Perhaps it was something in the ether that this very under-rated Kafkaesque examination of fractured identity emerged the same year as John Frankenheimer’s equally maligned Seconds and the year after the more successful Mirage. A superb opening sequence transports us to a world of alienation and discordance, often the only sound that of a man’s footsteps.
Face unseen, yet camera in his point of view, in the early morning a man (James Garner) examines the pockets of his suit, pulling out some pills and a piece of paper with a telephone number, pulls off a ring with the inscription “from G.Y.” He begins to walk, shakily, camera still in his POV until he arrives at an upscale New York hotel and sees himself in the mirror. That doesn’t help. He still doesn’t recognize himself. Using the lobby phone, he calls the telephone number.
It’s a woman called Gloria (Angela Lansbury). She calls him Sam. She gives him her address because that, too, has slipped his memory. Visual stimuli outside make him think his name is Buddwing. Sam Buddwing has a reassuring feel to it.
But when arrives at Gloria’s apartment, she doesn’t recognize him. Though married, she “puts out” so he could be a casual sexual acquaintance. When she pours him coffee, unable to remember how he takes it, he bursts into tears.
And so begins a disturbing odyssey, “a tug of war in his mind,” as he tries to piece together his memory and find his lost self. Memory is triggered by the sight of a woman across the street getting into a cab. Instinct tells him this is Grace. He follows in another cab, encountering a disgruntled customer who tells him an odd tale about taking a drunken woman to Oyster Bay. She disappears inside Washington Square College. He thinks he might be the escaped mental patient Edward Volloch mentioned in a newspaper headline. Unasked, a man called Schwarz sits down at this table in a cafeteria and suggests he must be Jewish.
He finds “Grace” (Katharine Ross) on a park bench. Even though she fails to recognize him and tells him her name is Janet, he drifts back to his time with the real Grace who cuts his hair on a beach, runs from a downpour into a church. He tells her he wants to become a composer.
When Janet evades him he is confronted by a cop but, of course, has no proof of identity. The scene turns ugly and uglier still when chased by a vagrant and he starts to see double.
And so it goes on. He finds two more versions of Grace. On hearing of his condition, the first, an actress (Suzanne Pleshette), encourages him to “be what you want to be” while Buddwing opines “we are all impersonating an identity.” The second, a drunk (Jean Simmons) appears to be the source of cab driver’s story
The actress attempts suicide after becoming pregnant, the drunken woman takes him to a crap game, where, taking turns rolling the dice, they win a heap of cash.
All in all it’s a brilliant jigsaw, avoiding the sci-fi elements of Seconds and the thriller aspects of Mirage, but with the brooding atmosphere of both. But where the character in the Frankenheimer makes a deliberate decision to change identity and Gregory Peck in Mirage is able to put together the various pieces of his life, Buddwing simply stumbles along, totally unconvinced of his identity – at one point he is “nobody” – building up an idea of his life only as an adjunct to the mysterious Grace who keeps changing shape and personality until it seems completely incongruous that the first innocent Grace (Ross) could merge into the more blustery, sexually aggressive, Grace (Simmons).
Of course, when he does discover the truth, by random connection, that’s as shocking as anything else, shattering the somewhat idealized picture of the self he has contrived from the various jumbled meetings with the various disconnected women. Equally, the ending could be another illusion.
This might also play out as a metaphor for the screen life of James Garner (The Americanization of Emily, 1964) who had been trying to rid himself, not entirely successfully, of his previous persona as Maverick in the television series. His company, Cherokee, co-produced the picture, which smacks of the same determination to be taken more seriously as Rock Hudson with Seconds, a move that did not go down well for either with public or critics. But Garner is every bit as good as Hudson and he spends much of the film either in hollow-eyed bafflement or in idyllic circumstance on the cusp of turning sour.
Once Angela Lansbury appears, you get the sense this is going to be episodic and that the female cast will appear in the reverse order of their billing. But Katharine Ross (Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1969) apart, a newcomer, the other three more experienced actresses rip up their screen personas. Angela Lansbury (Harlow, 1965) is an addled woman of easy virtue. Suzanne Pleshette (A Rage to Live, 1965) takes her character to suicidal levels while Jeans Simmons (A Rough Night in Jericho, 1968), especially notable, essays her inner dirty-mouthed drunken Elizabeth Taylor.
And this is hardly the stuff director Delbert Mann (Fitzwilly, 1967) is made of, despite an Oscar for Marty (1955) better known for light comedy. But he never takes the easy way out, sticking it to Buddwing as a man endlessly tormented by himself. Dale Wasserman (Quick Before It Melts, 1964) wrote the tantalizing script from the bestseller by Evan Hunter (Last Summer, 1969).
A mesmerizing watch and time it was given the same retrospective treatment as the cult Seconds.