Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Review of The Apartment (1960)

It is hard to imagine a nicer, and more well-meaning and dignified character than Jack Lemmon’s C.C Baxter in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. We first meet him in a voiceover, where he talks us through his company, and his role in it. There is a lot of talk of “floors”; he is on the 19th. A pan through the floor he works at reveals him to be an office drone; one of many, doing a job that involves a typewriter, paper, and one of those wheels with business cards and contact names on it. We learn shortly after that he rents out his apartment to men from his office, so they can have an affair in it. Often, these will over-run and he will wait outside his own apartment. He has earned a reputation amongst those in his apartment that he does not particularly want.

These early scenes are among the most crucial in the film, because they set up Baxter as a weak, yet honourable man. We sense, from the way that he allows himself to be booted out of his apartment very late at night, that he rents out his apartment purely because he doesn’t wish to upset anyone. A number of times, for example, he just about works up the courage to tell someone that no, he wants his apartment to himself, but he always buckles right at the last moment. With this said, the fact that each visit from his colleagues earns him brownie points towards a promotion doesn’t help either. He is a man bulldozed by “the system”.  

From this description, you would expect Lemmon to be a timid and quiet individual, but look at how he moves in his scenes. The film is shot, unusually for one made in 1960, in 2:35.1 widescreen, and he uses all of the space surrounding him. He knows when to stoop his shoulders, when to stand up straight, how to moderate his voice. His performance highlights a complete control, and understanding of the character. Take, for example, the scene where he has just bought a bowler hat for $15, and is showing it to his love interest, Miss Kuberlik (a shining Shirley Maclaine). He tries it on at a number of angles, and his smile never wavers, even though she is clearly depressed and uninterested. He is a man of ceaseless, boundless energy, and he radiates at the centre of this film like a beacon.

It is a good job, then, that the film surrounds him with material worthy of this performance. More than worthy, in fact; this is a film that, despite its billing as a comedy, is tackling some very heavy themes. For example, a major plot point about halfway through the movie is that, upon being jilted and basically prostituted by the insensitive cad Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), Miss Kuberlik intentionally takes an overdose of sleeping pills. This isn’t meant to be funny, and this is where the film, for me, turned into a drama; we take the plight of this poor woman very seriously, and the ensuing scenes where Baxter nurses her back to health are given more gravitas and pathos as a result. We come to care, deeply about these two characters, and we feel as though we are personally entwined in their happiness come the closing scene.

However, yes, there are moments in the film that are very funny. Lemmon being propositioned by a neighbour in the apartment block to donate his body for medical research, on account of the lovemaking being heard, is a masterpiece of understated comedy in and of itself. And the film is careful around its steamy centre, rising above smut and allowing for little glimpses and clues to come through here and there; the, might I suggest, rather phallic nasal decongestant that Lemmon uses in a key scene. With regards to the dramatic elements, as opposed to clashing with each other, the film settles into a sort of harmony, with one element feeding the other. It’s a balancing act and a tightrope walk, and the film does it carefully, and with precision. You can view it as a progression from the pure comic theatricality of Lemmon and Wilder’s previous film, Some Like It Hot.

What we are left with is ultimately a film that is almost joyous. Not necessarily because of the content, but because of the steady hands of the direction, acting, writing and production. It is a film that puts us at ease from the opening shot, and we watch, spellbound, as this group of geniuses weave a timeless tale that defies expectations. It’s a giddy and exciting work, and the enthusiasm and craftsmanship of all involved is nearly palpable.

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