displays a range of emotions in her character that you don't often get to see in her other on-screen personas.  "Mr. Buddwing" is like a jigsaw puzzle the viewer has to try and piece together based on what's happening in the present and the flashbacks   In the end, you never get to see who the real Grace is, but it gives you pause to ponder why she tried to kill herself...was the couple still struggling to make ends meet?  Was she still upset about her abortion?  Was she pregnant again and still faced with the prospect of bringing a child into the world knowing she and Sam were no better off than they were before?  Or, was she just suicidal by nature, as Katherine Ross intimated in her sequence of remembrances by Sam?


Underrated film in my book, and you're right, it probably does take at least a couple of viewings before you can sort things out.

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Thank you, midwestan and cigarjoe, for answering my question.  So Sam and Grace's relationship covers twelve years and we do not see her at the film's end at the hospital after her near suicide.  I wondered if they get back together.  The film is unusual; perhaps it will grow on me.  

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Traditionally films used some sort of visual transitional device to clue the viewer that a flashback was starting (or ending), Mr. Buddwing doesn't, which enhances the disorientation for the audience. This gives us a direct connection to Garner's situation.

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