Friday, January 23, 2009

The Apartment

Written by: I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder
Directed by: Billy Wilder

When it comes to classic American directors, has anyone aged as well as Billy Wilder? Where Orson Wells' masterpieces have become overshadowed by the mythos of Welles' martyrdom, Wilder's classics-- from his wild comedies to his pitch-black film noirs-- stand on their own, without the endless stories of behind-the-scenes intrigue that inflate expectations and distract from the films themselves. Thus, while Wilder is certainly inferior to Welles (though I use that term very carefully), I'm much more likely to pop in Ace in the Hole or Some Like It Hot than I am Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil (though, and I know I'm overstating this, I can watch those films over and over as well). One such film with resonating entertainment value is The Apartment.

Hot on the heels of his smash hit Some Like It Hot, Wilder decided he wanted to work with Jack Lemmon again, so he and I.A.L. Diamond drew up another comedy, this time about C.C. Baxter, a lonely man who must let his co-workers stay in his apartment during the holidays. The Apartment, though very much a comedy, deals with the very dark subject of such a man, a person for whom Christmas means a time of crushing loneliness, a reminder of happier times long gone. It's a tough role for someone to pull off and gets laughs, but Lemmon handles it magnificently.

Baxter has no friends nor family, and wants a promotion just so he can have something, a place away from the workroom where he and every other desk jockey sit lined up in columns that seem to go on forever. If you gave all these people a pitchfork they could storm a castle. The executives who use his apartment slap him on the back and give him effusive write-ups which, despite the suspicions of the boss, land him that desired promotion. Feeling cheery for maybe the first time in his life, he works up enough nerve to ask out elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).

She agrees to attend a play with him, but stands him up at the last second. Why? The boss resumes his affair with her. Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) constantly speaks of leaving his wife for her (a throwback to his and MacLaine's on-screen predicament in Double Indemnity perhaps?) but never does. Wilder and Diamond mercilessly examine the fundamental reason why Kubelik and Baxter, though they clearly have feelings for each other, will never work: both are forever linked to their job and boss, in some ways more than others.

Wilder's black and white photography ensures we never lose our focus to twinkling Christmas lights or other colorful odds and ends; we feel the uniformity and oppressiveness of the workroom and the isolation of the characters. His camera follows his characters around and locks into place when they seem most distant.

As masterful and timeless as Lemmon's performance is, MacLaine is every bit his equal. She crafts Kubilek into neither a vapid broad nor a femme fatale, but a wholly original character. She does not want us to go easy on us because "she's a girl;" Fran is every bit the corporate whore that Baxter is, letting Sheldrake use her even after her suicide attempt as Baxter continues to allow executives use him after they get him promoted.

As I watched Lemmon's pathetic wretch I couldn't help but think of his other role as a businessman on the ropes Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross. Like Levene, Baxter is lonely and at the end of his rope. He never reaches an emotional conclusion before the film does and he embodies Wilder's ability to toe the line between farce and maudlin. Consider the scene when he comes home with a lady only to find Fran passed out with an empty bottle of pills. He immediately panics and flails and sputters to get his would-be lover out of the apartment before she spots the body and calls the cops, then turns just as quickly to deep concern for Fran the moment he kicks the other woman out.

Some people may object to this being a comedy, especially when compared to Some Like It Hot. Personally, I think it has more in common with Wilder endlessly dark comedies Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. Just look at those never-ending lines of workers and think how this display of office hell predates even the cubicle. Hell, a cubicle (and the isolated hell it promises) seems like a step up. It brutally dissects the emptiness of office life and of "business prostitution" long before these types of jobs even became the norm. Like Wilder's other films, The Apartment lasts far beyond its time because it boldly throws down its themes and demands you pick them up, and even compared to Wilder's filmography this film must stand out for its lasting relevance.

Also, I'm not the first to say this, but Billy Wilder is the king of the closing line. In Sunset Boulevard, he hammered home the final tragic irony of show business with that immortal line "I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille." He brought the rampant farce of Some Like It Hot to its apex when Lemmon's character finally rips of his wig and admits he's a man to the millionaire who just proposed, only for Osgood to throw out the comic gold "Nobody's perfect." The Apartment continues this trend. The romance, which Wilder has kept masterfully muted and well-paced, finally comes to the fore when Baxter confesses his love for Fran over a game of gin rummy. She pauses for a moment, then drawls "Shut up and deal."

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