Friday, September 11, 2015

The Apartment (1960)

USA, 125 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Photography: Joseph LaShelle
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, Joan Shawlee, Edie Adams, David Lewis, Hope Holiday

It's always struck me odd that director Billy Wilder chose to shoot Some Like it Hot in black and white, because it seems like such a natural for the vivid color treatment, especially once it gets to Florida. But I have no such problems with The Apartment. Its dreariness, even set in the heart of bustling, upscale New York City, is practically its main point—that is, right after farce. Billed as comedy, sold as comedy, often played as comedy, there's not actually much that seems funny in The Apartment, and there's probably more to it than just making adjustments for other times (which can't be entirely ruled out either). "Light-hearted" is about as far as I'm willing to go and even that is misleading.

The Apartment has a kind of half-surprising connection to It's a Wonderful Life, another peculiar comedy set during the holidays. At least, formally, they both pivot on a suicide attempt and end on a New Year's Eve bawling of "Auld Lang Syne." Jack Lemmon plays C.C. "Buddy Boy" Baxter, an accounting drone in an insurance company who lives in an apartment nearby in midtown Manhattan. Partly because he thinks it will help him get ahead, and partly because he's just a nebbish at heart, Baxter makes his apartment available to certain high-ranking players in his company for their illicit trysts. What could possibly go wrong?

The year 1960 is practically the full flowering of Cold War America's neurotic "organization man in the gray flannel suit" and lots of grist here is ground out of that. It's the beginning of a high-water point for New York in terms of position and style, but the grasping and scheming within the corporate citadel has little interest in that, beyond lavishing out-of-town clients with tickets to The Music Man. These sardonic gestures are one place where The Apartment is easily recognized as comedy. There's rampant use of the Madison Avenue advertising men's reflexive "-wise" formulations, for example—"that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise," etc. Wilder looks back to a 1928 silent film, The Crowd, for the basic visual settings, notably a soul-chilling antiseptic vision of rows and ranks of desks with adding machines under fluorescent lights, manned by nervous fellows like Baxter, in white shirts and narrow ties, sweating and trying to get ahead.

Wilder puts Lemmon to much better use here than he did in Some Like it Hot, which came out only the year before. Lemmon is nigh perfect for Wilder's withering vision of America—insecure, bumbling, playing by the rules (written and unwritten), easily taken advantage of but using that experience to take advantage of others. The corporate creature, soft yet cunning. Though he rejects that in the end, Baxter remains serenely oblivious to himself as anything other than "a nice guy," and thus cannot understand how he keeps coming up the victim even as he keeps playing by the rules. He has a good heart, maybe—the movie wants very much for us to believe that, and I'm willing to go along to a point. Suspension of disbelief, and all that.

Well, it's more complicated, it's all more complicated, which is one of the great pleasures of The Apartment, whose narrative moves swiftly and surely. Baxter is a good guy compared to those who are using him, especially Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who reigns levels and levels above Baxter in the company organization. If Lemmon is a Wilder man, Fred MacMurray is even more so, based on this movie (which MacMurray reportedly regretted doing, as he was just then moving into the Disney / TV sitcom phase of his career for which he's best remembered now) and on Double Indemnity, from more than 15 years earlier. There is an unnerving calculation to the way MacMurray can somehow seem to make his characters operate in these movies that very few other actors are able to manage, and by the evidence only Wilder could bring that out. The Apartment is worth it for MacMurray alone.

But it also has Lemmon, and it also has Shirley MacLaine as the single girl Fran Kubelik in a role with lots of surprises, which she plays with lots of poise. As with Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, her haircut is intended to deliver a kind of shock of the strange future, but it turns out to be just part of a much more complex character. In the end, yes, perhaps The Apartment is too self-servingly downbeat, taking on easy targets with almost too much relish. That's why it gets branded as a comedy—for the relief. Corporatism, conformity, existential emptiness—even in 1960 its themes were not exactly new. Back of all that, however, is a handful or more of well executed character studies, people adrift in their lives and making their ways in the big city.

That's another odd happenstance of the black and white, probably more noticeable now than in its time. It makes the action seem mild and quaint, with the jokes often confusing the issue further, at least until the characters start to come clear and it becomes apparent how candid and modern the story actually is. What's dated about it is easily translated to what is dated (or "old") about 2015, because everything in The Apartment is still going on today just the way it's shown here, more or less, and always has been. That's only one more reason it's a great one.

Top 10 of 1960
1. The Apartment
2. Psycho
3. The Virgin Spring
4. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
5. Late Autumn
6. Black Sunday
7. Where the Boys Are
8. Village of the Damned
9. Eyes Without a Face
10. L'Avventura

Other write-ups: Breathless, La Dolce Vita


  1. I am delighted to see Black Sunday mentioned here ... have you ever written about it? I watched it again a few years ago and was surprised that I was kinda bored, but Barbara Steele ... well, you know. If you've ever seen Penny Dreadful, Eva Green on that show reminds me a lot of Steele.

  2. I've never written about Black Sunday. I thought it was a surprisingly strong year for lots of different kinds of horror. Not what I would have expected from 1960.

  3. Peeping Tom would be high for me.

  4. I thought I should have liked Peeping Tom more but it left me kind of cold. Might need to look again.