Monday, February 4, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Apartment"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Apartment
Billy Wilder (1960)

There’s a scene in The Apartment in which a character, the villain really, is shown at home with his children on Christmas morning. The kids are playing with some kind of toy rocket. One boy proposes sending a fly into orbit to see if it could survive the trip. Or better, yet, they could “put in two flies - and see if they'll propagate in orbit!” “Propagate?” asks the puzzled father. “Yeah – make baby flies,” clarifies his son.

Now, for purposes of moving the plot forward, all that was needed from this scene was to show that the character was tied up with family commitments and could not be elsewhere. That could have been handled very simply, perhaps by having him answer the subsequent phone call while standing next to a Christmas tree. The extra bit about the flies, though, does two things that exemplify why The Apartment is such a fantastic movie. First, and very importantly, the scene is funny. The Apartment is a comedy, and a good one (in fact, measured by the number of times it made test subject Mrs.5000 hoot out loud, it is solidly in the very funniest tier of film comedies).

But The Apartment is also a vigorous social critique, and the Christmas morning scene is important to that as well. The main character in the scene, that one whom I’m calling “the villain,” is entirely respectable in appearance, but is in reality corrupt and completely amoral in manipulating his corporate underlings and lovers for his own ends and for his own amusement. He is puzzled by his sons’ casual cruelty, but they are really just practicing on flies what their old man does to other people. So, it’s a funny scene, but a little chilling too if you are paying attention.

This is what makes The Apartment so stinking brilliant; you can pick almost any scene and unpack it like that. The comic elements are pitch perfect, but the critique of power relations in corporate culture is as profound as anything the sociologists have been able to drum up, and a good deal more eloquent.

Plot: Earnest young company man regularly loans out his well-situated apartment to the senior executives. They get a place to hook up with their mistresses, and he, in addition to getting a little spending money, is promoted quickly up the ranks at only the cost of his pride and self-esteem. When he falls for a sharp, quirky coworker and wants to use the apartment himself, things get complicated.

Visuals: A good study in the use of screen composition to convey and comment on the relationships among the characters. Some great shots of the highly regimented pre-cubicle office environment.

Dialogue: This is not a movie where brilliant people trade barbs and one-liners. The characters are more or less average Janes and Joes, so the humor is more situational. Yet, although the characters don’t know it, the dialogue really is very funny. The lead character’s unconscious mimicry of his bosses’ speech patterns is especially notable.

I can’t shut up about this one: This is a movie about illicit sex in which there is no nudity and no one talks about sex. Well, 1960. But as a grown-up, it’s nice to be trusted to be able to read between the lines. Also, it realistically recreates the tone of many office relationships, in which everyone knows what’s going on but nobody talks about it directly.

There is an important female character who is in love with the villain. In a lesser comedy, this would be inexplicable, as the villain would be forever exuding meanness and spite. In The Apartment, however, the villain is handsome, polite, charming, and confident. You can totally see why she likes him… and yet you are trusted to see through him. It’s nice.

Finally, in a movie that has aged very well in many respects, there is one social anachronism that is pretty mind-blowing. Asking his coworker out on a date, the main character reveals that he has looked in her file – it’s an insurance company – and has committed to memory her address, biographical data, social security number, and medical history. Instead of macing him on the spot, she just giggles at his flattering audacity. Fellas, don’t try this in real life.

Prognosis: Excellent. Put it on the queue.


Chance said...

It's one of the greats, all right.

DrSchnell said...

I love this one too!

Rebel said...

Finally a 'great movie' that actually sounds good. I'll put this in my queue.

Jack Lemon was hot back in the day.

Michael5000 said...

@Rebel: "The Big Sleep"! Don't forget "The Big Sleep"!

Phineas said...

So good it would be best to buy a copy rather than rent one.

mhwitt said...

My wife introduced me to The Apartment. We have probably watched it together four or five times. It is indeed an excellent flick.

My wife always exclaims over the outfits that Shirley MacLaine wears in this movie. I always get a kick out of watching Jack Lemmon's character (our hero) realize that his neighbors admonition 'Be a mensch!' actually does indeed apply to him.

IHow many more movies written and/or directed by Billy Wilder are on the list of all-time-great movies you are working through? Surely Some Like It Hot is in there somewhere.