Friday, May 18, 2012

The Apartment

When I finished watching  Double Indemnity a few months ago, I came to a startling realization: that was the only Billy Wilder movie I had ever seen!  That fact still boggles my mind; with such a prolific director who made so many noteworthy films, how could I have accidentally avoided his body of work?  Well, it's high time I changed that.  I wasn't sure which film I should choose next --- he covered a lot of ground, genre-wise --- so I just went with the film that earned him the most Oscar nominations: The Apartment.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is one of the many faceless worker bees in a New York insurance company.  Baxter is a nice guy, but he's also the type of guy who doesn't stand up for himself or really separate himself from the pack.
Insurance agencies: where unique snowflakes go to melt
The only way Baxter has found to differentiate himself from the masses of other qualified workers has been to offer his apartment as a love nest for his manager.  Well, actually, it's not his manager, it's a manager.  Well, it's not a manager singular, it's three managers.  So Baxter spends his days buried in paperwork, trying to do his job, while balancing the scheduling demands of three men unaccustomed to patience.  A typical day would have Baxter sending his apartment key to a manager (using the company's interdepartmental mail, of course), working late, and then coming home...only to wait some more, because boss man is running behind schedule.  Of course, the managers --- who seem to think his name is "buddy boy" --- aren't going to clean up after themselves or even apologize for their messes; Baxter takes it all in stride, hoping to get glowing references when a promotion opens up.
Above: Baxter and the managers of Total Bastards, Inc.
While the constant activity in his apartment makes his neighbors think Baxter is a Lothario, he actually only has eyes for Ms. Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), one of the elevator operators in his building.  Promotion day finally arrives for Baxter, but having his own office doesn't mean that he is free of lending his apartment key to his superiors.  And when he begins to lend his home to the director of personnel, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), these "favors" really begin to cause complications for Baxter.

The thing that surprised me most about The Apartment was its subject matter.  For the first half of the film, the idea of serial adulterers is played for laughs; the only consequence shown was Baxter catching cold because he had to wait in the rain while his place was being used as a hanky-panky den.  This was widely released in America in 1960, so I imagined that a Leave it to Beaver nation would get offended by a theme like this; apparently not.  The second half marks an abrupt shift in tone, as one of the consequences of adultery is shown to be suicide, and that also seems like something that wouldn't have played in Peoria, at least not back in the day.
Nowadays, though, we're all like, "Kung fu that bee-yatch"
Of course, that shouldn't impact my opinion of the movie, since I don't live in 1960s Middle America, but the tone of The Apartment definitely caught me off guard.  Honestly, with a movie poster like the one at the top of this post, I didn't expect any significant dramatic content at all.  But, you know what they say about expecting: you make an "ex" out of "pec" and "ting."  Side note: "They" are idiots.

I haven't seen very much of Jack Lemmon as a young actor, so it feels strange to admit this, but...I don't think I care for Lemmon as a comic actor in his youth.  I'm not exactly sure why, either.  Sure, he hams it up a bit, but I don't think he's any more guilty than other contemporary actors.  Maybe I just dislike his put-upon everyman character that seems to be a common theme in his early work.  Whatever the case, I didn't like Lemmon in the first half of this movie. 
Hold that thought; I'm not done with you yet
As soon as the suicide attempt happens, though, I thought he was excellent; Lemmon is extremely capable --- great, even --- at balancing humor and drama within the same scene, but when he's left to just comedy, it felt flat to me.  Shirley MacLaine was more consistent and played her character in an interesting way.  How easy would it have been for MacLaine to portray a dumb broad too innocent to know when she is being lied to?  She carried an unusual weariness in her performance that was absolutely perfect for the role. 
"I'm tired of this movie.  If I settle for you, can we cut to the credits?"
Fred MacMurray was good as the selfish boss; MacMurray really was at his best when he played against type like this.  Ray Walston was memorable as one of the many bosses who took advantage of "buddy boy," although it had more to do with his dialogue than his actual performance.  Along the same lines, Joan Shawlee sticks out in my memory as the first illicit girlfriend we see in Baxter's apartment, if only because she wouldn't stop cha-cha-ing.  Jack Kruschen was good as Baxter's doctor neighbor, even if he was a bit of an ethnic stereotype, but what I remember most about his performance was how he repeatedly called Baxter a "good time Charlie" for all the noisy romancing that he hears coming from Baxter's apartment.  I get the gist of that comment, but as far as insults go, I've heard better.
Really, he's more of a Bjorn Boring than anything else

Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote The Apartment, which surprised me.  Maybe I just haven't experienced enough Wilder, but I think it's pretty interesting that he would intentionally set himself up with such a shift in tone.  Does he pull it off?  Well, I didn't enjoy the first half of the movie very much.  It felt like the sort of fluff that Jerry Lewis would star in, and I think that it has aged poorly.  However, I really enjoyed the rest of the film.  Wilder isn't the most dramatic director in regards to his cinematography, but I really liked some of the frame compositions in this film.  I also thought it was an interesting choice to make this a black-and-white film; thanks to the almost bleak hues, it is easy to forget that this movie takes place mostly during the time between Christmas and New Year's Day.  Keeping the film in shades of grey makes the character's loneliness and desperation stand out more, but very subtly. 
Not always subtly, but most of the time
I also liked that, in many ways, the two main characters are so similar --- both are used to being lied to and treated as doormats; the only difference is that Baxter eventually gets the promotion promised him and Ms. Kubelik never becomes Mrs. Sheldrake.

As much as I enjoy the second half of the film --- I won't say it's great, but it is pretty darn good --- I just can't get over how disinterested I was in the first half.  I liked what Wilder was able to do when he mixed the serious and the humorous, and I loved the second-half performances, but when I think of The Apartment, I think of Jack Lemmon whining.  Maybe one day I will come back to this movie and, knowing what's in store, be pleasantly surprised with how the film has grown on me.  For now, though, I have to give it a fairly mediocre rating.

1 comment:

  1. I thought Lemon was great in this one. Although aged, I enjoyed his humor and the first half was not a drag for me - though the second half is definitely superior. I have seen this flick twice. I really enjoyed it the first time (but I am a sucker for Wilder) and was excited to give it a second go. Oddly, the second time around I enjoyed it less. The flow of the movie seemed disjointed (and not exclusively by the middle shift in tone and story). The only thing that I could think of is that, like you, I was very much caught off guard with the subject material the first time through, so the second viewing was less fresh and more open to criticism. Regardless, the three main performances are all home runs.