Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Apartment

So, after watching Double Indemnity, I went looking for other Billy Wilder titles. I’d previously heard of The Apartment, although at that time I had no idea who Wilder was; it seemed like a good next movie to watch, given that Fred MacMurray was in both. And given that, unlike the darkness of film noir, this was a romantic comedy. Let's see how he handled himself. 

Directors and actors form relationships; they explore ideas together in successive movies (like Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel). Well, Wilder did multiple movies with MacMurray, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, William Holden, and others.

In Double Indemnity, MacMurray’s character was tragic; while what he did was despicable, we want to sympathize with him. Here in The Apartment, however, he’s a slimy guy, but we’ll get back to him in a sec, because he’s not the focal point.

It’s 1959, and C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) is a young, ambitious insurance schlepp who lets his company’s upper managers use his conveniently-located apartment in the “west 60s” for their trysts and dalliances in hopes that he’ll be rewarded with advance in the company. Meanwhile, he takes a liking to Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), an elevator attendant who has her own issues.

The Apartment is a mature, romantic comedy that may, in its efforts to remain light and touching, be guilty of treating too lightly a serious issue such as suicide.

Lovelorn suicide is a theme Wilder had visited upon previously, in his 1954 Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. I’ve not yet discovered what Wilder’s interest is in this topic, but I’d be willing to bet his treatment reflects the approach of the times. I’ve often wondered if the TV show Mad Men was, in any way, inspired by The Apartment – episodes shocked our recollection of doctors puffing on a cigarette in an examination room with a patient; or how people would thoughtlessly litter after a family picnic; or kids played with plastic bags over their heads and parents had no awareness of the danger of suffocation.

The knowledge, sensitivities and sensibilities of that bygone era are far removed from what we know and do nowadays; but back then, I’ll bet suicide attempts were treated more like how these movies depict than how we would treat them today.

Aside from that, this movie is light, fun, does have some darker elements as well as some feel-good triumphs, which really jam together nicely when Baxter faces down Mr. Sheldrake (MacMurray).

So, after viewing the darkness of one of the greatest pieces of film noir of all time, Double Indemnity, Wilder showed his rom-com chops with equal dexterity. We laughed a lot, even cried a little, and I realized I was on to something with this guy.

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