17/06/2010

The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder's follow-up to Some Like It Hot (1959) again stars Jack Lemmon, this time as C.C. Baxter, a New York insurance drone who works his way up the career ladder by loaning out his apartment to senior executives as a base from which they can carry on their extramarital affairs. The inevitable complications ensue when Baxter falls for his firm's kooky elevator girl, Fran Kubilek (Shirley MacLaine), only to find she's involved in a tortuous relationship with his oily, imperious boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, returning to Wilder for the first time since Double Indemnity, 1944).

Building on a slightly sleazy premise, The Apartment turns out to be a touching, thoughtful meditation on loneliness in the city and the pressures of corporate conformity, an important touchstone for fans of AMC's magnificent Mad Men (2007-). There's no suggestion that Baxter has any voyeuristic interest in what goes on behind his own front door - his intentions are purely mercenary - but the character could easily have developed into an unappealingly misanthropic vulture, an Upper West Side variant on Uriah Heep, glorying meanly in the hypocrises and weakness of his superiors. That he doesn't owes everything to Lemmon's sensitive, charming and sad portrayal. Baxter's domestic routine and fastidious tidying up anticipates The Odd Couple (1968) but this bachelor makes for an altogether blokier protagonist than that film's Felix Ungar, straining his spaghetti through a tennis racket and channel hopping impatiently as he stabs away at a TV dinner. Critic Louis Giannetti said of Baxter, "He's both a schnook and an opportunist, a victim and a victimiser. But in the end, he prefers being a mensch to being a swine. He's Wilder's portait of the loser as a winner, with more class than he realises." Lemmon is always watchable and gives one of the greatest ever portrayals of a man with a cold this side of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Wilder himself once said of his star, "There was a little bit of genius in everything he did."

The elfin MacLaine is also lovely, as sweet here as she was in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955), and handles some spectacularly loveless scenes with MacMurray beautifully, not least the exchanging of Christmas gifts: she gives him an LP by a Chinese pianist who gigs at their favourite restaurant, he gives her a $100 bill. As in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder again has his leading lady attempt suicide to further the plot, but the subject is sensitively played and adds enormously to the melancholy strain that underscores the film. The scene in which she and Lemmon play gin rummy, his heart breaking at her plight and inability to love him in return, is quietly devastating.

There's wonderful comic support from Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens as Baxter's jovial Jewish neighbours (he wants Baxter to leave his body to medical science, she thinks chicken-noodle soup is the answer to everything, even attempted suicide), Edie Adams as bitchy secretary Miss Olsen, the return of "Sweet Sue" Joan Shawlee to tear up the office party and the hysterical Hope Holliday, who picks up the drunken, bowler-hatted Lemmon in a bar on Christmas Eve and talks incessantly about her husband, a crooked jockey imprisoned in Cuba for doping a horse. Of the innumerable great lines in I.A.L. Diamond's script, I liked this one most from a tearful MacLaine: "When you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara." Lemmon would make a further five pictures with Wilder, including a reunion with MacLaine in 1963's Irma La Douce.

2 comments:

  1. I'm going to have to watch this movie again, because it gets so much love. The last time around for me, it just seemed to have a weird vibe. Misogynistic? Or maybe, as you characterized the premise, "slightly sleazy."

    Then again, I've never cared for the whole Lemmon acting persona much.

    Good review, though!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Joe,

    Thanks very much for reading - I think you're absolutely right about the "weird vibe". Baxter is definitely something of a parasite - though how nakedly ambitious he is for his career is left largely unanswered. He clearly enjoys his new office and bowler hat but is that really what he's after? I'm not so sure. I guess if you don't warm to Jack Lemmon then this could be a pretty troubling and bleak experience even though it is generally packaged as a comedy.

    ReplyDelete