Monday, 1 October 2012

Movie Review: The Apartment (1960)


A dramatic comedy about sex, office politics and romance, The Apartment is a seminal movie. While superficially poking fun at a quirky love triangle, the film is much more about the imbalance of power between men and women in the corporate world, and the dangers lurking within a culture dominated by men that shoves women to the role of sexual playthings to be deceived and exploited.

In New York City, C.C. "Buddy" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works as a lowly analyst for a mammoth insurance agency. Buddy is a bachelor and lives in a conveniently located apartment near Central Park. He curries favour with executives at the firm by allowing them to carry on affairs at his apartment, away from the prying eyes of their suburban neighbourhoods. The high demand for his apartment means that Buddy is frequently forced to spend nights away from his own home, but it's a small price to pay: in return for his hospitality, Buddy is on a fast-track to the executive floor.

Personnel Director Jeffrey Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) gets wind of the convenience of Buddy's apartment, and demands access in return for finalizing Buddy's promotion. Buddy is happy to comply, and from his newly minted position as a junior executive soon starts romantically pursuing Fran (Shirley MacLaine), the pretty elevator operator, not knowing that Fran is Sheldrake's illicit lover. Sheldrake has long been promising Fran that he will divorce his wife, but she finally realizes that he will never do so. Fran descends into a dangerous depression, and Buddy is left having to nurse her to health while sorting out his feelings towards her and protecting Sheldrake's privacy.

Arriving with the new decade, The Apartment ushered in a new era of openness in confronting and discussing office politics and extra-marital affairs. With feminism just around the corner, The Apartment portrays the workplace as the domain of powerful male executives wantonly engaging in lusty skirt-chasing. Meanwhile, for men like Buddy at the bottom of the corporate ladder, the office is a rock climbing arena where the objective is to climb to the higher floors as quickly as possible, with the ends justifying all the means.

It's all comic exaggeration of course, but director (and co-writer) Billy Wilder did not invent the sexual and office shenanigans; he just enhanced them and held them up to the mirror. Fran gets her bum blatantly pinched by an executive on the way out of the elevator, and Sheldrake's wife and kids are unknowingly living a blatant lie in a suburban utopia, in reality a hell-hole of deception. It would not be long before women like Fran and Mrs. Sheldrake would start a revolution that demanded a total overhaul of the balance of power, both at home and at work.

The Apartment does suffer a bit from a slowish middle third. Fran's anguish and recuperation takes a long time to play out, and the film loses both its comic thrust and dramatic focus as she wallows in prolonged misery. MacLaine's performance, convincingly portraying a woman furious at being too easily seduced by the false promise of a rich man, helps The Apartment to pull through the soft mud of destroyed illusions.

Jack Lemmon never wavers from his amiable everyman persona, Buddy tolerating the inconvenience of frequent interruptions to his private life in return for a fast ride up to the executive floor. He only begins to care about himself when he falls for Fran, and even then he puts her needs and the privacy of Sheldrake way ahead of his own desire. Buddy is a career-defining role for Lemmon, the kind-hearted man with a smile ambling through life, doing favours for others and rolling with the punches until he recognizes the need to make a stand.

Joseph LaShelle's black and white cinematography captures a high-energy office environment and contrasts it with Buddy's lonely apartment. The cavernous office floor where Buddy works along with countless other insurance analysts, uninterrupted ceiling neon panels extending as far as the eye can see, is a perfect image for a bustling crowd of humanity in the service of soaring corporate interests, but with precious little personal interaction.

The Apartment is a gateway to the turbulent 1960s, a film that serenely anticipated the inevitable collapse of what appeared to be established rules for behaviour among men and women. It would take a few years, but women like Fran ended the decade riding the elevator upwards instead of operating it, as more caring guys like Buddy helped to shape a new social reality.






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