Monday, 28 June 2010

There’s Nothing Like It: Movie-wise, Love-wise, laugh-wise or otherwise-wise

Of the two dozen and more films that Billy Wilder helmed I find it odd that the two that won the Oscar for Best Picture are often less remembered than the losers like Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Seven Year Itch or Witness for the Prosecution. Wilder is not the only director it occurs with, and I would not exactly pledge my undying allegiance to The Lost Weekend but I find it strange that even though few would claim that The Apartment is a poor film, not enough are vociferous about it being an excellent film – which I do consider it to be. So I’m especially glad when it’s remembered…Univarn of the always funny A Life in Equinox writes…
"What makes The Apartment great isn’t just the talent involved; it’s the encompassing grandeur of the collective effort. Wilder’s natural wit and charm exude the tale of these two lost souls. While Lemmon and MacLaine entrance the viewer with their dynamic chemistry, and down to earth personas. Aided by the perfect timing of MacMurray as the evil Mr. Sheldrake. And, of course, a script so heartfelt, one could only dream of writing it."

That essentially sums it up, a script one could only dream of writing…but you know I’m wont to get loquacious. The original poster and tagline for The Apartment always amuses me (click on the picture adjacent for an enlargement - the post title is a derivative), and really it’s a claim that’s a bit brave. But, I think it’s accurate for the most part because – really – The Apartment is unlike little that appears on the screen movie-wise or otherwise-wise.
The concept of The Apartment isn’t original because of its focus on a heroine involved in an extramarital affair neither is the originality stemming from the fact that its hero isn’t as assertively “mannish” as conventions would purport. In fact, Wilder’s decision to make Shirley MacLaine’s Fran into something a suicidal simp realising the errors of her ways in the middle of the film is more compliant with societal norms of the era than dissenters were willing to admit. What makes The Apartment so revolutionary (to me, at least) is its dedication to the sort of subtle and almost incidental comedy that is unlike most things we normally see. Chances are, if The Apartment was ever remade (god forbid) producers would either turn it into an unapologetic introspective, sentimental drama or decide to do an about-face and turn it into some bawdy attempt at serious slapstick. Naturally, both attempts would be failure. Even though The Apartment seems to exist as the usual black and white comedy of manners with a penchant for melancholia its end result of discovering the sweet humour in even the most dire of circumstances is surely something worthy of praise and something unlike most of what we’d normally find on the screen – either big or small.
Still, even though every Wilder films seems to have a decidedly Wilder-esque stamp on it (it doesn’t roll of the tongue quite as nicely as Capra-esque, though) The Apartment impresses me more than even the more oft-cited Some Like It Hot. The Apartment’s humour depends to a large part, almost completely – I would say – on the success of its cast. It’s the very reason why I cited Lemmon’s performance as one for the books (even if that list was made a bit arbitrarily, the top 6 hold up). Lemmon’s Baxter is more introspective than audiences seem to remember, I’ll always cite Lemmon as the master when it comes to facial comedy – which is a dubious phrase itself, but I do prefer subtle movements of the face to the more physical stuff (which is, of course, why Chaplin is not a favourite of mine). I know Nick has his issues with Lemmon, and I’ll admit he’s more comfortable playing a specific type than he realises – I still fall hook, line and sinker for his shtick every time and no place else more unequivocally than in The Apartment. Yojimbo goes into it a little bit more with his thoughts on the films specialness.
"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. It seems like a fairy-tale today with current rubber-board rooms of the business-world filled with sociopaths. But, at the tale 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 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."
Though I’m not one to lambast Elizabeth Taylor’s first bid for Oscar, I still wish Shirley MacLaine could have taken the prize. She has the ability to emanate that feeling of “lead actressishness” even though I’m sure that she’d be pushed into the supporting category if the film opened today. If Lemmon is responsible for keeping the comedy, MacLaine is responsible for not making it a tragedy. Her suicide attempt manages to play out (marginally, I will admit) as realistic and not some maudlin attempt at faux-sympathy. It’s because Marge isn’t intent on ensuring that we leave the film in love with her. Thus, by downplaying the very thing that’s her ace in the hole (another Wilder film I’m ignorant of) she ends up being even more attractive even if she’s self destructive – but perhaps that’s the very thing that makes her so attractive…
The Apartment becomes even more atypical when I consider that all the craziness is happening around Christmas time. It’s not exactly the seasonal picker upper we would anticipate. The Apartment is one of those films that make me feel lucky to experience the “classics”. Even though four films 1980 and before show up higher on my list of favourites, The Apartment just screams classic. And yes, there’s nothing like it – movie-wise, love-wise or otherwise-wise. It’s #10 on my list of favourites…
The countdown to the top begins, The Apartment is #10…9 more to go. What do you think of Wilder's piece?


MovieNut14 said...

One of my favorites from Billy Wilder.

Marcy said...

I love this movie. One of my favorite romantic comedies ever.

Fred MacMurray is a very underrated actor in this and Double Indemnity.

TomS said...

With its comfy sets and moody photography, its bluesy score, and good-natured characters, watching The Apartment affords the same pleasures as settling into an easychair with a good book on a rainy afternoon.

How many of us who love it have not added a tennis racket to our collection of cooking utensils?

Even so, it is a surprising choice for Best Picture in an era where the Academy routinely selected costume pieces, historical epics, and big musicals (look at the BP winners for 4 years on either side of "The Apartment" and you'll see what I mean.)

Some curmudgeons might even argue that the best film of 1960, in retrospect, was "Psycho"; and that the award to "The Apartment" was compensation due to Wilder for shutting out "Some Like It Hot" the year before.

Nice post...thank you for reminding us of this great film.

Univarn said...

Just such a lovely movie all around, when I go back and do my top 100 again sometime in the next year or so it'll likely get the heavy push forwards.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Andrew! "Ace in the Hole!" It will blow your mind how prescient it is.

I once worked on an audio session with Fred MacMurray's daughter as producer, and I had to tell her: "Y'know, your Dad was really good at playing a son-of-a-bitch!" Her face brightened immediately: "Why, thank you!"

Runs Like A Gay said...

Absolutely fantastic film, with a superb balance of the comic and tragic elements.

And as you say if it were to be remade you know no-one could get that balance right these days.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

movie nut glad you're a fan.

marcy ah yes, double indemnity he was in that. i need to rewatch since i forget everything but stanwyck's vamp.

tom on psycho i've never been (insert gasp) that big of a hitchcock fan and this will always be my favourite wilder...unless he has some more tricks up his sleeves in those i've yet to see.

univarn it gets better on repeat viewings so i can understand that.

yojimbo he really was though! re ace in the hole that will be tough one to find, but i'm game.

runs like a gay YES. it's the balance that makes it special.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

'The Apartment' is my favorite American film. It is a masterpiece. I love it on about 900 different levels.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

kid glad you're a fan, it's deserving of the praise it gets.