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FIVE STAR FILMS #72: The Apartment (Billy Wilder – 1960)

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1960’s The Apartment was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning five. Three of these Oscars went to Billy Wilder: Best Picture (as producer), Best Director (he was up against Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho) and Best Writing (the equivalent award to today’s ‘Best Original Screenplay’), shared with his co-writer I.A.L Diamond. Wilder and Diamond had been nominated for a writing Oscar (the equivalent to today’s ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’) the previous year for Some Like It Hot (1959), but lost out to Neil Paterson, for the lesser-known film Room at the Top.

The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray (who’s most famous film role was in another Five Star film pick: 1944’s Double Indemnity also directed by Wilder). Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter (also known as ‘Bud’ or ‘Buddy’), an office worker at Consolidated Life insurance company, who lends out his apartment to his office superiors – including MacMurray’s Jeff Sheldrake – for their extra-marital trysts. MacLaine plays elevator operator Fran Kubelik, whose friendship with Baxter is complicated by her affair with Sheldrake.

Here are a few of the things I love about The Apartment, and that led me to chose it as my Five Star film pick for this month.

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1. COMMENTARY ON MODERN AMERICA & MORALS

As I write this, The Apartment is over 55 years old. The first scene begins on November 1st, 1959, and the film closes in the early hours of January 1st, 1960. This was a defining time in modern American history. The literal and symbolic goodbye to the conservative 1950s, and the heralding in of a new decade – with all its possibilities.

Wilder et al of course didn’t know what was to come in the turbulent 1960s (Vietnam escalation and subsequent protests, the peak of the civil rights movement, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and peace movement, massive social change etc), but there is something about the film that says ‘This is the new era. Things are moving. Progress. Change’. This is most beautifully represented not so much by the features of modernity like as the modern skyscraper in which Consolidated Life is housed, but more subtly by the way in which Baxter reacts to this modern industrialised corporate world. He’s clearly not a big-time agitator, but he gently rejects many of the values this modern life represents. When he lets his guard down in some of his discussions with Fran, it’s clear he just doesn’t buy into all of the trappings and priorities of this modern corporate life. In this way the film (and Baxter) is actually quite subversive.

Under a lesser director, the film could have been more heavy-handed. Wilder’s beautiful, deft touches make their point in more understated ways. Case in point: Baxter sits down to his lonely TV dinner, and turns on the box. Lemmon’s wonderful expressive face initially reacts happily to the TV announcer’s long-winded introduction to the upcoming screening of Grand Hotel (1932) – but before Baxter can enjoy the film, he hears the voice announce ‘a word from our sponsor’, and his face drops. After some channel surfing, he returns to the same lengthy intro to the film, followed by ‘and now a word from our alternate sponsor’. This is too much for Baxter. His expression says it all, and he switches off the TV.

[SIDE NOTE: This scene, and it’s commentary on advertising, always makes me think of TV’s Mad Men (2007-2015), which set its opening scene in March 1960. Baxter and his contemporaries were the very people that Don, Peggy and co. were writing their taglines for.]

The Apartment also makes some comments on the morality of the behaviours of various characters. This isn’t done in a preachy way, but rather with humour – and this humour has a truth behind it. A couple of examples:

* Near the beginning of the film, one of Baxter’s colleagues is asked by his date if he brings other girls to the apartment. He answers: ‘Certainly not. I’m a happily married man!’

* Sheldrake says to Baxter: ‘Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife. Now I ask you, is that fair?’. Baxter’s reply:No, sir, it’s very unfair… Especially to your wife’. And of course Sheldrake can’t see the irony in the answer.

 

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2. SHIRLEY MACLAINE

Shirley MacLaine gives a stellar performance in the film. She pulls off the amazing balancing act of making Fran both vulnerable and quietly strong. It’s a gentle, somewhat stoic strength, and it saves Fran from being portrayed simply as a victim. This is a multi-dimensional performance. Perhaps Fran’s most poignant line (when being handed her small purse-sized cracked mirror) is ‘I like it that way. It makes me look the way I feel’.

[SIDE NOTE: Shirley MacLaine’s impressive screen career (like that of little of brother Warren Beatty), has so far spanned nearly 60 years. MacLaine’s star-turn feature film debut (shot when she was just nineteen, five years before The Apartment) was a lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955). At time of writing, MacLaine has four films (at various stages of production) announced for release next year (2015)].

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3. JACK LEMMON

Lemmon also gives a magnificent performance in The Apartment. Even though Baxter could be considered ‘just a number’ (albeit one who has an extremely handy apartment to provide by his work superiors), he’s an individual in his private life. He’s actually quite eccentric in some ways (case in point: using his tennis racquet as a spaghetti strainer), and [SPOILER ALERT] eschewing the key to the executive washroom (and all it represents in terms of security) to try his hand at living the life he wants to lead – even if he doesn’t yet know what this new life will entail.

Wilder/Lemmon were one of the great film director/actor partnerships. Their first film together was the above-mentioned Some Like It Hot, and they would go on to work on five more films together after The Apartment, including The Front Page (1974).

[SIDE NOTE: Famously, much-loved Lemmon was an early proponent of what’s now referred to as the ‘pay it forward’ philosophy. In interviews during the latter period of his career, Lemmon would talk about how ‘You have to send the elevator back down’. He appreciated any help, advice and breaks he received during his early career, and he firmly believed that it was his duty to pass on these gifts to the younger generation of actors. He mentored a young Kevin Spacey, and it’s heartening to see the tradition passed on, as Spacey in turn now provides scholarships and mentoring to up-and-coming actors, directors and other artists].

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4. PRODUCTION DESIGN

The Apartment was filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, at a time when most big studio films were shot in colour. It was actually the last Best Picture Oscar-winning film shot in black-and-white for many years, until Schindler’s List (1993) (though not 100% B&W) and then The Artist (2011).

Some of my favourite elements of the production design for The Apartment include:

* The stunning forced perspective on the 19th floor, where thousands of Consolidated Life’s office workers spend their days. In addition to the graded overhead fluorescent lights (with black lines between the rows, pointing to the back of the room in such a way as to invoke the look of tiny objects at the end of the horizon), this effect was apparently heightened by the placement of progressively smaller desks (and actors – some of which, according to anecdotal evidence, were in fact small children) being used further away from the camera.

* The stark contrast between this crowded 19th floor, and the executive offices on the 27th floor, with their glass doors, large windows and splendid Manhattan views.

* The vast office foyer, with its in-house newsstand (complete with impossibly-high shelves – which, for practical purposes in a real news stand wouldn’t have been accessible without a ladder, but enhance the visual world of the film). When this foyer is full of people lining up for the elevator, there’s this claustrophobic look, with the workers pushed together like sardines – in a sea of hats, trench coats and briefcases.

Mention should also be made of the camera move choices of Wilder and his cinematographer Joseph LaShelle. A couple of my favourites from The Apartment include:

* When the office Christmas party is shot from above, showing revelers dancing on tables, before the camera pans down and across to Baxter, walking across the floor with two drinks in hand.

* When, in a crowded pre-Christmas bar, we see a shot of the long drinks bar (from slightly above), before the camera slowly moves in Baxter and his bartender.

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5. THE FINALE

[SPOILER ALERT!] ….

The final three minutes of The Apartment are just exquisite. So much happens in such a short time, though it never feels overly-rushed. We go from Fran and Sheldrake in their ridiculous paper party hats (with a lovely effect of an out-of-focus fish tank behind Fran), with Fran’s face changing (from lost and deflated, to incredulous, to (her poker-face version of) happy, as she realizes that Baxter loves her – to an actual smile, while revelers sing Auld Lang Syne all around them. Then there’s Sheldrake’s confusion when Fran has disappeared. Cut to a joyous Fran running through the street with wind in her hair (with lovely music underscoring), then running up the stairs and stopping cold upon hearing a gun shot, before running frantically to Baxter’s door – where he answers with a bottle of overflowing champagne. Then there’s the iconic two-shot of the pair on the couch: he looking at her, as she shuffles a deck of cards. Then his declaration of love, and her famous response (and closing line of the film) ‘Shut up and deal …’.

 

theapartment7 There’s so much to love in The Apartment, and I’ve outlined are just a few of the reasons that it’s such an adored film. It’s hard to believe that it runs just over two hours, as it flies by in a blink.What a joy it is to watch over and over again. There’s something to be discovered with every re-viewing.

Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf

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2 thoughts on “FIVE STAR FILMS #72: The Apartment (Billy Wilder – 1960)

  1. […] FIVE STAR FILMS #72: The Apartment (Billy Wilder – 1960) […]

  2. […] release in early 1958. Directed by Billy Wilder – whose films Double Indemnity  (1944) and The Apartment  (1960) were previous classic Five Star picks – Witness for the Prosecution went on to receive six […]

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