Viewing The Apartment for the AFI Project
What's the AFI Project, you ask? For more information, or if you just enjoy my bemused ramblings, read here:http://pippin2010.filmaster.com/review/revisiting-psycho-for-the-afi-project/?preview
The Apartment is on the following AFI lists:
The Original Top 100 (#93)
100 Funniest Films (#20)
100 Years...100 Passions (#62)
The Revised Top 100 (#80)
I knew nothing about The Apartment as I sat down to watch the film, courtesy of my weekly red envelope. My interest was piqued because of the presence of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine; I thought viewing such a combination of winning and funny stars would prove to be a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, and, for the most part, it was. Plus, the film was directed by Billy Wilder, who has had many entries on the original "100 Greatest" list because of his originality and intelligent premises and ingenious gift for dialog. Still, The Apartment did not sit well with me and, for the most part, I struggled to find it funny, at least beyond the scenes shared by its two charming and timeless leads. Like Some Like It Hot, one of Wilder's higher-rated efforts, the film did not strike me as all that funny; "cute," perhaps, but not anything more than chuckle-worthy at occasional points in the film's duration.
C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) is an arguably ambitious bachelor and office drone who works for an insurance company in New York City. The film immediately introduces the viewer to the fact that four different executives in the insurance company take turns commandeering Baxter's Upper West Side apartment for various extramarital quickies and affairs. Though unhappy with the fact that he spends little to no time in his own apartment, Baxter suffers through this unlikely set-up in silence in the hopes that he will be awarded a promotion and will be able to climb the corporate ladder. This fact seems truer when the four executives submit glowing letters of recommendation to Personnel Director Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who is only too aware of the arrangement and decides to capitalize on it himself, under the begrudging condition that Baxter is finally promoted. The problem is, Baxter has taken an interest in elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), who also seems to reciprocate his interest and with whom he would probably make an ideal couple; however, Sheldrake wants in on the apartment arrangement, to the exclusion of the other four executives, because he has been cheating on his own wife with someone quite unexpected. Add to that the suspicions of Baxter's kindly neighbors and the four executives' growing resentment that they have been marginalized from their own dirty deal, and Baxter finds himself in the middle of quite the pickle, particularly when Fran becomes the fulcrum around which the rest of this madness revolves.
The Apartment was smartly written, beautifully performed, and expertly directed; this much almost goes without saying. Wilder infused his usual satirical sharpness into a wonderful witty screenplay filled to the brim with juicy observations on life, the hypocrisy of some corporate arrangements, and the fleetingness of the institution of marriage at a time when such observations were probably rather risqué, emerging, as the nation was, from the decade of Donna Reed, pearls and aprons, Father Knows Best, and so on. The conversations between all of the characters were well-paced and believable, and there is a certain timelessness in the subtext of the story, as some of the same themes play out in current times.
Wilder also directed this film with his usual flair. The photography of the insurance company building became a remarkable exercise in the execution of perspective cinematography, illustrating with painful illumination the mindless, bleak, and nameless nature of being an office drone. From the opening scenes as Baxter enters his NYC sky-rise, walking with purpose toward Fran and her elevator, to the shot of him sitting at his desk amidst hundreds of rows of like-minded worker bees, to the use of glass at the building's higher levels, Wilder punctuated the satire of his words with some great visual representations to accompany them. Contrasted with the confined intimacy of Baxter's apartment, where most of the drama occurs, and the art direction employed to define Baxter's somewhat pathetic and lonely bachelor existence, and the themes of the film became readily apparent.
Lemmon and MacLaine were also supreme, as expected. Lemmon offered his best everyman charm coupled with his trademark, put-upon schmuck act, while MacLaine injected her character with some of that daffy affability for which she is also known, on and off screen. The result was a couple that the viewer could root for, which is why the film places so highly on the Passions list. MacMurray was also good, drawing upon the sensitivity of his "My Three Sons" dad while adding the scrupulous morals of his erstwhile "Double Indemnity" character.
Ultimately, however, Double Indemnity and some of Wilder's other entries on this list were better films, and, to this viewer, it boils right down to the premise. Suspending disbelief regarding such a sad-sack of a character as Baxter, lending out his apartment to a bunch of amoral corporate executives (as there can be no other kind, you know), was particularly difficult, no matter how lonely or potentially ambitious Baxter is. Perhaps, part of this outrageous story thread was rooted in the opportunity for the Baxter character to outgrow his timidity and fear of the upper echelons of his company. Still, the thought of lending out a private residence, one's only private residence and escape from such a bleak office environment as painted by Wilder, seemed so foreign to me that I could not get over it for most of the film, at least not as something Baxter was forced to do repetitively, for many different nameless company leaders.
Also, while some of the dialog was brilliantly written and contained such satirical observations about lust, love, and corporate hysteria, some of it was also uneven, particularly in the exchanges between Baxter and Sheldrake or in the introduction of the supporting, atmospheric characters like the neighbors. It's almost as if Wilder struggled to find the motivation to introduce these characters and when he did, what they had to say just didn't seem to fit with the rest of the story. Actually, many of the conversations Sheldrake conducted with various other characters strained credibility; perhaps, it was the acting choices of MacMurray or the direction and writing, but it was as if the filmmakers or the actor tried to render the character modestly sympathetic or morally ambiguous, when he was really the main antagonistic force, the wolf in sheep's clothing, amidst a flock of unwitting, pawn-like sheep.
In the end, the implausible premise and occasionally uneven dialog bothered me enough that I found it difficult to cop to the notion that this film is, in any way, funny, despite the fact that it is ranked so high on the Funniest films list. Perhaps, it's supposed to be funny-ironic and not funny-"ha ha," but I found most of the film, despite the skewering pokes against corporate culture and the unmistakable chemistry between Lemmon and MacLaine, to be sort of sad. Thus, I find myself rating The Apartment a 7.5, between shaky and entertaining and very good with minor flaws. As much as the tale of romance between Baxter and Fran feels organic and real, the rest of the film feels surreal and unbelievable, which is why the film falls into that murky middle ground in the ratings between "shaky" and not. Also, the film does not pass the test. I found it hard enough to relate to the film based on its premise, even if Lemmon made the Baxter character alone so instantly connective to most viewers. Still, Wilder and company win points for the originality of the film, and the ending may be one of the best conclusions to a dramedy that I have seen. I think that Double Indemnity remains my favorite Wilder film, however, though The Apartment is recommendable to any fan of the director, Jack Lemmon, or any of the other actors in this film as, for the most part, this movie is executed well, and its underlying themes bear the most identifiable mark of greatness: their timelessness (and, therefore, connection with any audience beyond the year of the film's release).