Sunday, February 1, 2009

Not Wilder Than Today's Standards, Still Awesome

(#93) The Apartment -- directed by Billy Wilder

Thankfully for prosperity's sake, Wilder avoided discussing Ike's cue ball.

Ever since I've heard the name "Billy Wilder" I've associated the famed director with the root of his surname: Wild. In my mind, Wilder is associated with the taboo, the extreme, the wild. His comedies shocked audiences in the early 1960s prior to the more liberal comedies that Hollywood would soon churn out at decade's end. While TV was still portraying Dick Van Dyke sleeping in a separate bed from his wife, Wilder latched onto the reality that people have sex for reasons other than procreation. People engage in intercourse for, gasp!, pleasure. Wilder is widely credited with expanding the bounds of acceptable entertainment.

Wilder, along with Woody Allen, has the distinction of having the most films (five) on
AFI's Funniest Movies List -- including number one, Some Like it Hot. On the particular list I refer to, Wilder lands four (along with SLIH: Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity and, the film of this post, The Apartment), so I'll be spending a decent amount of time on this German-born director. Web sites laud Wilder for his simplistic directing style, often allowing the written word and the actor's nature to carry his films over fancy cinematographic techniques -- like contemporaries Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. In total Wilder owns seven Oscars and was nominated another 15 times. His expertise went beyond comedy, as his court-room dramas (Witness for the Prosecution), film noir ventures (Sunset Boulevard) and war movies (Stalag 17) also received recognition from the academy.

In short, Wilder's got it going on.

The Apartment
does not depart from Wilder's style of letting actors act. His job is to coax the most out of his talent and allow the excellent script (of which he co-wrote the screenplay) to do its job. Because of Wilder's subdued approach, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine soar.

Bud Baxter (Lemmon) stars as an unimportant, young accountant in New York who has one link to the great movers-and-shakers at his company: an apartment. At Bud's well-furnished yet small apartment, (male) executives from work come to take their mistresses and have affairs. That's it. The whole crux of the film is based on the fact that rich, powerful, white men have sex with women who aren't their wives and the complications that this causes on Bud's life.

Initially, the problems were small (Mr. So-and-so took too long; he's locked out in the cold; his neighbors complain about noise). However when the most-powerful man at the company starts using Bud's apartment to have an affair with Fran (MacLaine) the elevator girl, (to whom Bud is in love) the real dilemma start.
What is more important to Bud? The new-found (and probably undeserved) success his apartment has given him or staying true to his feelings by resisting his boss and proclaiming his love for Fran. The humorous scenarios caused by the apartment is checked by the real-life issues it causes. Wilder never lets the film get too serious (which is hard to do when Fran attempts suicide, still he manages), but he is also well-aware of the important subject matter he attempts to address.

A few thoughts on the film.

The past seems so glamorous. Everything about New York in 1960 appears awesome. The clothing, the manner of speaking, the formality everything has in it. I know Wilder made the movie as present day, but to a viewer in 2009, the time capsule is complete. The attitudes of all characters in the film are very unlike people today; however everyone feels authentic. Not that I would really know the appropriate way to behavior, but I feel like I do now. By using the strong-clarity of 1960's black and white film technology, Wilder makes the simple (a middle-class apartment) feel like a whole world unto itself. Bud's office building filled with innumerable adding machines, desk jockeys and Boller caps is a visible phenomenon. Wilder transforms the mundane to grand by doing nothing more than filming it. Visually, that's the beauty of this movie.

Indeed, what used to be considered risque is now tame. As natural as that sounds, this topic must be considered. With HBO, R-rated movies and, my lord, the Internet, people's attitudes towards sexuality sure have changed. Even when watching the seemingly-harmless sitcom Scrubs, for example, the viewer is still given large doses of sex. In The Apartment, I don't think the word sex is even uttered. No skin is shown, no cursing, no over-the-top innuendo -- just allusions carry the film. Maybe that's why the film is so funny. The viewer is never hit over the head with sex; it's omni-present.

That being said, comedy is comedy. Jokes about President Eisenhower's chrome dome might not be funny, but the elements of comedy are still the same. Relatable scenarios with humorous takes, zanny conflicts with exaggerated characters and unexpected, well-timed reactions remain funny. Bud straining spaghetti with a tennis racket made me laugh. Fran's melancholy delivery of the mantra of a mistress, "When you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara," is sad, but nonetheless funny. Bud's neighbors with heavy-German accents thinking that he's a sex deviant because they see a different woman leave his apartment every night and accusing him of being a bastard is funny. Unlike TBS, Wilder knows funny.

On the other hand, an example of Wilder's appropriate infusion of seriousness into the comedy is during Fran's suicide attempt. The scenario surrounding her attempt is that she learns her man is stringing her along and will never leave his wife (like he promises he'll do). So she over-doses on sleeping pills. When Bud finds her unconscious in his apartment, he must ditch the train-wreck of a lady he drunkenly brought home (funny), convince his Jewish-doctor neighbor to aide Fran -- despite the fact the doctor hates him for supposedly being a womanizing play boy -- (funny), and later keep her from attempting suicide again by essentially removing all items in his apartment she might use to ax herself off with (sounds serious but once again is funny).

Mixed in with the humor is the handling of the suicide itself. Wilder artfully juxtaposes the callousness of the business man who feels her attempt is a nuisance with Bud's silly but honest feelings towards her. The film portrays women as more than just objects used by the wealthy to achieve cheap pleasures. Although Bud may loses out financially by choosing love over success, he wins morally as his happiness with Fran far outweighs the alternative.

Moral of the story: Love can make you do some crazy things, but remember that it all hinges on whether the other person loves you for the real you. A Full House-type ending doesn't take away at all from mastery that is The Apartment.


Up next, (#92) A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens

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