Thursday, July 21, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 80
Writer: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Director: Billy Wilder
Star: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
The apartment in “The Apartment” is nothing special. The air conditioner that may or may not work sits next to a relatively comfortable couch, but other than that, there are no bells or whistles to be found. The walls are paper thin, and the paper on those walls is slowly peeling off. You need a match to light the gas oven. There’s no closet space anywhere to be seen.
Upon first glance, you might also say that C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is nothing special. One of the hundreds of drones working in an unfriendly office space, he’s not rich. Or overly handsome. Or has any family or close friends to speak of. But he’s ambitious in his own way. Baxter is more than willing to whore himself out to get that three-window office next to the big boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sure, he’s not technically a prostitute, but he regularly allow strangers into his apartment for hours at a time to have their own trysts in order to get ahead at work. It’s all the annoyances of prostitution without the warm bed.
His fate is destined to cross with the wonderfully named Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator who wears flowers and likes that he takes off his hat in the elevator. She also happens to be having an affair with Mr. Sheldrake, who is married. Things begin to get complex.
Most Billy Wilder movies seem to exist out of time and place, perhaps because they are so singular. It’s a shame, then, to see that sections of “The Apartment” have dated rather badly, and not just because the main characters’ jobs are antiquated. Perhaps it’s because so many of the film’s conceits have been copied so often since the film’s release. We sense a familiarity with so many of Wilder’s (along with his co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond) tricks that we wish the pace would pick up. Anyone who’s seen a romantic comedy or a telenovella knows just about everywhere the story will go (with one exception), making the build-ups to the major reveals moot.
It’s not hard to figure out, for example, that the woman Mr. Sheldrake wants the apartment for is Miss Kubelik. Or that his secretary is his old flame. Or that he’ll fire her and she’ll tell his wife. And how many almost identical sequences have we seen to when MacMurray makes promises that he’ll leave his wife soon? For me, the worst offender is in the third act, but we’ll get there soon.
The one moment that still works viscerally is Miss Kubelik’s attempted suicide. The build-up to the moment is heartbreaking, and the long sequence where Baxter finds her in his bed, becomes increasingly alarmed and finally, desperately, goes to his doctor neighbor for help. We cringe when the doctor repeatedly, violently, slaps Miss Kubelik to get her to wake up.
Of course, one could (successfully) argue that the suicide-attempt and later intimation that Baxter is also suicidal are pretty out of line with the tone of other scenes in the movie, such as the one where Baxter is in what he thinks is a job interview and gets so excited he squirts an entire bottle of nose spray across the office.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on the movie because, honestly, there is a lot here to love. Even taking into consideration the tonal shifts and (sadly) dated nature of much of the movie, which adds a level of predictability that was not there upon first release, I still enjoyed it. Really.
Another touchstone of Wilder’s films is his careful characterization of his women. I’ve already written about my love for Betty and Norma in “Sunset Blvd.” and Phyllis in “Double Indemnity,” so you won’t be surprised to know that Miss Kubelik is no exception. She isn’t a fluff sexbomb who just wants a husband. She’s in love with Sheldrake, damn it, and has her eyes open about the amount of pain the relationship is going to cause her (“When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.”). Wilder is subtle about the way her relationship builds with Baxter, never giving us “big” moments or “easy” chemistry scenes together. We may hate parts of Miss Kubelik, but we still grow to love her, thanks also to MacLaine’s aces performance.
Lemmon is also very good as Baxter, though most of the shifts in tone stem from his few moments of overacting (singing while making spaghetti, the aforementioned nasal spray bottle). When his character gets drunk alone on Christmas Eve, Lemmon does not overdo his drunkenness, a blessing after seeing how far over the top he went in “The Days of Wine and Roses.”
Wilder uses the space and shadows of the apartment well as a contrast to the bright, over-stimulated office environment. His camera here is much more subtle than in many of his other films, and it suits the movie well. The black-and-white is stark and uninviting, underlined when Wilder purposely places us in locations (Broadway, the Chinese Restaurant) where we would normally expect warm, blazing colors.
Despite the intricacies of the screenplay and how well Wilder sets things up and pays them off (however predictable this may be today), for me the false ending of Miss Kubelik going back to Sheldrake (after she almost committed suicide, no less!) and Baxter getting that swanky job on the top floor doesn’t work. It feels like the token bad romantic comedy moment that sets up the sweeping ending more than anything else. Perhaps this is because Wilder has set up the journeys of both characters so well and strengthened them palpably over their time shared in the apartment…but it just doesn’t feel right. Ah well, at least we get this amazing closing line out of it: “Shut up and deal.”
Sure, “The Apartment” might seem a little ordinary today, like the title abode in the movie, but there’s still more than enough to recommend. Even though all the trappings here are familiar and have been copied hundreds of times, that does not mean that they have been done better than they were here.
My Score (out of 5): ***1/2