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The Forgotten: Who Am I?

Delbert Mann's amnesia drama _Mister Buddwing_ sees James Garner in search of his true identity in New York City.
David Cairns

Bad news for storytellers: the kind of movie amnesia we're used to, in which somebody wakes up and can't remember who they are, doesn't exist in reality. If you've lost you're memory so far back that you're name is gone, you'd also be unable to talk and probably unable to move about. The only time we forget who we are, possibly, is in dreamless sleep, but who knows what's happening then?

Still, filmmakers have made entertaining use of this fictitious complaint (lost time is real; lost identity is not), and Mister Buddwing (1966) is a good example. Waking up in Central Park, James Garner can't recall who he is, even though it's obvious to us that he's James Garner. Taking a temporary name from a passing Budweiser truck and the wing of a plane, he follows the only clue in his possession, a phone number, which leads him to Angela Lansbury, who doesn't know him. Desperate and confused, he fixates on every woman he meets, convinced each of them is "Grace," the only person he can sort-of-remember.

This leads to the film's neatest device, a series of flashbacks of Garner's life and marriage to Grace, in which Grace is played by a different actress each time (a very young Katharine Ross, the spunky Suzanne Pleshette, and the boozy, blonde Jean Simmons). It's all very intriguing and original, and director Delbert Mann's snazzy visuals maintain the disorientation.

This particular Mann is overshadowed by two other Menn, Anthony and Michael, though he still has the edge on Daniel, the poor man's Mann. His groundbreaking hit Marty (1955) seems a little less appreciated today, and even compared to other directors who broke out of TV at the same time, Mann rather lacks a defining personality as filmmaker (though James Garner crops up a fair bit).

Still, the TV experience seems highly relevant, since the film travels light, going handheld, zooming and whip-panning, chopping up sequences into quick cuts to create stream-of-consciousness effects. A climactic craps game in which Garner seems to be playing to win his life story back from oblivion is a thrilling bit of high-stakes time compression. And the supporting cast, many of them familiar TV faces (George Voskovec! Nichelle Nichols!), add copious quirky personality. Maybe too much?

The film is based on a novel by Evan Hunter (a.k.a. Ed McBain), who scripted The Birds for Hitchcock, and simultaneously exploits the author's gift for tightly-plotted mystery, his ambition to be a serious literary talent, and his fondness, also apparent in his Hitchcock work, for screwball comedy. Everybody Garner meets is an adorably screwy New Yorker, a dizzy heiress on a scavenger hunt or a philosophical cabby or a chatty cafe proprietor... It could get to be too much if your whimsy threshold is low. 

Where Hunter scores is in his plot mechanics, since the apparently insoluble and surreal puzzle does make sense in the end, but his attempt to write a marriage across twenty years, and dramatize a musician's commercial sell-out, is rather plodding and unconvincing. But Garner helps, with a typically sympathetic turn that stretches the actor more than he usually allowed to happen (he's apparently never watched The Children's Hour, so uncomfortable was he with the emotions displayed). His childlike confusion is very touching.

If the backstory isn't 100% convincing, there's nevertheless something very interesting going on: ultimately it's about a man who genuinely loses his identity long before he loses his memory, and there's resonance in that.

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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