A man wakes up one morning in Central Park with amnesia. Apart from his clothes, his total possessions amount to a train timetable, a ring engraved with the inscription “From GV” and a phone number. He does the sensible thing and phones the number he has and finds Gloria (Lansbury), a kindly lush who offers him coffee and some money to help him through.
Armed with the cash and the newly-acquired name of Sam Buddwing, he stumbles back out into Manhattan to search for his identity, but he soon begins to worry that he might be an escaped mental patient for whom the city has mounted a major man hunt.
In his disoriented travels through the streets of New York, Sam meets three women (Ross, Pleshette and Simmons) who, in Sam’s mind, represent his wife at different stages in their lives together. One of the working titles was Woman Without a Face because we never get to see Mrs Buddwing; in each flashback, the woman who triggered the memory is cast in that role.
It’s The Naked City meets A Christmas Carol, with a modern twist on Dickens being played out in a dark, seedy NYC. Ross is cast here as young love, when their relationship was hopeful and fresh; Pleshette (Garner’s costar in Support Your Local Gunfighter) represents the turning point, when pain and disappointment started to creep in; and the bitter, callous Simmons is what may be.
Director Mann is clearly in love with the dark side of the city, as he shoots New York as a claustrophobic city of dark alleys, low-rent diners and steam rising from grates on cold mornings, the city both causing and compounding Buddwing’s rising panic.
Garner shows that he’s capable of much more than light comedy in a leading role, sharing Sam’s disorientation, paranoia and anger with us. In fact, the film works best when both Sam and the viewer really don’t know if Sam’s just an innocent man or whether he really is involved in something sinister, as he himself starts to suspect. Sadly, the growing sense of unease and paranoia that’s built so effectively throughout is completely wasted by an unsatisfying and abrupt ending which doesn’t fit with anything that’s gone before.
Of the women, Simmons nicely plays against type as an amoral harlot, but the only female character with real warmth is Lansbury’s Gloria. Despite being down on her own luck (her career is a prostitute is hinted at, but never expressly acknowledged), Gloria takes Sam in, feeds and clothes him, gives him money and exhibits genuine concern. When Sam stumbles out of her apartment, I found myself wishing that he’d turn back and we could veer off into a different story, one in which we explore Sam and Gloria helping each other become whole again.