A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

Jack Lemmon was an actor Billy Wilder trusted almost more than any other. Starting with Some Like It Hot (1959), they made seven films together. I think Wilder may have found Lemmon's bright American likableness the perfect antidote to his own Middle-European cynicism. It shows particularly in one fleeting moment in The Apartment, after Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) has attempted suicide with sleeping pills, and after the doctor (Jack Kruschen) who lives next door to C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) has induced vomiting and left her to recuperate in Baxter's bed. (There is an unnecessary sourness in Wilder's repeated use of suicide as a motif in his comedies: Six years earlier he had Audrey Hepburn's character attempt to kill herself in Sabrina.)  As Baxter is dithering around his apartment after the doctor leaves, he pauses for a moment and plugs in the electric blanket that covers Fran. It's a detail that might -- probably usually does -- go unnoticed, except that it strikes the exact right note about Baxter, who can be so wrong about the large things -- namely, allowing executives at the insurance company where he works to use his apartment for their extramarital liaisons -- but so right about the small ones. The Apartment takes place in the era of male dominance but nascent female assertiveness that was so thoroughly mined by Mad Men: It satirizes the arrogance of the male executives by making the subservient Baxter and the exploited Fran the most sympathetic characters. It also doesn't "slut-shame" Fran for having slept with her boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier, when the Production Code was in full and rigid enforcement. We really are on the cusp of the transition from the prudish 1950s to the permissive 1960s here. This is not to say that The Apartment is any kind of revolutionary film: Its portrayal of women remains on the retrograde side, but the performances of Lemmon and MacLaine make it look smarter than really is.