Whenever I’m asked to name my favourite film, I invariably find myself unable to give the innocent enquirer a straight answer. As somebody who has long prided himself on being a film buff, I have to admit that flunking a question which should, in all honesty, be an ice-breaking slam-dunk, is deeply unimpressive. In my defence, I have finally whittled the choice down to three!
The first contender is, perhaps, a rather too obvious one: Citizen Kane, (1941), boy wonder Orson Welles’ technical tour-de-force that reshaped the boundaries of Cinema and which reigned supreme as the film critics’ ultimate choice for half a century or more, until Hitchcock’s psychological potboiler Vertigo (1958) dethroned it in Sight and Sound’s definitive 2012 poll.
The second candidate is, perhaps, too sentimental. Each time Christmas rolls around, the heart begins to rule the head, and I end up drunkenly toasting Frank Capra’s festive masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life as being the greatest film of them all, bar none! (see the archive section for an extensive review).
The third pretender to the throne on the short list, edging out Powell and Pressburger’s star-crossed romance A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Stanley Kubrick’s mind-boggling meditation on mankind 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Giuseppe Tornatore’s nostalgic love-letter to the movies Cinema Paradiso (1988), is Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning comedy-drama The Apartment (1960). Not as well known as some of the films mentioned above, for sure, but not a left-field choice either, being one of the few Best-Picture winners to have strengthened its reputation over time, featuring at No 80 in the latest American Film Institute’s (AFI) poll of the 100 Greatest American Movies.
Wilder, an Austrian Jew with an exotic hinterland that few could match, even in Hollywood! (journalist, screenwriter and male escort just for starters), had departed Vienna the day after the Reichstag fire and was desperately trying to out-run the Nazi tide that was threatening to engulf Europe (his Mother, Stepfather and Grandmother would all die at Auschwitz). Arriving in America in 1934, a penniless refugee who could barely speak a word of English, he promptly fell in love with his adopted country – not that you’d necessarily know it from watching his movies which, more often than not, cast a jaundiced eye over American mores. Slippery insurance salesmen with murder on their mind in Double Indemnity (1944), Hollywood gigolo’s latching on to yesterday’s stars in Sunset Boulevard (1950), cut-throat newspapermen craving their big break in Ace in the Hole (1951) and the faceless nebbish bringing up the rear in the corporate rat-race (The Apartment) 1960, all got the Wilder treatment, but good.
Wilder had honed his mastery of the screenwriting craft under the tutelage of legendary director Ernst Lubitsch (Wilder’s watchword was always ‘how would Lubitsch do it’), co-scripting Greta Garbo’s famous comedy Ninotchka (1939), with his screenwriting partner Charles Brackett. The film, to no-one’s surprise, was a runaway success and earned Wilder his long dreamed of crack at directing. Wilder hit his stride right away, a fact confirmed by his confident handling of the shocking film noir Double Indemnity, (notwithstanding, of course, his tortuous relationship with the novelist Raymond Chandler, drafted in by Paramount to replace a piqued Brackett).
The idea for the “dirty little fairy tale”, as one of Wilder’s detractors had labelled The Apartment on its release in 1960, had been kicking around in the back of Wilder’s busy mind since he’d first seen David Lean’s sensational wartime romance Brief Encounter in 1945. While a war-torn nation might have been moved to tears by the self-sacrifice of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, Wilder found himself intrigued instead by the motives of the friend who had loaned Howard’s character his apartment for the adulterous rendezvous that threatened to destabilise the institution of marriage in an already traumatised Britain! At the time, though, Wilder couldn’t see a way to smuggle a film that revolved around casual, extra-marital sex past the all-powerful censors at the Hay’s Office.
Finally, though, the project came to fruition. Having just made the sensational Some Like It Hot (1959), the smash hit comedy of the year, and a film which would ultimately top the AFI’s 2000 poll of America’s Funniest Movies, Wilder was casting around for a fitting encore. The answer was right under Wilder’s nose – take Jack Lemmon, the rising star who had done so much through his playing of Jerry/Daphne to turn Some Like It Hot into an instant classic, and write a film specifically tailored to his unique and, still to this day, under-appreciated talent for capturing the character of the American everyman; Lemmon was able to step lightly off the silver screen and straight into our hearts, just as guilelessly as Jimmy Stewart had once done in his pre-war heyday. A story that had been too risqué for Wilder to film, just a decade or so before, might work in these more forgiving times, particularly with an actor as gifted as Lemmon playing the lead.
Lemmon plays C.C. “Bud” Baxter, a lowly and lonely insurance clerk (the occupant of desk no. 861 in an opening scene of chilling, corporate conformity which borrows heavily from King Vidor’s 1928 movie, The Crowd), who unwittingly stumbles into a tawdry arrangement with a clique of middle-aged, middle-management misanthropes at Consolidated Life. The deal is a dirty one, alright – Baxter makes available the use of his apartment, day or night, for his bosses to shack up with their latest squeeze, in return for them putting in a good word for him with the powers that be, personified later in the film by the insidious Personnel Director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
Bud’s payoff, a series of unearned promotions (to the considerable bemusement of his co-workers who can’t quite work out the secret of his overnight success), and a once in a lifetime shot at palming the key to the executive washroom begins to lose its allure, though, as the wannabe big shot is reduced to sleeping in Central Park in the freezing rain while waiting for the assorted lovebirds to clear out of his apartment. Indeed, the scenes of Lemmon loitering around outside of his own home have a melancholy air that underscores Wilder’s inspirational decision to shoot the movie in black and white. His unappetizing lifestyle finally becomes something he can stomach no longer when he discovers that the elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine), a sullen slip of a girl that he’s been secretly carrying a torch for is none other than Sheldrake’s latest plaything.
While The Apartment takes steady aim at corporate capitalism and generally hits the bullseye (all-consuming consumerism, griping alienation etc.), the film is, at heart, a romantic-realist fairy tale; a story of how a grubby schnook (a fool) transforms himself into a mensch (a human being), by sacrificing his career for the girl that he loves. The likeable Lemmon was the perfect choice to humanise the insignificant Insurance Clerk and, importantly, he had the acting chops to blindside audiences who might well have been tempted to sit in moral judgement over him, and the movie itself, but who, ultimately, were happy to buy into the notion that the lead character had stumbled, rather than schemed, his way into a sordid arrangement that had pretty much made him into a pimp.
The film, although receiving nine Oscar nominations, divided the critics with many regarding the movie as “smutty” or “immoral” and there were accusations of misogyny too that have re-surfaced once again in reviews of the revival of Neil Simon’s stage adaptation Promises, Promises (songs by Bacharach and David), currently in its second month at the Southwark Playhouse.
In the lead roles, the sublime Lemmon (has there been a better American actor?) is complemented wonderfully by Shirley MacLaine (underplaying to perfection as the downbeat Fran Kubelik), fashioning a deeply convincing on-screen chemistry, but the couple still lost out on Oscar night to Burt Lancaster and Elizabeth Taylor respectively. The ever-reliable Fred MacMurray, playing against type as the philandering Jeff Sheldrake, sadly didn’t rate so much as a nomination despite turning in a performance that marked him out as a genuine 18 carat bastard. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s razor-sharp script did win an Oscar for best original screenplay, ensuring that the old trooper made movie history by becoming the first person to win producer, director and screenwriter Oscars for the same film. Cinemagoer’s, too, proved that Wilder’s timing was on the money as the film more than tripled its production costs.
The Apartment has plenty of competition when it comes to being named the best film of all time, not least from a clutch of other classic movies in the Wilder oeuvre. In typical Wilder fashion, the wisecracks keep coming thick and fast, but there is a lot more to recommend this film than its superior collection of running gags (though, admittedly, Doc Dreyfuss’s belief that he is living next door to the world’s biggest party animal is a doozy). In marked contrast to his customary cynicism, and neatly designed to go hand-in-hand with the film’s shrewd social commentary on life in nine-to-five America, Wilder conceived a fragile, though believable love story, albeit one that, on first viewing, barely seems to leave any imprint at all. And yet, with each passing year, the stilted romance between two of cinema’s more shop-soiled sweethearts has burgeoned into something altogether more substantive and enduring.