Thursday, December 4, 2014

AFI Top 100: #80 "The Apartment"

Shirley MacLaine & Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960)

I love sitting down to watch a movie I adore with people who haven't seen it yet. It is one of life's simple pleasures, isn't it? Haven't we all had that feeling, when showing a friend a movie, "Man I'm jealous you get to see this for the first time!" That happened this past weekend when I screened #80 on the AFI Top 100 list, The Apartment, for my family. My parents had seen it, but my sister hadn't, and I just knew she was bound to love it.

Directed by Billy Wilder, The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter ("C" for Calvin, "C" for Clifford), 1 of 31,000+ people working at the Manhattan home office of Consolidated Life of New York. He is a weary cog in a massive insurance policy machine, trying to drudge his way higher than just the 19th floor. He is polite and well-mannered, which is how he found himself in a confounding predicament: In an attempt to stand out and put himself on the path to promotion, he lends out the key of his meager apartment to a slew of philandering Executives in his office desperate to hide from their wives.

Helpless to put a stop to the ever-increasing nights he's forced to spend waiting for the sex and boozing to cease in his flat, Baxter resigns himself to a life of scheduling the affairs of others. That is, until he falls for Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a button-cute elevator girl who delivers him to his office floor every day. What he doesn't know is that coy and innocent-looking Fran is embroiled in a love affair with one of Baxter's demanding key-holders (Fred MacMurray).

Jack Lemmon plays Baxter with this anxious and infectious energy. He is charming and conversational, and 100% non-threatening—which might contribute to his outward sociability but inward loneliness. I also find this film unique in its combination of comedy and drama. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and Lemmon is a comedic timing genius; but the plot itself is tenderhearted and wholly sad. The Apartment was "Mad Men" before Don Draper ever wooed his secretary.

The sex and drunkenness might be frivolous to many of the characters (except loyal Baxter, of course), but it isn't handled as such by the filmmakers. There is a pointed criticism of the 'amoral' behavior without the script getting too lecture-y. Our sympathy for Baxter only lends itself to looking critically at everyone else—Miss Kubelik included. 

A shift now to talk about the look of the movie. The movie is entirely in black and white, and was released at a time when most films were shifting to the vibrant use of technicolor. As a result of the advances in technology, the black and white contrast is quite magnificent. Whites are so white and the blacks/grays are so dark. The picture therefore sings with a soft glow; perfectly thought out, lighting-wise. There is also a depth to it that would be lost if color were added. It's what makes the cinematography stand out so much, and one of the main reasons I remembered this movie so fondly. It's simply beautiful (simple being the key word.)

The script was co-written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, who were the genius team behind the classic comedy Some Like It Hot. The dialogue moves quickly, almost like people are talking without a care for what was said directly before them. Characters navigate conversations passive-aggressively and with staggering subtext, using humor and wit to criticize, interrogate, and even threaten. Self-deprecation is also common, you know, theme-wise.

For a movie that so scathingly goes after the executive abuse of power, it is also remarkably lovely. Women are treated like objects, yet the movie could not be more aware of that fact. It incorporates a sweetness and honesty that is refreshing. Baxter adores Miss Kubelik, despite himself, and he stays true until the very end, even though he certainly wavers. That only makes them both more interesting.

The play-like quality of The Apartment makes it nary as exhilarating as a Roman war epic nor as shocking as a modern mob movie. It just makes it easy and satisfying to watch. The acting and the script are enough to keep this film afloat, but the art direction and music take it up ten notches. If you ask me, it deserves higher recognition on this Best of American cinema list. And that's all I've got, opinion-wise.

Rating:  ★★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back next week for #79, The Wild Bunch  or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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