Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Apartment (1960)
Earlier in the year, a movie about a mall security guard chasing down a pervert came out to the mixed reactions of people shouting “genius!” from the back row and others shouting obscenities from somewhere near the middle. Observe and Report is the natural heir to a new lineage of dramatic comedies that has sprouted in the past decade (much to the horror of film marketers who have only two presets). The movement of comedic dramas or dramatic comedies has been a strong one, especially for audiences that got tired of the strict separation of the two that took place in the 1990s – sprinkled with a healthy dose of romantic comedies that required a box of tissues.
Much like the great prognosticator of trends that he always was, Billy Wilder drew from the past and anticipated the future by creating a hilarious movie that also happens to deal realistically with infidelity, occupational depression, and suicide.
Funny. And suicidal.
Jack Lemmon stars as C.C. Baxter , a middling executive who endears himself to his higher-ups by letting them use his apartment for their extra-marital activities. This puts him on the fast track to promotion (no matter how sniveling he is) and gives him a reputation with his neighbors as a man who brings home a new girl almost every night. One of those higher-ups is Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who acts as a smarmy, passive-aggressive forerunner to Bill Lumbergh and manages to drive a young girl to suicide. During Christmas. Then doesn’t bother to even talk to her over the phone.
That young woman happens to be Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the only girl that C.C. has seemed to take a shine to.
Luckily, he’ll be seeing a lot more of her.
As with any movie about sexual politics, there is a delicate balance that has to be struck. Fran has to be naive and obsessed with her boss/lover but not too insane. C.C. has to seem like a nice guy, but not so weak that he can’t make a stand when he needs to. As a boss, Sheldrake just needs to see his affair like those tissues the women use at romantic comedies – something easily disposable to leave wet and used and left in the trash can of your buddy’s apartment.
The balance of it all comes in a dangerous proposition: that you can’t really show any of that, except for C.C.’s character development, on screen. Fortunately, in his genius, Wilder takes the narrow path and leaves the sex off camera, choosing instead to focus it completely on both the budding love affair between C.C. and Fran and the utter devastation she feels when the man who’s using her grows tired of her. This all provides a lot of comedic fodder, but when all of that boils away, the tension is reduced to an ethical question of whether C.C. will continue his path up the corporate ladder or fight for a woman who, honestly, he’s just now getting to know (and who has a sordid very-recent past).
The mastery of storytelling here is that it’s a complex emotional tale that’s given its due. With so many stock comedies today weaving together a feel-good plot and tacking on a schmaltzy faux-heartening lesson at the end (even if it is learned while LARPing), it’s good to see that there are some movies that are brave enough to blend the comedic with the dramatic and do so with some degree of skill. They have many films to thank, definitely, but one of them has to be The Apartment. It’s brave and frustrating in the way most matters of the heart are, but it also allows for the natural humor of a dark situation to emerge and leave everyone watching in stitches.
The beauty here is that once you’re rolling in the aisles, The Apartment hits you right in the gut and reminds you that you watched a girl try to kill herself and a man try to escape from the thumb of corporate bribery. Shame on you for laughing (but that was pretty funny, wasn’t it?)
This movie is a perfect candidate for this column because it seems modern even by today’s standards. In fact, modern audiences might actually find themselves a little shocked by some of the subject matter and how bluntly it’s dealt with. Who knows. With a good enough HD transfer, people might mistake this for a ballsy new release. Probably not, but even so, it’s a movie that demands to be sought out by anyone who loves comedy, who loves drama, and who wants to pay their respects to the forerunners of the modern movement in dramadies.
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