50 years, 50 films Vol II: The Apartment (1960)
We reverse our way into a great, often black comedy by the immortal Billy Wilder
As we mentioned at least once in Volume 1 of what is now our cinematic journey through the last century, the 1960s didn’t really start until 1963 and didn’t hit mainstream American cinema until 1970 or so. As a result, we shouldn’t be altogether surprised that our opening film from the real decade doesn’t offer any gestures to the zeitgeist to come. Can there really have been only 10 years between 1960 and 1970?
Of course, we all know now what 1960 looks like. Over the last decade, with the rise of Mad Men and the arrival of Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (the source novel of which inspired the TV series), a fetish for working life in New York during the early part of that decade has developed. Obviously, in Mad Men, made more than 40 years after the event, a kind of nostalgia and pastiche is at work. A guilty pleasure is taken in the misogyny and untempered avarice. Billy Wilder’s film is a very different beast. Here is a critique of contemporaneous sexual politics devised without the benefit of hindsight.
Some may argue with the use of the word “critique”. But I think it’s justified. You know the story. The delightful Jack Lemmon plays CC Baxter, an exhausted drone, employee in a vast insurance firm, who develops a passion for lift attendant Fran Kubelik. Given off-centre energy by Shirley MacLaine, Fran has stumbled into a frightful relationship with the ghastly boss Jeff Sheldrake — played against type by the usually avuncular Fred MacMurray — and has allowed herself to believe that he really intends to leave his wife. Baxter, who lives in a noisy building next to a patient doctor, has fallen into the habit of lending his key to senior employees for illicit liaisons. He gains meagre advancement, but loses the respect of his neighbours (who think him a Don Juan) and, eventually twigging that Fran is one of the guests, he ends up in emotional torment.
The films has, thus, the shape of a sex farce. One can imagine scenes in which female lovers hide in cupboards while angry wives hammer on the door. But it has a very different tone. Until a slightly unlikely (though still welcome) denouement, The Apartment paints its pictures in very sombre colours indeed. Even when set beside Sunset Blvd and Double Indemnity (neither of which are exactly comedies), the picture stills looks like one of the most bitter pictures in a career loaded with less-than-sweet entertainments. Just think about it. Many of the characters are having a good time, but none of them seems exactly happy. Baxter nearly loses his soul for a key to the executive washroom. Sheldrake is a mucked-up liar. His colleagues — notably an impressively brash Ray Walston — are, if anything, even more unlovely. All this takes place in a workplace that, clearly modelled on a famous set from King Vidor’s The Crowd, comes across like a machine for ritual dehumanisation. The fact that the film remains so funny is something of a miracle. (Incidentally, check out the somewhat misleading trailer above. “A warm, wonderful story” you say?)
Then there’s Fran. The most conspicuous distinction between The Apartment and the world of farce hang around the decision to depict Ms Kubelik as a tragic figure. This is a film in which the female lead attempts to commit suicide at Christmas. Nobody was ever likely to confuse it with Oops, Where’s my Knickers? There is genuine anger here about Fran’s status (or lack of same) in the corporate world. She is something to be used and disposed of. What saves her from victim-status and the film from utter misery is the comic fatalism of the dialogue and the charming energy of MacLaine’s performance. (Can we just say that, though much lauded, Shirley might still among the most under-appreciated of US actresses?) Jack’s shrugs are equally saturated with weary humanity. Everything works.
On a superficial level, it is interesting to note just how bloody modern New York looked in 1960. Watching the film as a kid over a decade later, I was still taken aback by the sheen of the buildings and the “stuff” that they had. Though far from wealthy, Baxter has a remote control for his telly in that titular apartment. I wouldn’t own such a thing for quite a few years. Phew, America.
Rather poignantly, when the 1960s really set in, they left Billy Wilder — like so many great directors — slightly buffeted in the wake. He made several more excellent film. Check out the wonderful, underrated One Two Three, the funny Kiss Me Stupid and the rising Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. But he never again directed a classic that chimed with the age. Something similar happened to Hitchcock — whose Pscycho emerged also emerged in 1960 — at about the same time. Who’s complaining? Only Howard Hawks had a career to compare with Wilder’s for versatility and brilliance.
Shut up and deal!
For 1960, we also considered L’Avventura, Breathless, La Dolce Vita, Eyes Without a Face, La Notte, Psycho, Black Sunday, The Housemaid and Rocco and His Brothers. Quite a year.