Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960) I went to a party the other night and a friend upbraided me, saying "Irony is so passé!"

Gosh, I hope not. That'd mean I can't enjoy
Billy Wilder films anymore.

Wilder came to Hollywood as a writer* and had great success with his scripts for
Ninotchka, Ball of Fire and graduated to directing with The Major and the Minor and Double Indemnity. Talk about a valedictorian. With the start of his directing career, Wilder concentrated on dramas with a biting humor (winning a Best Director Oscar in the process**), but with the failure of Ace in the Hole in 1951 shifted his course slightly to make more comedies with dramatic overtones, the most acclaimed being The Apartment, one of the many collaborations between Wilder and actor Jack Lemmon.*** 

The Apartment tells the story of C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Lemmon), working for a major insurance company as one of the many drones stranded behind desk and adding machinethe mammoth working pool set, a miracle of forced perspective looks like it covers several city blocks and feels like you should pack a lunch just to cross it. Crossing it is uppermost in Baxter's calculating skull. And to that end, he uses everything at his disposal, including lending his apartment as a love-nest for the married executives to pursue...outside interests. That apartment should have a revolving door on it, as Baxter must keep a scheduler as well as a well-stocked liquor cabinet. The arrangement helps him get ahead and the personal recommendations brings him to the peaked attention of the company's personnel director Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray****) who has need of the Apartment himself.

Baxter is climbing the ladder now, but it's one of the elevator operators, Miss Francine Kubelik (
Shirley MacLaine) that gets a rise out of him. They start a flirty relationship that Kubelik is a little cool to pursue, seeing as she is on a downward spiral in a relationship with Sheldrake. For Baxter, it will become a case of clashing ambitions.

The situation drips with irony: an insurance company, where the exec's juggle statistics and mistresses with no moral compasses. And the hierarchy of executive structure is paralleled to the status of folks in their private lives: the mistresses are treated with contempt if they begin to interfere with the home turf. And Baxter is literally left out in the cold every night, as the executives hedonistically burn through relationships that Baxter doesn't have the roots to start. It's only when a crisis occurs that Baxter begins to grow a conscience over the moral compromises he's making and providing.

The crisis sparks something Baxter's superiors (in everything but morals) never slow down enough to experience—a caring relationship, centered around (ironically) Kubelik in Baxter's bed. Schedules get shuffled, promises broken, and complications loom that the usually organized Baxter can barely manage all in an effort to create a recuperating stillness in a hectic personal life that comes crashing into his business-life. Conscientiousness ensues.

It seems like a fairy-tale today with current rubber-board rooms of the business-world filled with sociopaths. But, at the tail end of the 50's and the concerns of the world moving away from our boys in khaki to the boys in grey-flannel, it was a cautionary tale. Revolutions of all sorts in the '60's and plagues, both sexual and financial, in the 70's have made the film seem...one shudders at the word... "quaint."

But, that doesn't affect its wit, its insight, its charm, or high entertainment quotient. As a film it's a perfectly built comedic construction, a bon-bon exquisitely made and wrapped, with just a hint of bitterness at its core. And in the running gag that permeates the conversation of the film, it delivers its bellyful of laughs with no disconnect to the head, on its way to the heart, intellectually-wise. 

* Wilder liked to tell the story of escaping Nazi Germany and entering the United States through Mexico. When asked his occupation by the immigration official, Wilder tremulously answered, "I write movies." The Fed looked him up and down, then said "Write good ones" and stamped his papers.

** For the The Lost Weekend, Ray Milland won the Oscar for Best Actor for that film.

*** Those being Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), Irma la Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Avanti! (1972), The Front Page (1974), Buddy Buddy (1981).

**** I had MacMurray's daughter for a client once, and I had to tell her, "Ya know, your dad could play terrific bastards!" She fairly sparkled, and thanked me.

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