Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Apartment (1960)

Tonight it was time to check another film off my list of 10 Classics which I'm making it my goal to see for the first time this year. Tonight's movie was THE APARTMENT, directed by Billy Wilder from a script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, with a cast including Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray.

The storyline concerns C.C. Baxter (Lemmon), an insurance company drone who hopes to get ahead by allowing company executives to borrow his apartment for extramarital trysts. All seems to go well for C.C. -- other than catching cold as, semi-homeless, he wanders the streets of New York -- until the head of personnel (MacMurray) uses the apartment for a fling with the elevator girl (MacLaine) C.C. admires.

I have to say I have a contrarian take on this film, as I found it slow-moving and dull. I've heard so many good things about this film over the years, I kept thinking that perhaps the sharp dialogue and interesting characters would show up in the next scene, but as it turned out this movie just didn't work for me, and I was relieved when it crawled to a close after two hours and five minutes. Now I'm trying to figure out exactly why I felt that way.

THE APARTMENT's black and white look prompted me to compare it to another dark film set in New York, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957). SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, like THE APARTMENT, was filled with disreputable, manipulative characters, yet it blew me away with its gleaming black and white beauty, gripping storyline, crackling dialogue, and jazzy musical score. It was one of my favorite viewing experiences last year. So where did THE APARTMENT, a Best Picture winner with surface similarities to the earlier film, go wrong?

I suppose the bottom line is simply that I never became involved in the story or cared about the characters, nor did I find the environments in which they operated compelling. I love Fred MacMurray, but of course he famously plays an utter sleaze in this one, so while he's somewhat interesting, he's never sympathetic.

I like Jack Lemmon quite well, but I couldn't relate to a character so willing to be used by others -- to the point of being put out of his home and roaming the streets overnight! -- as well as to use them in turn. He eventually wakes up and smells the coffee (a line that is particularly apt for this film!), but it takes over two hours to get there.

Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis weren't any more sympathetic in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS than MacMurray and Lemmon, yet I found the Lancaster-Curtis film mesmerizing. Perhaps sometimes it simply comes down to personal taste and an indefinable "It works or it doesn't." While I didn't care for it, I know THE APARTMENT is highly regarded by a number of film fans whose taste I respect.

It's interesting that while I have loved numerous Wilder films, including those he wrote before becoming a director, I wasn't wildly enthused about his dark SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), either. I could theorize I like sunnier fare, but I'm the same viewer who saw 19 movies at the Noir City Festival this spring!

I confess I've never done more than tolerate Shirley MacLaine, so that was another strike against the film; she's simply not an actress I enjoy, although she does the cute and perky thing well in the film's opening scenes. But again, it was hard to muster up sympathy for a woman willing to return to a married man who's clearly a user, and when she tried to take her own life over him, I just rolled my eyes. Whatever.

The film has its nice moments here and there -- the spaghetti strained through the tennis racket, the neighboring doctor (Jack Kruschen) who tries to convince Lemmon to grow up, the line "We'll send him a fruitcake every Christmas" -- but, all in all, I found this one a yawner, not to mention rather sad.

The black and white photography by Joseph LaShelle is at its best in the gleaming office building, with its rows of desks and elevators, but the apartment where much of the film is set is, once again, boring. It's supposed to be an inexpensive dump -- why a doctor lives in this building is beyond me -- but there's not anything of interest to look at in it, other than the TV set and the fridge. And I think maybe he had an Ella Fitzgerald LP in his collection, but I couldn't quite make it out...

The supporting cast includes several well-known TV actors, including Ray Walston of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, David White of BEWITCHED, and David Lewis of GENERAL HOSPITAL. Edie Adams also stars.

THE APARTMENT won Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, and Set Decoration. Lemmon, MacLaine, and Kruschen were all nominated for their acting but didn't win; the film was also nominated for Cinematography and Sound.

THE APARTMENT is available on DVD and can be rented from Netflix. Additionally, it's available to rent for streaming from Amazon, and it's had a release on VHS.

THE APARTMENT can be seen from time to time on Turner Classic Movies, where it will next air on August 22, 2012.

The trailer is available to view on the TCM website.

20 Comments:

Blogger Dave Enkosky said...

This actually one of my favorite movies. I cared deeply about the characters. It probably is just personal taste.

2:54 AM  
Blogger grandoldmovies said...

I agree with your assessment. I've never been able to warm up to this film, either, although it's considered one of Wilder's best. The plot and characters seem too contrived and not at all interesting.

6:59 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

On first viewing The Apartment, at the time of its release, I found it compelling. On subsequent viewing, while it held up as a work of art, I found in wanting for all of the reasons given by you. It could be, like Easy Rider, this is just a product of its time.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts, pro and con. I am very interested to know how others perceive this film!

Best wishes,
Laura

8:14 AM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Sometimes I think it is just unexplainable why or why not we like a film. Something just doesn't click. This is one of my favorite films. I did feel for Jack Lemmon's character and did enjoy Shirley Macclaine - but maybe some of that is being a guy. At least you can have the enjoyment of crossing another film off your list!

11:35 AM  
Blogger Jandy Stone Hardesty said...

It's really interesting to read this reaction from you! I love The Apartment, but of course, not every film connects with everyone. The African Queen is one that I should by all rights love, but I just couldn't get into.

I think it's easy to assume that classic film lovers, especially ones like you with such a wide breadth of classic movie viewing and appreciation, will of course love the well-known and acclaimed ones, but it's actually kind of refreshing to see contrarian opinions like this.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

"T'was the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirrin' - nothin' - no action."

The mix of the cynical and the romantic makes "The Apartment" a winner for me. I enjoy peeking through the keyhole at all the wrong choices. Sheldrake's total dismissal of Miss Olsen and her subsequent revenge is a big "yes!" moment for me.

"Mildred, he's at it again!"

12:39 PM  
Blogger Raquelle said...

I had a feeling you wouldn't like this one but I was still sad to see that you didn't. :-( To each their own as I say! There are so many great classic films that there are plenty to enjoy.

I really did love this film and cared immensely for Jack Lemmon's character. As someone who has been taken advantage of time and time again by others, I could relate to his story. I like that as a comedy it also had a dramatic and rather dark element in Shirley Maclaine's story line. It's difficult to articulate why I like this movie so much so I guess it's time for a refresher! :-)

1:55 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

This post really had me reevaluating why I like the movie, but I could not come up with anything more logical than your excellent and well-argued reasons for disliking it. All your points are valid and quite true. These are unappealing characters with shallow motivations, and I confess, as much as I admire Wilder, I sometimes tire of his often disdainful treatment of female characters.

Yet, I still like the movie and I suppose my enjoyment of it is just as superficial. I like the wet, dark New York streets in late autumn. I like Lemmon's watching the Late, Late Show with the channel changer on a cable. I like the massive office, so much like the one shown in "The Crowd" -1928. Like the office Christmas party and many of the glib, cynical lines.

About the only two characters I really like are the doc and his wife. But the other characters, as weak-willed and petty as they are, often touch me with their human flaws. I love MacLaine's vulnerability as she recovers from her suicide attempt. And that she doesn't fall for Lemmon right away. The way Lemmon learns to at last grow up through taking care of her. That scene where the doc slaps MacLaine in the face to revive her, but it is Lemmon's flinching, sickened at what he has seen, that has the most impact.

I like Fred MacMurray in the role -- he was as good at play cads as any other, and I love his secretary, the scene that Caftan Woman mentioned above.

It really is tedious that the hero and heroine have taken so long to snap out of their self-imposed problems, and that the final line is "Shut up and deal" and not something more romantic, but that, too, is Wilder for you.

Maybe it's not the sum total of the movie I like; just the parts.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Of all Billy Wilder's movies, and I know them all, "The Apartment" has always been my favorite. Some of the other comments alluded to the main reason--the darker dramatic elements mingled with the comedy. I love movies that can shift tones from light/comic to dramatic and even tragic, and it's something Wilder sometimes had a gift for, never more than here.

I personally love the look of the film for its art direction and great black and white cinematography. It's precisely because these settings are so prosaic, nothing there to be beautiful, that makes the imagination put into those aspects of the movie so brilliant for me.

And I like the characters. After her second Wilder film (maybe even beginning with it IRMA LA DOUCE) I've consistently disliked MacLaine and it's tiresome the way she even overrates herself, but for me was genuinely and appealingly individual in most of her films of the first decade, especially SOME CAME RUNNING but also this one. The versatile MacMurray is great in parts where his charm wears so sleazily (the moment where he gives her $100 for Christmas is one of the movie's most memorable). But I especially like Jack Lemmon--my favorite performance ever of his; I find his range with the comedic and dramatic elements inspired and can never dislike his character no matter how compromised morally he may be--after all, he suffers bitterly for this.

A comparison between Lemmon's character here and Tony Curtis' in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS doesn't feel valid for me. I see Lemmon's Baxter as an essentially decent guy, while Curtis' Sidney Falco has knowingly sold his soul, become morally pathetic and knows it, especially evident in the scene where he pleads with sometime girlfriend Barbara Nichols to "be nice" to a guy. It's brilliantly played by Curtis throughout--he knows we don't have to like or admire the guy in any way to be fascinated by him.

Even though I love the movie, I do think it's always good to go to any movie with even expectations and not be affected if they have a so-called classic status. The movie should earn it each time out for each viewer. Wilder has at times been overrated and can be glib, even if I don't believe that's the case here. I share your distaste for SUNSET BOULEVARD, which, even if its distinctive and has some evident strengths, is just not a movie I've ever been able to love, or even really enjoy.

But when his cynical and romantic sides find the right balance, he's a wonderful filmmaker.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

This is such a fantastic discussion, I really appreciate each of your sharing your varied perspectives. It's not only been interesting, it's helped me as I further ponder my own reactions.

Caftan Woman, it's interesting because "peeking through the keyhole" is one of the things that makes, as an example, pre-Codes so interesting. Watching something like DOCTOR MONICA, with some of the bad, bad choices the characters make, is the equivalent of movie candy or something (grin). Or to use the example in my post, I had a fantastic time watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS with its really awful characters. But here I felt exasperation instead...still thinking on that.

I think some of it may come down to believability...I wasn't buying Jack Lemmon's character being so desperate he'd get out of bed and wander the streets.

Blake, on the Falco vs. Baxter comparison, maybe some of the issue for me is that it's clear Falco is a sleaze from the start, so I bought into that -- and found it quite entertaining. (A very brave performance by Tony Curtis!) Whereas I expected to like Jack Lemmon's character more and found that he was (with apologies to those who love the character!) a) stupid, as in didn't it occur to him that the men he was allowing to walk all over him could also create problems? and b) I couldn't respect him.

Blake, someone on Twitter mentioned SOME CAME RUNNING to me today, and my dad has also spoken highly of that one. It's one of a relatively few Minnelli titles I haven't seen yet, so that's a film I need to put on my "watch" list... I was also quite intrigued that while you like THE APARTMENT so strongly, you share some of my reticence about embracing SUNSET BLVD.

Really appreciated those of you who expressed your liking (or love!) for THE APARTMENT. Raquelle, I think you mentioned in the past you weren't sure I'd like it...I'm glad I tried it, at least! :) And while it's always great when someone else appreciates a movie we love, it's also a lot of fun to compare notes on different points of view, as evidenced by today's comments!

Jandy, saw THE AFRICAN QUEEN once many years ago, enjoyed it OK, but can't say it's one I've ever felt a need to return to up to this point. Kinda interesting.

Jacqueline, one of the only things I found interesting in that apartment was the TV set (grin)...yet even there I had a believability issue. When it comes back from commercial break and the announcer says "And now back to Grand Hotel..." but then says first *another* commercial, it felt like a cheap laugh in a third-rate comedy, not something genuinely witty. I also didn't care for the comedy with the nasal spray, now that I think on it. Wilder can be so brilliant and elegant (i.e., his cowritten script for MIDNIGHT is sublime, as just one example among many) that this felt like a letdown to me.

All this pondering done, I realize there are probably all sorts of movies with similar "problems" that I enjoy! Especially as, by and large, I tend to find the majority of the movies I choose to watch enjoyable, to varying degrees. So in this case that brings us back to personal taste and something indefinable, or, as Robby says, "something just doesn't click"!

Thank you all again for contributing your thoughts, and I'd be delighted if anyone else would like to chime in.

Best wishes,
Laura

8:32 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I didn't know whether you'd seen SOME CAME RUNNING or not, Laura, but I know you love other Minnelli films and this is one of his very greatest--one of the best melodramas ever. Maybe if you don't see it this year, it's something you might want to think about for next year's list.

After I had posted earlier, I linked to your post on ten classics for 2012 and read the comments. A number of your regular readers who seemed to have a good sense of what you respond to thought that you would love THE APARTMENT. So it's interesting how that turned out.

9:02 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

I've never cared for "The Apartment" either (I know I'd get tarred-and-feathered by some of my buddies for saying that!)Laura. And remember that 1960 was the year of "Psycho" "Spartacus" and "Elmer Gantry"....ALL far and away superior to "The Apartment" in my opinion......

Brad

7:01 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I love THE APARTMENT. The characters may not be charmers, but they feel like real people to me. Flawed, imperfect, trying to be better, but real people who, thankfully, say funnier, pithier things than most real people say. I understand the problem some people have with MacLaine, and I have it myself sometimes. But not here and not yet.

Still, wonderful as it is, THE APARTMENT is no better than Number Four on my list of Billy Wilder favorites after SOME LIKE IT HOT, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION,and, what I consider his true masterpiece, SUNSET BLVD.

6:52 PM  
Blogger phillyrich said...

I really enjoy your site but couldn't disagree more on this film--one of the greatest funny/sad films ever made. It has a beautiful balance of humor and drama only a great director could bring off. Granted, the subject matter may be off-putting-- but the script, direction and acting are masterful.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Rick and phillyrich, thank you both for adding your thoughts! I appreciate it. Who knew this movie evokes so many opinions?!

Best wishes,
Laura

4:00 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

For me personally, Wilder's masterpiece is "Ace In The Hole".....

Brad

5:52 PM  
Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

There is no such thing as a sympathetic character in "The Apartment". Let's see, sleazy executives, a toady who pimps his apartment, a pathetic young woman who knowingly fools around with a married man, the most recent of some bad choices. The only one who deserves sympathy, mainly pity. is Fran. She is young, vulnerable, foolish, sad. I enjoyed every performance in this film except Lemmon. IMHO Jack Lemmon brings too many ticks and affectations to the part. It was distracting and self-indulgent. I generally like dark material the way Wilder delivers it. Brilliant movie, but it's Lemmon's performance that keeps me from re-watching this film.
I felt sorry for Fran that she settled for that toady, but just because the story ends with them together doesn't mean they stay together.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Ronald Helfrich Jnr. said...

I have to disagree with you. I think the Apartment and Stalag 17 are superb film and among Wilder's best.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

You're certainly not alone in that opinion, Ronald! I was rather surprised to find I didn't like them. It was interesting to learn over Christmas break that my adult niece didn't care for THE APARTMENT either. It seems to draw very mixed responses.

Thank you for stopping by and sharing your opinion!

Best wishes,
Laura

7:27 PM  

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