Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Classic Film Review: The Apartment

The Apartment (1960)
STARRING: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray
DIRECTED BY: Billy Wilder

"Ya know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe; I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were." ~C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon)~

I credit Sunset Blvd. for my current obsession with the filmography of the late, great Billy Wilder. I credit Some Like It Hot (the greatest classic film I viewed for the first time last year) for my current obsession with the late, great Jack Lemmon. And, finally, I credit Mad Men for being the incredible television series that ignited my interest in the sexual politics and social history of the 1960s. If you watch Mad Men, then you are aware that it is, in part, an homage to The Apartment; most obviously in the scene in which Joan Holloway references the film directly and more subtly in the smoky atmosphere and office politics of Sterling Cooper.

C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a career man. Clacking away on a typewriter in the same room as at least 50 other employees, just another face in row after row of office drones, Bud will do anything in his power to advance his position at the office. As Bud soon learns, he holds the key to his own success. Literally. Bud "rents" out his apartment for a few hours a day to his male superiors in the office so they can carry on their affairs in private. The key to Bud's apartment travels around the office in a manila envelope. Unlucky at love himself, Bud remains an eternal optimist and gets it into his head that the quirky and pretty "elevator girl" Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) will fall for his charms in due time. Little does Bud realize, his womanizing boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), wants to use Bud's apartment too, so that he can carry on his own affair with Fran.

Wilder's screenplay is an extraordinary blend of comedy and drama, something he deftly combines to balance the varying emotions of his central characters. The film is structured like a stage production with lengthy scenes that are dialogue-heavy, however, the moments never feel too long and each one manages to sustain the intensity of the situation. Rarely can a film make you laugh out loud one moment and contemplate love, life and death the next. This film is often categorized as a comedy classic, however, its themes deal with loneliness, vicious corporate environments, sexual harassment in the workplace, adultery and suicide. It's all sex and money and betraying one another.

As Bud, a young man compromising his principles in order to get ahead in life, Lemmon is at his charismatic best. Despite his quiet desperation to connect with a woman, in an attempt to dispel his overpowering loneliness, Lemmon never allows Bud to become self-loathing or irritating. Bud rarely wallows in his own misery, instead trying to see the good in every situation. He may be naive and too eager to martyr himself in the name of lusty affairs (his neighbours assume Bud is the one who is wooing all those woman who move in and out of his apartment) but Bud is never anything but completely likeable.

Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray are both excellent in their roles as Fran and Mr. Sheldrake. Their scenes exhibit how different they truly are from one another. Sheldrake wants nothing more than to carry on his affair with Fran without any strings attached, although he claims to love her. Fran, on the other hand, thinks she's in love and wants him to leave his wife. Fran and Sheldrake emotionally disconnect on each and every encounter they share. MacLaine, in particular, is wonderful in her portrayal of a woman who feels like a piece of trash who is just another notch on the bedpost for Sheldrake and his revolving door of women. Her emotion is always visible right under the surface.

Bud and Fran are two people who have been jaded by love in the past and watching their interactions in the apartment works so well because of the performances and chemistry between Lemmon and MacLaine. In the capable hands of Billy Wilder, The Apartment and its themes are still relevant today. The film has aged remarkably well and should be admired for addressing these issues up front. The screenplay is still fresh and witty, even 50 years later. It's a classic film that lives up to the praise.