Sunday, March 1, 2009

Film Ignorance #28: The Apartment

Film: The Apartment
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
Year: 1960
Reason for Ignorance: Never got around to it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Not only could Billy Wilder do no wrong, he could do no wrong in any genre he put his mind to. He was one of the greatest noir filmmakers of all time, and one of the greatest romantic comedy filmmakers of all time - one of the least comprehensible developments I can imagine. In all of Hollywood history, only Howard Hawks showed a greater ability to do more genres with such skill (Hawks films would be in my top 10 for the gangster, romantic comedy, screwball comedy, noir, and western genres, without ever having to use the same film twice).

So it is with some consternation that I tell you that The Apartment is brilliant, and I have no idea what genre it represents. It doesn't seem that romantic, it's certainly not very screwball, it's probably not a comedy at all, but I wouldn't want to call it a melodrama or just plain drama. What it really is is the premise for a crappy sitcom that's been turned into a damn fine movie.

C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) is a young corporate insurance employee. He's a good worker, but surrounded by thousands of other good workers, so his future wouldn't be bright - except for the fact that he's got an inside track on promotion. He keeps his apartment furnished with cheese crackers and liquor, and allows four of the company's executives to use it whenever one of them wishes to spend a little time with his girlfriend before going home to his wife. This means that Baxter gets great recommendations to the company's top HR guy.

Unfortunately, the HR guy Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) knows something is up, and will only give Baxter the promotion if he gets a piece of the apartment action. That's fine with Baxter, who finally gets up the nerve to ask out the object of his desire, the elevator girl Ms. Kubelik (MacLaine). She says yes, but eventually can't make it, because she winds up, you guessed it, at Baxter's apartment with Sheldrake.

That's the sitcom element here, but the dramatic irony isn't pitched for dumb laughs. It's actually heartwrenching stuff; the lovable Baxter pines after the unobtainable Ms. Kubelik, while the vulnerable Ms. Kubelik carries on a thankless affair with Sheldrake, who promises to divorce his wife and marry her in one of the least plausible lies ever. From there, the plot twists and turns; I won't spoil the fun, but Wilder's gift for dialogue and plotting is on full display.

Each of the the actors fits snugly into their role, as if they were meant to play them. Lemmon, a Wilder favorite, is charming in his classic persona: an affable, nervous fellow, a sort of low-key pre-Woody Allen, who overthinks things, lets himself get walked on, but through it all produces a string of pretty funny jokes. And MacMurray, another Wilder favorite, brings his full charm to exactly the sort of smarmy, so charming that he must be insincere role that Pierce Brosnan currently specializes in. Brosnan is great, but MacMurray is the all-time king; amidst the career deterioration that included Flubber, Son of Flubber, The Shaggy Dog, and My Three Sons, this movie stands out as a triumph.

But this is Shirley MacLaine's movie. I'm not sure I've ever seen an actress so at home with herself. Ms. Kubelik is an acting challenge: to most of the company she's the unobtainable ice queen, to Baxter she's a charming and almost obtainable girl next door, and for Sheldrake she's an emotional wreck, strung along by a career player because she's talked herself into believing in him. MacLaine embodies all of these aspects of this complex woman; she's both achingly available and achingly unobtainable. In her elevator outfit she's a forbidden treat ogled by the entire company, with Sheldrake she's a vulnerable woman, but with Baxter she's just herself. She comes to life when asked to do the least - to just sit, and talk, and be with him. The whole movie, in fact, could be described that way: it confounds genres and offers a complex resolution because, for all its high concept premise, it's about real people trying to make their way through the world, through love. There are relatively few movies that can say the same.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.


MovieMan0283 said...

Great review, Graham.

I like this movie a lot - at one point it was my favorite Wilder (not sure if it's now this or Sunset Blvd. - but I'm planning an upcoming series on my favorite movies, and this wasn't going to on it; you've just reminded me why that's probably a dumb idea...)

Graham said...

Glad you enjoyed the review! Have you been watching Mad Men? I'm a third of the way through the 2nd season, and it's amazing how much it has in common with The Apartment, and how it is also simultaneously a soul-crushing tragedy and a light comedy, although it seems harder to view Mad Men as purely a comedy. Of course, it also seems very hard to view The Apartment as the pure comedy it was originally.

As for Wilder, god, yes, he's amazing. I'd still probably choose Sunset Blvd, but what a tough choice.

MovieMan0283 said...


I try to get involved with TV shows. Partly to do with my wounded snobbery - movies are better, I mumble and curse to myself, like the drug-addled homeless man as my well-dressed friends ignore me and proceed to the New Mecca of 00s television, leaving the cinema in droves - but in larger part, because I don't want to get hooked. My friends already hooked me onto Lost which isn't even that good, but which I watch regularly week to week. I don't want to get pulled into a series, and be able to watch less films!

But I have heard good things about Mad Men. Perhaps eventually I will bite the bullet and get drawn in...

aa said...


nitin said...

romantic movies are my favorite one and i like watching those. even i read your blog because of this reason.and i found it interesting.
Romantic Movies

movie actors said...

The Apartment really surprised me. The Best Picture winner starts off right in the middle of the action, but yet the first hour seems long and overrun.

ad said...

Nice blog