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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

G.F.E.M. - The Apartment (1960)

Those who have talked movies with me at length know I love Billy Wilder’s films.  As far as I’m concerned, they are all purely brilliant.  The Apartment is one of those movies that just stands out in the mix and is one of his best creations.  What is so different about the Apartment is the tone.  It is sincere and humorous while covering a very serious and often-ignored subject: the effect of empty, purely physical relationships on various subjects.

The plot of the Apartment is a twisting path of incident and accident, coincidence and bad luck.  An insurance agent named C.C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon) has gotten into the unfortunate cycle of lending his apartment out to various higher-ranking employees for their illicit affairs.  His key gets around like a juicy rumor and at one point the poor fellow is locked out of his apartment on a cold fall night because the wrong key was left under his mat, he catches cold as a result.  Meanwhile, a young elevator operator named Fran Kubelik (a lovely performance by Shirley MacLaine) struggles with being the mistress of the big boss upstairs: Jeff Sheldrake (played with lecherous menace by Fred MacMurray).

For a film from the early 1960’s, the Apartment is quite sexual, though not gratuitously so.  Instead, we see the effects of various office executives’ selfish adultery on the two flawed leads.  To further complicate this already convoluted situation, Baxter has grown smitten by the lovely Ms. Kubelik.  She is obliging to his attempts to reach out to her, but she remains somewhat distant.  Her secret is that she is one of the women dragged to Baxter’s apartment (though she, herself, does not know who the paying tenant actually is) and the events that lead up to her making this discovery are both tragic and redeeming.  Shortly before Baxter lends his key to Mr. Sheldrake, he discovers the woman he crushes on is one of the women pulled into this office’s adulterous trap.  After a bitter departure of Mr. Sheldrake from Baxter’s apartment, reality catches up with the lovesick Fran and she, overwhelmed with grief, attempts suicide, overdosing on medicine found in Baxter’s cabinet.  Upon returning home, Baxter is at first angry with her for breaking his heart, but then, upon discovering her true state, stays up all night with the doctor down the hall to save her life.  He then continues to aid in her recovery, and they are drawn closer together.

This is the state of the Apartment.  Baxter is angry with Kubelik at the start of the third act, but his deep-seeded love and kindness take over when her life is in his hands.  Fran’s love for Mr. Sheldrake goes form frustrated passion to bittersweet indifference and ultimately, she flees the cruel executive and returns to Baxter, though the film ends before we see exactly how their relationship turns out.  Could this be because we “get it”?  Or, is it because the cycle of relationships before have been so tragic that we are spared a similar outcome between the two protagonists?

The best way to describe the Apartment is pitch-perfect, brutally honest, and superbly written and performed.  It ranks high on my list of my favorite films of all time, in part because it spares no detail in the cruel cycle created by the prurient players in their tragic game, and also because the script is one of Wilder’s best.  It falls just behind Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity for me as my favorite Wilder screenplay, and it is also my favorite performance by Shirley MacClaine. 

I also like MacMurray’s Sheldrake, who could be called the “villain” of the film.  He is cruel, and outwardly uncaring.  When he learns of Kubelik’s suicide attempt when Baxter calls his house Christmas morning, he refuses to come to her side in fear of his family finding out, and then fires his secretary for spilling the beans to Fran about his past relations (herself included).  He threatens Baxter with termination for not being accommodating to his affair and offers promotions as reward for obliging.  In a cheer-worthy moment, Baxter turns down a top-floor office and an executive position from the vile Mr. Sheldrake and leaves is job to escape the torment of having to witness his Fran be torn apart from the inside out after learning of the boss-man‘s intentions to divorce then marry Fran.

I adore this film.  If you haven’t seen it, seek it out.  It is arguably the best urban drama of the 1960’s and is one of the best films of Lemmon’s career.  The screenplay is smart and witty and, despite the dark turn of events the film takes in the second act, remains mostly upbeat and clever.  This is flawed romance at its best, and one of the Greatest Films Ever Made.

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