Friday, August 21, 2015


Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurry, Jack Kruschen, Ray Walsten
Running Time: 125 minutes
Tagline:Movie-wise, there has never been anything like it - laugh-wise, love-wise, or otherwise-wise!”

I had plans to do at least two different things for my second post here at PSYCHOPLASMICS. One was a review of Paul Verhoeven’s medieval sword and scoundrel film FLESH + BLOOD. The other started as a little tangent from an earlier version of my COBRA review that ended up getting up cut out but I liked the idea of it enough to want to expand it into a post that would serve as something of a mission statement, both from this blog and for me personally. But those had to be put aside for the time being for a couple of reasons. One was that trying to decide which to do next was giving me trouble getting either of them started. The other was that I finally got around to seeing, on a friend’s recommendation, Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy THE APARTMENT. As only the most interesting movies can, (I was going to say “the best movies” but, y’know…COBRA.)  it moved right into my headspace and refused to leave until I said something about it.  Now, this isn’t the first movie I’ve seen by Wilder; I caught SOME LIKE IT HOT years back (that’s due for a rewatch) and recently had the good fortune to see his two incredibly influential noirs, SUNSET BOULEVARD and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, within a short span of time. (Sure, your movie is good, but is it “every single second Edward G. Robinson is on screen in INDEMNITY” good?) Credit where it is due to those other films, THE APARTMENT is easily my favorite of the Wilder movies I’ve seen and I have no doubts of it becoming one of my favorite movies period. 

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a little guy in the big city, New York in this case. He’s a clerk at Consolidated Life, one of the biggest insurance firms in the city. Outside of his job, he doesn’t seem to have much of a life that we can see. A frozen chicken dinner and trying to find something to watch on TV appears to how his nights usually go. “I lived like Robinson Crusoe. Shipwrecked in a city of eight million people” is how he describes himself at one point. So, it’s not that big of surprise to us that advancing his career takes such priority…which brings us to this problem with his apartment. How it exactly came to be is only hinted at but Baxter’s apartment has become the location of choice when his bosses want to steal away for a little time with their mistresses and don’t want to run risk of word of their dalliances getting back to their wives. Getting thrown out of his apartment at all hours plays hell with his sleeping schedule and health; the women constantly coming and going and sounds of partying night after night have also resulted in his next door neighbors thinking that Baxter is some kind of hedonistic letch; but, letting his bosses take advantage of him like this may be the only way Baxter can get the promotion he wants without spending years in the coal mines, so to speak. You can imagine his disappointment when a chance to get that promotion finally comes and its not a reward for all his hard work but because his personnel manager Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) wants to make use of his apartment, too. Baxter goes ahead and gives him a spare key though, because, well, his job is all he’s got.

The one bright spot in Baxter life is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the woman who operates the elevator that Baxter takes every day. Baxter is pretty clearly smitten with her (God, who wouldn’t be? MacLaine was not only a serious cutie back then but that haircut...) and the two seem to truly enjoy each other’s company. So, it’s something of a revoltin’ development, to quote Ben Grimm, when it turns out that Miss Kubelik is Sheldrake’s latest fling. It’s clear to Fran that Sheldrake is exactly the kind of arrogant narcissist who will string a woman along with promises of divorcing his wife and running off to some romantic future but will not follow through; not out love for his wife, mind you, just that a divorce would be so damned inconvenient. Fran still holds a torch for the man and it’s causing her no small amount of emotional distress. Things come to a head on Christmas Eve, after Sheldrake’s secretary drunkenly informs Fran that she’s not the first thing on the side Sheldrake’s had, and following an argument with Sheldrake at Baxter’s apartment.  (The moment when he hands Fran a hundred dollar bill and tells her to get herself something nice for Christmas in lieu of actually getting her a gift was so cluelessly cruel it had me yelling at the dad from MY THREE SONS for what a monumental ass he was being.) Fed up and heartbroken, Fran takes this as the last straw and decides to end it all by downing a bottle of sleeping pills. It’s fortunate for her that Baxter comes home a few minutes later, himself three sheets to the wind over learning of Sheldrake and Fran’s relationship, and discovers Fran unconscious in his bedroom. He’s lucky enough to live right next door to a doctor (Jack Kruschen) and the two of them are able to pump Fran’s stomach and keep her conscious long enough to get her out of danger.

It looks like Fran will recover but she’s in no condition to go anywhere. Sheldrake, who wants to keep his name as far away from his mistress’s suicide attempt as possible, isn’t going to be any help. While Fran has a family, a sister and brother-in-law, Baxter is too scared of what might happen to contact them, so it looks like he’s stuck with caring for the convalescing woman for the next 48 hours. Funny thing, though, that turns out to be the best thing that could happen to the two of them… 

Story goes that the idea for THE APARTMENT came to Billly Wilder when he was watching the David Lean film A BRIEF ENCOUNTER. In that movie, there was scene where a friend of the main characters, a couple having an affair, allowed them to use his apartment for one of their trysts. Wilder apparently found this character, who appeared only briefly, far more compelling than the leads. Who exactly would do something like that? How would they react to coming home afterwards? (Like most artists who show a knack for picking apart American culture, Wilder was an outsider looking from within; a German immigrant who fled the Nazis and came to the U.S. to make films.) Learning of a number of real life incidents that involved more or less the same situation around Hollywood inspired Wilder further. However, at the time the restrictions set in place by the Hays Code meant that getting a comedy-drama based around infidelity produced was highly unlikely. Thankfully, by the time the late 50’s rolled in, the Code was becoming a thing of the past, thereby freeing Wilder to make the film he wanted. 

In his words, THE APARTMENT was a story about the “emancipation of two people” who are victims of corporate callousness and for the emancipation part of the story to work at all, you needed to see just what it was they need to be emancipated from. Needless to say, being cogs in the machine isn’t doing Baxter and Fran’s well-being any favors. She’s an emotional wreck over a man who couldn’t be bothered to buy her a Christmas present and he’s a schmuck who lets his bosses, who could most charitably be described as a bunch of shallow, smug pricks, walk all over him. It’s only after they’ve been knocked down to their lowest point that they find something else worth grasping on to. This brings me to one of the things that stuck out at me as I was looking into the history of the film; while a financial success and later an Academy award winner, THE APARTMENT got a mixed reaction from critics. Many found the film’s subject matter objectionable and furthermore couldn’t reconcile with the way that the film mixed pathos and slapstick humor. Pauline Kael rather infamously called the film “a dirty fairy tale.” Amusingly, I actually like that phrase a lot. I think it describes THE APARTMENT beautifully. We’ll ignore that she meant it as a condemnation.

Well, the audiences disagreed, and time has proven them incorrect but I still feel compelled to kick a little more dirt at the dissenters. Seriously guys, you couldn’t have been more wrong. Had THE APARTMENT been this fun, frothy little comedy with charming dialogue and performances and never bothered to go to the dark places that it does, I probably would’ve enjoyed it but it wouldn't have had much of a lasting effect. It’s Fran’s suicide attempt and the events that follow that make this movie such a compelling piece of film. THE APARTMENT is willing to go to some pretty dark places but remains completely humane while doing so, never once losing its warmth and empathy towards its two lead characters. No scene in the movie best exemplifies this than the one where Baxter makes light of his own botched suicide to cheer up Fran. (One line in particular speaks volumes: “I couldn’t bend my knee for close to a year, but I got over the girl in three weeks.”) It certainly helps that Wilder cast the two roles so perfectly.  For a good chunk of the film’s running time, Baxter doesn’t display much in the way of redeeming qualities but we like him anyway, simply because Jack Lemmon is so dang likeable. His performance is  both low key and incredibly physical, giving us everything ranging from his comical reactions to having to shuffle around his bosses scheduled stopovers to a quietly  played moment when he learns just what Fran’s relationship with Sheldrake is. He’s so good here that it’s no surprise that he was Wilder’s choice for the role from moment one. Rumor has it that Marilyn Monroe was going to play Fran. Now I don’t know if that was true but if it was well, I can’t see her working in the role, can you? Having Fran be this breathy voiced blonde bombshell would have taken something away from the character while MacLaine easily brings the right mix of sharp wit and extreme vulnerability it needed. It’s no surprise then this was her breakout role. Or that I started crushing on Fran so easily. I mean, come on: cute, funny with a lot of flair, but masking an emotional turmoil that’s on-par with an F5 tornado? That’s my kind of woman.

It may come as a shock to you, but beneath this grand fa├žade of overpowering machismo is the heart of a romantic fool. I don’t think there’s a more “it me” line of dialogue in cinema than Holly Mason in THE THIRD MAN drunkenly stating “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m just a hack writer…who falls in love with girls.” I’m not ashamed to admit it, I love a good love story; poor old Holly watching the woman he loves walk right by him at Harry Lime’s funeral; Rick sacrificing his own happiness for Ilsa; Kyle Reese crossing time for Sarah Conner; Valeria telling Conan The Barbarian “Let us take the world by the throat and make it give us what we desire.” (Now, you can argue with me that isn’t the most romantic line of dialogue ever written but I must warn you if you do: knives will come out and shall not return to their sheaths until they have drawn blood.) For the longest time, though, I didn’t really have much interest in romantic movies by themselves. Clueless that I was, I figured it was a genre that was Not For Me; the home of stories about generic pretty people wandering if their love will survive this trip to Paris or workaholics whose lives are changed by a quirky free spirit who’s dying of one of those diseases that makes them look more saintly and beautiful. Well, I can’t stand “quirky,” I have a face for radio, and my bank account is such an abyss I’d be lucky to afford a trip to Paris. Texas. Paris, Texas. I was proven wrong, however, when I finally decided to fill in one of the big gaps in my movie watching experience and check out some of the films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. I don’t know if I can do the man’s career justice so I’ll keep things simple: CHUNGKING EXPRESS was fantastic and FALLEN ANGELS was pretty okay but felt too much like CKE 2.0, but both of those films are overshadowed in my mind by his 2000 release, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. (I still need to get off my butt and see 2046.)

I can’t call this movie anything but beautiful. It’s also an achingly sad one. I think all the best romances need a bit of sadness to them, don’t you? Starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, it tells the story of two neighbors in mid-20th century Hong Kong who are doing everything they can to deny the bond forming between them as they drift away from their spouses. (Who, unbeknownst to them, are cheating on them with each other.) There’s nothing of the nonsense I mentioned or say like “It’s totally okay that character X is cheating because their spouse / partner is a dick and in the way of Twu Wuv!” (OH HOW WE HATES THAT, PRECIOUS!) It’s simply about two people who want to feel that connection again, finding it over little things like eating cheap noodles together or writing a kung fu serial. That right there, ladies and gentlemen, is something I can relate to. I was hooked then and wanted more. Ironically, another one I would enjoy was BREEZY, directed by Clint Eastwood, which does feature a lonely workaholic whose hum drum life is brightened by the entrance into by a quirky free spirit. Granted, she’s not dying in that. Maybe that’s it?

Watching THE APARTMENT helped coalesce something in my head about why I’ve suddenly turned around on romances. Obviously, a big part of it is just “You’re watching good movies, duh” but that not the only thing. You see, I need movies like this. Love is great, they tell me, except when it isn’t, and if you wouldn’t mind me getting all personal for a bit, I can say that my experiences with it have been more the latter than the former. Relationships that fizzled before they even started; someone you thought was going to be something major, only for them to up and leave you one day, no explanation given. A one sided attraction that lead you to do and say things you still regret a decade and change later, and cost you friends. Even worse, they don’t even hate you for it, you’re just a joke to them now. Finding yourself in that same situation again, hoping that you’re older, wiser, at least more aware enough to keep history from repeating. Terrified that you’re not. It’s not right, is it, that the same people who make us feel admiration, affection, attraction towards them also by equal turns make you feel angry and confused; resigned to idea that it’s always going to be this way; so frustrated you want to punch a wall, just so your scraped knuckles will give you something else to think about. It’s not fair to them either. They aren’t doing this to you; it’s all that nonsense that refuses to turn loose of your brain and heart that’s at fault here. Believe me, folks, when a despondent Fran asks “Why do people have to love people, anyway?” or “I wonder how long it takes to get someone you’re stuck on out of your system. Do they make a pump for that?” Baxter isn’t the only one nodding his head and going “I know what you mean.” (I’m wishing for a switch that I could just turn on and off myself.) It’s a joke in our culture but I can understand why watching these movies make people want to sob into a bucket of ice cream. They can grab a hold of some thoroughly ugly emotions, things you don’t want to look at and force you to do it. Just takes a line of dialogue, a look on someone’s face, a note on the soundtrack and something you want so desperately to stay in place gives way and aw crap; here comes the waterworks and the snot and that noise that sounds more like something a small dog would make.

It hurts. God, it hurts. It feels like you broke something. But y’know what? Sometimes you need to do that so that an earlier injury can heal properly. That’s why I’ll keep seeking out these movies. They’re catharsis; therapy. If I hadn’t watched THE APARTMENT, I don’t know if I’d ever have been able to write that last stretch, because bloody hell, it wasn’t easy. It’s a movie that tells you that, despite how bad things look now, things can turn out OK and you can end up becoming a better person for it. I’d say that’s a message worth enduring a little heartache over, wouldn’t you?

“Shut up and deal.”

A Little Something Extra:

That’s a heavy note to end things on, isn’t it? What say I leave you with something that gets your blood going? Among the positive things I’ll have to say about the year of our lord 2015 will be discovering the existence of Australian musician Brody Dalle. I wish I had learned about her and her band The Distillers back in college, because I get the feeling they would been Very Important to Young William. Certainly would have been better than all that terrible nu-metal I listened to. (Yes, Virginia, I owned a Slipknot album.) Here’s one of my favorite tracks from her band Spinnerette. Give it a listen, get up and move.

C’mon babe, I never needed you so bad,
You were born under a full moon,
But baby, I’m the only one howlin’.

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