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.