Saturday, January 30, 2010

Something to Watch, Movie-wise

Film: The Apartment
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on itty bitty television.

It’s easy to think in this day and age with the scarcity of jobs in the world, it’s easy to think that employers can take advantage of their employees because the employees are scared to leave. That may or may not be the case, depending on both the employer and the employee. The Apartment would like viewers to believe that such has been the case for a long, long time.

C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works on the 19th floor of a large building for a larger insurance company. For his bosses, the biggest benefit that Baxter has is that his apartment is near the office. What this means is that Baxter frequently loans his place to the executives of his company for their trysts with willing young women, since those men can’t run off to a hotel, and certainly can’t bring a floozy home to their wives. So Baxter’s apartment substitutes as the motel of choice for the company executives and their mistresses. In fact, he keeps a desk calendar to schedule when he can’t go home.

Those executives have made a lot of promises to Baxter, and they finally appear to pay off. He’s called to the head of personnel, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who accuses Baxter of something underhanded—essentially that he’s using his apartment as a bordello for the upper management. Sheldrake comes on strong, but ultimately just wants the apartment for himself and his date.

The one good thing in Baxter's life is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the perky elevator operator with a moderately skewed way of looking at the world. The day that Sheldrake trades Baxter a pair of tickets for a Broadway show for the apartment key, Baxter invites Fran to the show. Unfortunately for Baxter, Sheldrake’s date is Fran Kubelik. For Sheldrake this is a chance to get her back, because Fran has dumped him. She agrees to the tryst, then, on Christmas Eve, attempts suicide in Baxter’s apartment.

Now Baxter has a real problem—the girl of his dreams is the mistress of his boss, and here she is, recovering in his apartment. Worse for him, he knows Fran’s connection with Sheldrake. He also knows that he’s going to have to choose between his upwardly mobile career and his girl.

The Apartment is a tough film to figure. It’s certainly a comedy in many places, but the comedy runs from charcoal gray to the deepest ebony. The comedy comes from comes from the presence of Lemmon, who plays his typical dopey schlub with his typical brilliance. Shirley MacLaine alternates between despair and bubbly. It’s easy, these days, to look at MacLaine and remember the heights of crazy she got up to in later years. In this film, the woman shows she had some serious acting chops.

If MacLaine is the emotional heart of the film, Jack Lemmon is its frantic nerve center. All he wants is his life back, his apartment, and to be left alone at first. Eventually, all he really wants is Fran Kubelik. On the way there, he tries his best to keep himself together, going so far as to lie to Fran about Jeff Sheldrake’s feelings for her to keep her spirits up, pretending that Sheldrake cares for her more than he does.

For me, the most interesting thing is Fred MacMurray, who is a complete sleeze. MacMurray made a career of being a nice guy, and only played a total creep in two films: this one and Double Indemnity, another classic from Billy Wilder. He’s a dirtbag out only for his own pleasure and completely without scruples or morals. Jeff Sheldrake cares for no one and nothing but himself, and possibly his children.

While certainly not the raciest film ever made, or likely even the raciest film of the 1960s, but it deals very frankly with the idea that lots and lots of married men had affairs. The film doesn’t take any moral position on this, other than making the quartet of executives who use his apartment a collection of nitwits and bumblers and to make Sheldrake a heel. Beyond that, there’s not anything that suggests the film has an opinion on these men or their actions. In fact, virtually no one takes the blame for anything but Baxter, who takes a punch on Sheldrake’s behalf. He is the karmic victim of the crimes of his bosses.

The question here is what price a man is worth—his pride, his soul, and everything he stands for. It takes Baxter the entire movie to answer that question, but answer it he does, and with authority.

Billy Wilder, who managed to make films in any variety of genres, managed to put all of them in this one, and did it perfectly. The Apartment won a Best Picture Oscar, one for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and two others, and it deserved every bit of all five.

Why to watch The Apartment: Magic.
Why not to watch: Your world requires Shirley MacLaine to be crazy and Fred MacMurray to be pleasant.


  1. "For me, the most interesting thing is Fred MacMurray, who is a complete sleeze. MacMurray made a career of being a nice guy, and only played a total creep in two films: this one and Double Indemnity, another classic from Billy Wilder."

    Actually, MacMurray had played a sleaze in another film - 1954's "THE CAINE MUTINY".

  2. You're absolutely correct. MacMurray was sleazy for Wilder twice, but more than twice in his career. Thanks for the correction.