Monday, January 28, 2008

Target #182: The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

TSPDT placing: #67
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, David Lewis, Hope Holiday

If I ever had any doubts that Billy Wilder was one of Hollywood's all-time greatest directors, you may now consider me totally convinced. My ninth film from Wilder is among his very best, a sophisticated, sensitive and cynical comedy/drama/romance that satirises and critiques corporate big business and America's fading moral standards. Jack Lemmon, following the success of the director's previous film –the hilarious cross-dressing farce Some Like It Hot (1959) – here proves his worth as a dramatic actor, bringing to the character of C. C. Baxter the charm and sincerity of an average, working-class American employee, trying to making an honest living from his powerless position as an office clerk at a large, impersonal insurance firm. In a society where power leads to corruption, Baxter finds his own steadfast morals beginning to slide, having agreed to loan out his apartment to higher-ranked business executives for the purposes of their underhanded extra-martial affairs. It is an act through which Baxter hopes to climb the corporate ladder, though he is simultaneously disgusted by the moral implications of his actions; lending out his apartment is the business equivalent of prostitution, and he recognises that he is merely being exploited in a manner than harms his moral integrity.

The Apartment (1960) was written by Billy Wilder and regular-collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, and is every bit as intelligent, witty and classy as the likes of Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Double Indemnity (1944). Though certainly not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as Some Like It Hot, the film dispenses comedy, romance and drama in such perfectly-portioned satchels that only a master could have helmed the production. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle shot the film in crisp black-and-white, subduing the otherwise festive atmosphere of the Christmas-time setting and creating an air of bittersweet melancholy, the sort of sensation one feels when left alone with a joyful celebration – its sounds muffled by the adjoining walls – taking place in the next room. The Apartment is also a meditation on loneliness. Though Baxter has developed an unearned reputation as something of a "party animal" {allowing for some amusing confrontations with his neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen)}, he is very much a solitary figure, disheartened by the general slackening of society's moral standards and left wondering why nice guys always finish last.
Of course, I couldn't review The Apartment without also mentioning the performances of Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray, who help form the film's pivotal romantic triangle. MacLaine's Fran Kubelik, one of the building's elevator operators, is bright and independent in most respects, but has found herself romantically exploited by the insurance firm's director, Jeff D. Sheldrake (MacMurray), who has promised her a steady future but refuses to divorce his current wife. MacLaine brings a beautifully-balanced combination of intelligence and vulnerability to the role, at first appearing to be a carefree, upright young lady before slowly revealing vital flaws in her character. MacMurray, who I'd previously enjoyed as Walter Neff in Wilder's definitive film-noir, brings just the right amount of smug condescension to his interactions with Baxter, and his character's attempts at earnestness are immediately transparent as acts of unashamed manipulation. At the 1961 Academy Awards, voters were obviously impressed with the film's ability to tell a great story without the usual syrupy hijinks, and The Apartment took away a deserved five Oscars, including Best Writing, Best Director and Best Picture – the final black-and-white film to do so before Steven Spielberg's Holocaust epic, Schindler's List (1993).


Currently my #2 film of 1960:
1) Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
3) Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)

Currently my #2 film from director Billy Wilder:
1) Double Indemnity (1944)
2) The Apartment (1960)
3) Sunset Blvd. (1950)
4) Some Like It Hot (1959)
5) Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
6) The Lost Weekend (1945)
7) Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
8) The Front Page (1974)
9) The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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