by Allan Fish
(USA 1960 125m) DVD1/2
Living like Robinson Crusoe
p Billy Wilder d Billy Wilder w Billy Wilder, I.A.L.Diamond ph Joseph La Shelle ed Daniel Mandell m Adolph Deutsch art Alexandre Trauner
Jack Lemmon (C.C. (Calvin Clifford) Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (Jeff D.Sheldrake), Edie Adams (Miss Olsen), Jack Kruschen (Dr Dreyfuss), Ray Walston (Dobisch), Joan Shawlee (Sylvia), David Lewis (Kirkeby), Hope Holiday (Margie MacDougall), Johnny Seven (Karl Matuschka),
In 2000, just a year before his death, Jack Lemmon was interviewed by Mark Cousins for the BBC’s Scene by Scene series and during their discussion about The Apartment Cousins made an interesting point. He asked Lemmon whether, in his opinion, he thought it was possible that if C.C.Baxter (the hero from Billy Wilder’s classic) had not found happiness with Fran Kubelik, and if things hadn’t gone too well for him, he might have turned into Shelley Levene, the bag of nerves, ageing real estate salesman from Glengarry Glen Ross, who tries to cheat his way to success to pay for his daughter’s operation. Lemmon thought about it and responded that it was perfectly possible. However, for all its cynicism, The Apartment ends on a high on New Year’s Eve so, for the sake of auld lang syne, let’s look on the bright side.
Our hero C.C.Baxter (“buddy boy” to his colleagues) works on the 19th floor of the Consolidated Life Insurance building in New York, but dreams of being an executive, so he loans out his apartment to executives for their extra-marital activities in return for them putting in a good word for him with personnel manager Jeff Sheldrake (a homage to the studio executive in Sunset Boulevard?). However, Sheldrake has plans of his own.
The Apartment is a romantic comedy of its time, but it’s also a wickedly accurate satire of office life. The premise for the film derived from the scene in Brief Encounter where Trevor Howard takes Celia Johnson to a friend’s apartment to make love, then gets interrupted, but it’s also a homage to several earlier films, with references to Wilder’s own The Lost Weekend as well as an office with endless rows of desks that owes much to King Vidor’s The Crowd. The difference here is that Baxter realises he’s one in the throng and wants out. As he tells Fran at one point “you know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked among eight million people. Then one day I saw a footprint in the sand and there you were. It’s a wonderful thing, dinner for two.” His doctor neighbour may ask him to behave more like a mensch (a human being), but he already knows he’s losing his soul. When he realises that Sheldrake is having a fling with the very same girl he longs for, he sees the irony, but slowly begins to regain his humanity.
Essentially the film’s premise could have fallen in on itself were it not for the excellence of the script and the performances. Lemmon was always at his best as the panicky American bachelor and Baxter is probably his signature role. Just check out his timing; whether ringing around his executive clients to switch nights so he can go to bed with his cold, straining spaghetti with a tennis racket, frantically trying to get himself out of numerous tight corners and especially clumsily trying to be cool around Fran, hardly able to contain his excitement that the love of his life is in his apartment, even his bed, whatever the circumstances. It’s a masterful performance. MacMurray again proves just what a great heel he can be, as well as showing the same superb delivery he showed in Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity. Yet though both of them are brilliant and there are some fine performances from Jack Kruschen and Edie Adams in support, in many ways one best recalls MacLaine as the ultimate damaged goods heroine, who admits to having three lovers while holding up four fingers and bemoans “when you’re in love with a married man you shouldn’t wear mascara.” The sick irony, if you excuse the pun, is that she lost the Oscar to Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8 in a sympathy vote because Taylor herself had almost been on her death bed with pneumonia. The cynical film which ended with MacLaine saying “shut up and deal!” had dealt her a rough hand indeed.