Wednesday 31 March 2010

The Apartment (1960)

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Shirley Maclaine and Fred MacMurray

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I've long wondered about the American Dream, but not in the usual way you might expect. I've wondered about how it seems to remain consistent in its goals yet changes over time in its vision of how those goals can or should be achieved. It seems to me that the history of the United States could be written from the perspective of how its people, at any point in time, felt about what the American Dream means. The Apartment, a Billy Wilder comedy that followed close on the heels of his great success with Some Like It Hot in 1959, is all about the American Dream because it speaks to how the central character of C C Baxter achieves success, what that success really is and what it means. He finds what society tells is the American Dream only to find that it's not what was advertised and only in opting out of what society wants does he find true success as a human being.

Watch pre-code movies or read the pulps of the twenties and thirties and you'll find that heroes were always daring people living by their wits. The pre-codes gave us prostitutes and gangsters, the pulps gave us pilots and adventurers. Both gave us hustlers and journalists. Watch classic sitcoms of the fifties and sixties though and all that daring was gone, the new heroes simply being safe. They were advertising executives or military officers, successful and talented people but always people sitting on one rung of a long career ladder. They also stayed there throughout their show's runs, unlike all those pre-code journalists who were constantly being hired and fired on the strength of their latest story with huge opportunity to rise or fall great distances at any point in time. I've always felt that the heroes of the thirties would have despised the heroes of the fifties.

Perhaps this speaks to the economics of the times, as the unsteady days of depression were gone, replaced by sure but steady growth through stability, but I see The Apartment as Billy Wilder's comment on this sort of thinking, especially as he had near complete control over the entire film, as writer, producer and director. Only Jack Lemmon, who had impressed him hugely during the shooting of the previous year's Some Like It Hot, their first of seven films together, was really allowed any individual interpretation. Lemmon plays this new ideal of the American hero, who is doing what he's supposed to be doing, working hard in a massive corporation and hoping to earn his way up the ladder through his own merits, but he finds that the system doesn't play fair. He gets his promotions but only by renting out his bachelor apartment to happily married executives for their extra-marital trysts.

It's 1959 and he's C C Baxter, an insurance clerk in the big city who lives in the details but can't see the humanity or lack of it behind them. He works at the home office of Consolidated Life, as one of 31,259 employees. He works on the 19th floor, Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861. It's the sort of corporate identification that science fiction used to use to ridicule totalitarianism, with characters who were numbers rather than free men. The 19th floor works from 8.50am to 5.20pm, each floor staggered to load balance the elevators. Yet when everyone leaves, Baxter isn't among them. He stays at his desk, the lone worker in a huge and impersonal room whose design came straight out of King Vidor's The Crowd. This isn't because he wants to work unpaid overtime, it's because he's the only one of these wage slaves who can't go home.

Put simply, his apartment is taken, pretty much all the time on an organised basis that he runs out of his desk calendar and rolodex. On the 1st of November as we begin, it's taken by Al Kirkeby, an executive who calls him 'buddy boy' to his face but 'some schnook who works in the office' to his latest girlfriend. He doesn't pay for the liquor he uses, let alone the room, and he stays an hour over schedule, leaving his host outside in the rain. By the time Baxter has cleaned up the place, taken a sleeping pill and settled into bed, he's interrupted by Joe Dobisch in Administration. He calls him 'buddy boy' too and he's met a young lady in a bar who looks like Marilyn Monroe so needs half an hour apartment time urgently. Baxter gets stuck out most of the night this time because his unwelcome guest leaves the key to the executive washroom under his mat instead of his own apartment key, so he catches a cold and has to talk the landlady into letting him in at four in the morning.

What does he get out of it? Well, Kirkeby and Dobisch, along with Mr Vanderhoff in Public Relations and Mr Eichelberger in Mortgage and Loan, all promise to put in a good word with Mr Sheldrake, the Director of Personnel. Promotions are coming up and he's in the top ten. And they deliver too, because before you know it he's a 2nd Administrative Assistant with a pay raise and an office of his own. He's living the American dream and moving on upwards, but hardly the way that it's supposed to happen. Everything is surface, this film deconstructing all the squeaky clean niceties that the Production Code tried to pretend were reality and showing their dark underbellies instead, just as the pre-codes would have done but with less of a dramatic flow and more of a subversive element. The more you think about what this film says, the more it feels surprising that it was even released, let alone won the Best Picture Oscar and four others besides.

The cleverness of the script, an original one by I A L Diamond and director Billy Wilder, becomes more and more apparent over time. The only executives we meet from Consolidated Life would appear to be the epitomes of American family values. They tell us that they're happily married men who wouldn't dream of using the D word. We expect that they all live like we see Jeff Sheldrake live, with a wife and children and a house in White Plains. We can imagine the white picket fences and the dogs and all the other things that you saw on TV commercials from the fifties. Yet every one of them is cheating on their wife, taking advantage of Baxter and turning on him the moment he tries to say no to them. 'Normally it takes years to work your way up to the 27th floor,' Sheldrake tells him, 'but it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again. You dig?'

Yes, we dig. In this film everyone who society would see as a paragon of virtue is really a sleazeball underneath and that could easily include Baxter while he's playing the corporate game. He's superbly played by Jack Lemmon, who benefits from having the lead to himself this time out instead of having to share it with Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, who may technically not have done much in Some Like It Hot, but did so in the most distracting ways possible. Of course he's not hindered by having to perform in drag either. As Baxter, he spends his life saying yes to people he should say no to and he benefits cheerfully from their decadence, accepting two promotions and all the perks that come with them just for playing accomplice in their infidelities. Sure, it all started accidentally but he's the only one who can stop it and he constantly chooses not to do so. Every time he even thinks about putting an end to the whole thing, he just caves in favour of the next perk instead.

There are a string of able supporting actors, ones that I've seen only fleetingly in film but my wife know very well indeed from American television (Ray Walston was My Favorite Martian. David White was Larry Tate in Bewitched and Fred MacMurray was the lead in My Three Sons), but they're all there to support Baxter because the story is all about him and his gradual discovery of how to be what his neighbour Dr Dreyfuss calls a mensch, or a human being. Baxter gradually learns that regardless how high he rises it doesn't mean anything. He can't even get to his own bed in his own apartment on Christmas Eve. At one point he suggests to Miss Kubelik that he's the one taking advantage of them because it's got him to the 27th floor, but he obviously doesn't even believe that himself. In the eyes of society, he's a massive success, but he can't see any of it as being anything other than a failure.

If the people society would approve of are really slime, the opposite applies too. The only people at Consolidated Life who really have value to us today are those who society would have looked down upon at the time the film was made, most obviously Fran Kubelik and Baxter, once he finally works out how to become a mensch. At least these two characters are honest about who they are and the situations they're in, however naive they may be and however much they try to fool themselves. They're three dimensional characters, with strengths and flaws and substantial depth, while everyone else is merely two faced. We may urge them to change but they at least have that potential while nobody else has the depth for it.

Miss Kubelik is a progressive young lady, aptly portrayed by Shirley Maclaine in a blistering performance, even down to the short cropped hair which brings out her elfin features but was hardly conventional. She's an elevator girl who Baxter falls hard for and pursues as best he can, only to eventually discover that she's Mr Sheldrake's mistress. The irony, of course, is that he's unwittingly aiding his boss to see the woman he loves by providing them with his apartment. According to the moral standards of 1960, she's a woman of loose morals, someone who no decent man could introduce to his mother. Today, of course, nobody would make a fuss. 'I just have this talent,' she says, 'for falling in love with the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.'

What loose morals? Well, she doesn't break off with Sheldrake when she finds out he's married and she doesn't ask him for a divorce. She doesn't see a problem being found in another man's apartment, one to whom she is not married, and in his bathrobe no less. 'Just because I wear a uniform,' she tells Baxter, 'doesn't mean I'm a girl scout.' These choices end up slapping her in the face on Christmas Eve though. At Baxter's apartment, Sheldrake gives her a hundred dollar bill before heading back to celebrate the holidays with his family. You can see the implications of that cold monetary transaction resonate on her face and she remains behind after he leaves to commit suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills. That's such a pre-code thing to do but she doesn't succeed and the motivations behind our real story can kick in at last. What's more they can begin with some serious dramatic weight because of what Shirley Maclaine does during these scenes.

This was still early in her career, having debuted on screen in 1955 in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry. In fact this is so early that her younger brother Warren Beatty hadn't even made a film yet, but she'd already been nominated for one Oscar, for 1958's Some Came Running, and she was nominated again here. She wouldn't win until 1983's Terms of Endearment but the talent was obvious. As much as she was probably known best at this point for hanging around with the Rat Pack, she was a great actress who shines here above notable competition. She once said, 'Even when I was the leading lady, I was a character actor,' and that rings very true. She doesn't seem to have any need to be the star, something Wilder was no doubt blissfully happy about after two traumatic films with Marilyn Monroe.

The Apartment seems reasonably tame today, though it still tells its story impeccably, but it raised quite some controversy on its initial release. Not only does the entire story revolve around organised adultery, hardly a palatable subject for the moral arbiters of taste, but the actors cast were hardly those expected. In particular Jeff Sheldrake, the highest placed character on the corporate ladder and the most defined as utterly amoral, was played by Fred MacMurray, already known for his generally squeaky clean roles and about to become the epitome of the all American dad during his thirteen year run as Steve Douglas on TV's My Three Sons, which began three months after this film was released. He'd played dark characters before, notably in Wilder's Double Indemnity, but that always seemed against type. After this film was released, he was even attacked by a woman in the street who hit him with her purse for making such a 'dirty, filthy movie'. How times have changed!

Today, Wilder's controversial pictures aren't controversial. In fact they seem both quaint for their attention to the social mores of the times and prescient for their ability to look beyond them. This film was considered dirty by some for even mentioning a toilet, the year one was flushed for the first time on screen in Hitchcock's Psycho, but it won the Oscar for Best Picture nonetheless. It was the last black and white film to win for 33 years, until Schindler's List, yet another reason why the Wilder pictures of this era often feel like the last of the classic Hollywood movies and later Wilder pictures just feel out of time. This is the epitome of old Hollywood, full of clever writing that doesn't need to stoop to profanity, all about sex without ever once showing it, raising laughs by simple misinterpretation of what's going on. Yet at the same time it deconstructs everything that Hollywood was trying to tell society, pointing out that the pre-codes had it right and the Production Code was fake. In many ways it, and other Wilder films of the era, are the true link between what came before the code and what would come after it.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

I used to always enjoy watching this one on T.V. back in the 70`s but now i find all of Billy Wilders films to be almost completely unwatchable. By the way, i also think that the vast majority of (so-called) comedies produced by hollywood today are completely unwatchable and murderously and embarrassingly unfunny as well (just in case you thought i was picking on Wilder movies and films from that period in general because i certainly wasn`t).

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I'm with you on the modern ones. Even when I find one that I enjoy, like The Slammin' Salmon a couple of weeks ago, there are still points where it's so lowest common denominator it's almost embarrassing.