On The Apartment, or The 2011 At The Movies Classic Film Challenge

So what’s going on here? Well, basically, those silver-tongued sirens of the silver screen, Margaret & David, have added a new segment to their At The Movies show on the ABC; namely, they’ll be reviewing a classic film every week. Check out their first segment [here] wherein  they review The Apartment (1960). I love that they’re drawing attention to these classic films, and it got me thinking. Why not watch them? Everyone has a list of classic films (and books, for that matter – I might get to that at some point) that they haven’t yet experienced and that they will ‘get to one day’. Well, this is the perfect excuse. It reminds me of my undergrad days when I would take Screen topics to watch and learn about films I probably never would have actually ‘gotten around to one day’ but really wanted to.

So here’s the deal. Each week I’m going to watch the classic film Margaret & David review and maybe even write a bit about it here. Now, I’m not a film critic. Repeat: I AM NOT A FILM CRITIC. Have you ever heard the saying that a little information is worse than no information at all? Yeah, well, I have a Minor in Screen Studies, so that pretty much applies here. Don’t expect dramatic insights into the world of cinema (that’s what Margaret & David are here for, after all). All I really want to do is watch 52 great films (I’ll substitute my own classics when M&D are off air) and write a bit about them. It’s a personal challenge, like reading 52 great novels a year (which is also something I aim to do). Why blog about it? Well, it’s what writers do, I guess. Also, I’m hoping it will force me to stick with it throughout the entire year. And since we’ve established that I am not a film critic, I feel unqualified to rate anything with the traditional 5-star rating system, so I’m just going to give each film a ‘True Classic’ or an ‘Old Dud’ tag and leave it at that. Feel free to disagree with me in the comments section. Or agree, you know, for something different. I hope some of you take the opportunity to watch these classic films with me (and M&D) and form your own opinions of them!

Well, let’s see how this whole thing goes…

Okay, The Apartment. First, I loved this film. It’s edgier than I was expecting given the apparently flippant plot (see below), and it’s also pretty timeless in that way that good classics often are. What I mean by this is that the story is as resonant with a contemporary audience as it doubtless was when it first screened. Much of the story revolves around wealthy businessmen cheating on their wives. They’re aided in this endeavour by the ‘schnook’ CC ‘Buddy Boy’ Baxter, who loans them his apartment for their assignations. I’ve never been a huge Jack Lemmon fan (I usually like films he’s in, but not because he’s in them – he’s one of those actors I always see as the actor first and the character second), but his performance as Buddy Boy is pitch perfect. There were a few instances when his comedic side pokes through, which didn’t really suit the tone and bothered me at first, but I soon realised it actually works pretty well in demonstrating just how awkward his character is with the situation he’s found himself in. See, Baxter’s in love with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine – more on her below), who just happens to be fooling around with the married JD Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who in turn is the director of the insurance firm where Baxter works. You guessed it: Baxter’s career is helped along by the men he offers his apartment to.

What starts off as a pretty good set up for a light romantic comedy takes a dark (though not a melodramatic)  turn, and the latter half of the film resounds with . . . I don’t know, the best I can describe it as is humanity. It’s a very real sort of film that looks at the effects of this sort of behaviour on the various people involved in it. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was welcome. There are lighter moments; this isn’t a depressing film by any means. It’s just honest.

Baxter makes for a solid protagonist. One the one hand you feel a bit sorry for him, not because he’s locked out of his apartment in the cold most nights (although that’s a part of it), but because the people in his life, the real people like his neighbours and landlady (as opposed to the businessmen who just use him) are constantly misled about his character. They believe him to be a consummate womaniser entertaining all of these mistresses, which sets up a really beautiful set of relationships between Baxter and the people around him who believe him to be severely flawed but love him anyway.

On the other hand, Baxter acts as the hapless moral core of the film. In one scene, Sheldrake says how unfair it is when his mistresses want him to divorce his wife, to which Baxter replies, ‘Especially to your wife.’ Sheldrake’s response is simply ‘Yes’. The dual-edged nature of Baxter’s line (it’s clear to the viewer, if not Sheldrake, what Baxter really thinks is unfair to the wives) is a poignant illustration of Baxter’s character. He doesn’t really approve of what these businessmen are doing, but he’s unable to say ‘No’ to them. He doesn’t do what he does to get promoted – that comes much later – but because he sort of falls into it and then can’t seem to find a way out. He’s also quite charming, but in contrast to the womanising businessmen, his charm is built on an innate honesty. He’s a genuine sort of chap, and much of the humour in the film comes from him.

Shirley MacLaine is FANTASTIC as Fran, who knows exactly what being a mistress means but is almost as powerless as Baxter when it comes to breaking out of her situation. Almost. MacLaine manages to be both devastating and devastated, strong and vulnerable, in equal measure and without skipping a beat. I’ve always known about MacLaine without really having seen her in much. This film has convinced me how great she is. MacMurray is also wonderful as the charismatic though morally bankrupt Sheldrake, but then, I grew up watching him in My Three Sons on Nick-at-Night, which I think adds an interesting twist to the character that has nothing to do with the film itself. Sheldrake feels so perfectly justified in what he’s doing that the fact that someone, anyone (wife and ex-mistresses included), might have a problem with his actions never occurs to him.

On the visual side, I was struck several times by the use of lines in the film. Fences, benches, desks and neon lights are used several times to demonstrate depth, and the scenes in the office block where Baxter works show us just how small he is in the ‘Grand Scheme of Things’. The closeness of the apartment and its facade are a contrast to the vastness Baxter finds himself lost in, which in turn highlights the invasive nature of the philanderers who toss him out of his own apartment at all hours of the night.

Overall, this film tells an honest and resonant story about people living, to quote my mother and grandmother, lives of quiet desperation. It’s quite frank, and the ending is one of the best I’ve seen in any rom com.

The Apartment: True Classic

And that wraps up week one of the At The Movies Classic Film Challenge! Tune in next week for The Night of the Hunter – apparently one of the scariest films ever made! Eep!

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