THE APARTMENT (1960) revisited

June 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the latest addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about (not a review) a genuine classic movie. It’s been 60 years on this one, so please expect spoilers with no spoiler alerts. Appearing on most every legitimate list of greatest cinematic comedies, director Billy Wilder’s film actually defies categorization and is a terrific blend of comedy-romance-drama and commentary on societal gender roles of that era. Mr. Wilder co-wrote the razor-sharp script with I.A.L. “Iz” Diamond. The two were collaborators off and on for 15 years, including what many consider to be the best comedy of all-time, as well as one of Marilyn Monroe’s finest films, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

Jack Lemmon stars as CC “Bud” Baxter, a clerk at Consolidated Life, a New York insurance company with 31,259 employees. Baxter is but a minor cog in the conglomerate wheel, save for one thing: he allows upper management to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. He doesn’t much like the arrangement, but lacks the backbone to stand up to them – especially since they dangle the carrot of promotion. Although the neighbors think he is a womanizing Lothario, Baxter’s life is void of companionship. He’s on the outside (of his own apartment) while others are living it up. Elevator Operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) has caught Baxter’s eye, yet while she is courteous and friendly, she politely deflects his flirtations.

When that promotion finally comes through, Baxter finds himself with yet another executive requiring use of the apartment. Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is the Human Resources Manager, and his demands lead to a most disheartening discovery. Baxter is crushed when a broken compact mirror and the office Christmas party allow him to figure out that Mr. Sheldrake is having an affair with Ms. Kubelik, and he himself has been providing the place.

 There are so many terrific scenes and performances, it’s not practical to go through each and every one. The early interactions between Baxter and Kubelik are quite fun – he’s so eager, and she’s so careful not to wound his pride. Kubelik and Sheldrake in the booth at the Chinese Restaurant is quite remarkable, and Baxter’s neighbors (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens) are especially effective as the doctor and his quick-to-judge wife. Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), is a standout in her Christmas Party scene with Ms. Kubelik, and watching Baxter and Mrs. MacDougall (Hope Holiday) drunkenly dance the holiday hours away is comedic genius, although nothing can top Baxter deftly wielding a tennis racquet (wooden frame, of course) to strain pasta.

The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, and won in 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), Best Screenplay (Wilder and Diamond), Best Art/Set Direction (Alexandre Trauner, Edward G Boyle), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell, who also won Oscars for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, 1946, and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, 1942, and who also started in showbiz as an acrobat for The Flying Mandells in Ringling Brothers Circus). The film’s other nominees were Best Actor (Lemmon, a 2-time Oscar winner for MISTER ROBERTS, 1955, and SAVE THE TIGER, 1973), Best Actress (MacLaine, Oscar winner for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, 1983), Best Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Best Cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle, and Oscar winner for LAURA, 1944), and Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer). Somehow Adolph Deutsch’s film score got nominated for a Grammy, but not for an Oscar. He did win 3 other Oscars for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950), SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954), and OKLAHOMA! (1955).

Writer-director Billy Wilder is truly one of cinema’s giants. In his career, he was nominated for 21 Oscars, winning 6 (THE LOST WEEKEND 1945, SUNSET BLVD 1951). This film was released one year after SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), a film that often tops the list of best all-time comedies. That film and this one, are also in the battle for best final line: “Nobody’s perfect” vs “Shut up and deal”. Wilder admitted that his idea for THE APARTMENT came from one scene in BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the excellent 1945 film from director David Lean, adapted from Noel Coward’s play.

Jack Lemmon’s “Bud” Baxter is just one of many memorable characters throughout his stellar career that featured 8 Oscar nominations, 2 Oscars, and roles in comedy and drama. He was a close friend of comedian Ernie Kovacs who was married to Edie Adams (Miss Olsen in this movie), and had a remarkable comedy partnership (10 movies) with Walter Matthau, the best known of which is THE ODD COUPLE (1968).  Lemmon appeared in 7 Billy Wilder movies, and was the first actor to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Shirley MacLaine was only 25 years old when she starred as Fran Kubelik. Like Mr. Lemmon, her (6) Oscar nominations were spread across four decades (50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s), finally winning for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983). In real life she is Warren Beatty’s big sister, although they’ve never appeared in the same film. Ms. MacLaine is renowned as a film actress, stage performer, dancer, author (multiple books), and of course, New Age guru. She’s now 86 years old and still working.

Fred MacMurray plays the scoundrel Jeff Sheldrake. Mr. MacMurray is best known for his 12 seasons and 380 episodes as the most patient father on “My Three Sons”. His career spanned fifty years (1929-1978), and he made his mark as a serious actor in such films as the ultimate film noir classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and THE CAINE MUTINY (1954). He sprinkled in some westerns, before shifting to comedy in the first Disney live action film THE SHAGGY DOG (1959), and then family fare like THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and SON OF FLUBBER (1963). He was certainly an underrated, though never out-of-work actor. On an interesting side note, when he was age 22, he played saxophone in a band that featured Bing Crosby as the lead singer.

 Edie Adams plays Miss Olsen, secretary to MacMurray’s Sheldrake. Her screen time here is limited, but her role is crucial to the story and well-crafted by Ms. Adams. She was the wife of early TV comedy legend Ernie Kovacs, who died in a car accident in 1962 at age 42. Ms. Adams put together a multi-faceted career including time as a nightclub singer, and actress on TV, stage, and film. She is still remembered for her iconic cigar commercials:

Baxter’s neighbors are played by Jack Kruschen as the understanding Dr. Dreyfuss and Naomi Stevens as the more direct Mrs. Dreyfuss. Mr. Kruschen’s 48 year career covered more than 220 credits in TV and film. Ms. Stevens is remembered for her role in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and a recurring role on “The Doris Day Show”. She passed away (age 92) just a couple of months before her 70th wedding anniversary.

Joyce Jameson plays “the blond” Marilyn Monroe lookalike. She is best known for her roles in Roger Corman horror films, and for a recurring role as bombshell Skippy on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Another link to that classic TV series comes from Hal Smith, who dons the Santa Claus costume in the bar. You might recall Mr. Smith as Otis, the town drunk in Mayberry. He was also the voice of Owl in numerous “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons and movies. Hope Holiday plays Mrs. MacDougall, Baxter’s dance partner on Christmas Eve. Ms. Holiday was known as “the voice”, and made frequent appearances in Billy Wilder films.

In addition to MacMurray’s Sheldrake, the other four managers to take advantage of Baxter and his apartment were played by David Lewis (a recurring role as the Warden on “Batman” TV series), Willard Waterman (well-known character actor in radio, TV, film), David White (Larry Tate on “Bewitched”), and Ray Walston. Mr. Walston had many memorable roles including teacher Joe Dobisch in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), JJ Singleton in THE STING (1973), co-starring with Bill Bixby in “My Favorite Martian”, and as Judge Henry Bone in “Picket Fences.” He’s yet another in the cast whose career lasted nearly 50 years.

The film’s lasting impact comes courtesy of the fun and energy and comedy on the surface, supported by a sadness lurking underneath. It offers a brilliant balance between lightness and serious social issues, and provides quite a statement of the times. A glance at the era shows us what a typical office environment was like. Women were subjected to endless harassment and unsolicited offers from the men in charge. They either had to find a way to deal with it, or quit and find another job – one where they’d likely face the same culture. Still, despite the sadness, the film does offer a bit of hope … plus some truly classic lines (including that last one). Girl with the “wrong guy” is common theme in movies and literature (and life), but “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” And the next time you are debating with friends over a list of Christmas movies, don’t forget Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT. Hey, if DIE HARD qualifies, this one surely must!

watch the trailer:

THE CAINE MUTINY (1954) revisited

January 17, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This film was nominated for seven Academy Awards (no wins), including Best Picture. Watching it today, it seems clear that the courtroom scene with Humphrey Bogart in the chair as Lt. Cmdr. Queeg drove this film to the heights it reached. That few minutes is as powerful as anything Bogart ever did on screen. Unfortunately, he would pass away (esophagal cancer) less than three years later.

The first part of the film is solid enough as we meet newly graduated (mama’s boy) Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis). His first Navy assignment is aboard a minesweeper (junkyard Navy) and the veteran officers quickly note his disappointment at not being stationed on a more prestigious carrier. Those veteran officers are played by quite a list of actors: Van Johnson plays no-nonsense Lt. Steve Maryk, Fred MacMurray plays the cynical wannabe novelist Lt. Tom Keefer, and Tom Tully plays Cmdr. DeVriess, who irritates young Willie with his laid back approach to command. We also see Lee Marvin and Claude Akins as part of the ship’s rag-tag crew.

 A shift occurs once Queeg replaces DeVriess. Queeg brings a tough old school Navy approach to the ship and is easily thrown by the sight of an untucked shirt. Over a short amount of time, the officers begin taking note of the odd behavior of Queeg. MacMurray’s character acts as an armchair psychologist, and more importantly, an instigator for the other officers. He is convinced Queeg is unstable and unfit for duty. The climax occurs during a typhoon and Lt Maryk (Johnson) takes the abrupt step of relieving Queeg of his duties … an action that’s never actually occurred aboard a Naval ship.

Soon Maryk and Willie are brought up on charges of mutiny. At about the 90 minute mark, their attorney makes his first appearance. Jose Ferrer plays Lt. Greenwald, the only naval attorney who would take the case against the highly decorated Commander. Watching Queeg (Bogart) on the stand is just about as good as acting gets. Ferrer is exceptional as well.

 This film is about the character of men and their reactions to situations in which they are trained to act otherwise. It’s based on the Pulitzer Prize winning WWII novel by Herman Wouk, and the screenplay is by Stanley Roberts. The film is directed by Edward Dmytryk, who you may know as one of the “Hollywood Ten”. Dmytryk spent time in prison for his lack of cooperation with HUAC, and his previous involvement with the communist party. The score is outstanding and was composed by the famous Max Steiner, who was also responsible for a couple of other films you may have seen: Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. It should also be noted that this was the second of five total films made by Robert Francis (Ens Willie Keith) and the 25 year old up-and-coming actor was killed in a plane crash the year after this film was made.

*noteEdward Dmytryk retired from filmmaking and for a few years taught film theory at the University of Texas.  I was fortunate enough to be a student in a couple of his classes.  His insight was remarkable.

*note – an aspiring young actor named Maurice Micklewhite was so inspired by the movie and Bogart that he changed his name to … Michael Caine

*note – pay special attention to the number of ticks/quirks that Queeg display (his use of Chinese Baoding Balls for stress, his use “K” as a form of communication, his facial contorts in moments of indecision, etc)

here is the original trailer (the volume level is very low):

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) revisited

November 12, 2011

 “I wonder if you wonder.”  Every time I hear Walter Neff say those words to Phyllis Dietrichson as their intial encounter concludes, I smile and settle in for another round of Double Indemnity (1944).  Chris Vognar, Film Critic for the Dallas Morning News kicked off his Fall Film Noir Series (co-sponsored by Dallas Film Society) with one of my all-time favorites.  Though I have seen it many times over the years, this was my first time on the big screen … and from a 35mm print!  So much of the subtle filmmaking becomes apparent – the variance of lighting, the intensity of shadows, and the vividness of close-ups.  This reinforces my belief that we should never miss an opportunity to view good films in a theatre setting … just as the director intended.

 Since this film was released 67 years ago, I won’t bother about noting “SPOILERS“.  If you haven’t seen it and plan to, you might stop reading here.  If you would like a little insight, then let’s keep going.  Billy Wilder (left) directed the film and his place as a Hollywood legend is quite secure.  He was nominated for 21 Oscars (Director, Writer, Producer) and had 3 wins.  Some of his classics are: The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, The Front Page.  Many think of Wilder as a comedic filmmaker and he certainly had success in that genre, but if you watch closely, even his comedies have a dark element to them.

Double Indemnity is based on the novella by James M Cain, who also wrote Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Wilder was a fan of Cain’s book, but knew the dialogue wouldn’t work well on screen.  So together with Raymond Chandler they wrote a screenplay filled with crackling lines and a constant feeling of dread and pending doom.  As great as the script is, it is heightened by a wonderful cast that includes Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Richard Gaines and Byron Barr.

For me, MacMurray’s performance is what brings the words to life and jumps the film to the “must see” category. He is playing against two Hollywood heavyweights in Stanwyck and Robinson, but we are somehow sympathetic to this not-so-bright guy who gets played like a fiddle by the villainous, wily woman he lusts after.  Even as he is recording his confession, a part of us understands how he got drawn into MURDER!  Not just any murder, but one for money and love … only there is no money, and there is no love.

 Ms. Stanwyck is perfectly cast as the femme fatale who weaves her web of deceit and destruction.  She quickly spots the vulnerability of MacMurray’s character and uses her assets just enough to hold the leash tight.  It is a testament to her screen presence that she can pull off the sultry siren while sporting a less-than-desirable blonde wig.  At the time, the wig was so controversial that the producers compared it to George Washington and wanted it trashed.  However, filming was too far along and now it’s impossible to imagine her looking any other way.  Besides, MacMurray only seems to notice her anklet!

 Edward G Robinson made a name for himself as a tough-guy actor … cop and mobster all rolled into one.  Here he plays the insurance investigator with a sixth-sense for fraudulent claims.  He is a hard-nosed, dedicated employee who takes his responsibility very seriously and has no sympathy for those who cheat his cherished system.  He has a soft spot for co-worker MacMurray, even though he is one of the back-slapping salesmen he so loathes.  Their relationship in the film is one of respect and about as close as two professional men could be, given the era.  When Robinson goes off on his rant about suicide research, he is a joy to behold.  This guy could flat chew scenery.

 In addition to the infamous wig, you might also notice that MacMurray is wearing a wedding band throughout the film, even though his character is clearly a single man.  Wilder and MacMurray stated many times over the years that was simply a mistake and not “caught” until post-production.  Expect a chuckle when MacMurray, as the narrator, enviously describes a Spanish style Los Angeles home as costing $30,000 … probably less than the property taxes would be on that house today.  The film originally was to end with MacMurray in the Gas Chamber and Robinson looking on (inset), but this was deemed inappropriate.  One last little nugget: early in the film, MacMurray walks out of Robinson’s office and past a man sitting on a hallway chair reading a paperback book.  That man?  Raymond Chandler, in his only on screen appearance.

The film is often described as quintessential Film Noir.  Another prime example of Film Noir would be The Big Sleep (1946), based on a Raymond Chandler novel, directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.   While Film Noir might not be an easily definable term, there are certain elements that must be present.  Lighting is key.  Shadows must be prevalent.  Some type of detective story is usually at the center, and we typically get some poor schlub of a guy being yanked around by the femme fatale.  The right “mood” is essential … as a viewer we know things are headed down the wrong path, but we just can’t save the characters from their own poor choices.  But neither can we look away.  That helpless feeling is a strong indicator that you just watched a terrific Film Noir.

watch the original trailer: