The Apartment (1960)
October 9, 2017 6:25 PM - Subscribe

Bud Baxter is a minor clerk in a huge New York insurance company, until he discovers a quick way to climb the corporate ladder. He lends out his apartment to the executives as a place to take their mistresses. Although he often has to deal with the aftermath of their visits, one night he's left with a major problem to solve.
posted by latkes (19 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I chose this movie first for Billy Wilder Film Club because it's one of my favorite movies. I was blown away watching it that a 1960 movie would address casual sex, infidelity and suicidality! Shirley MacLaine is just such a sparkling gem. She has amazing onscreen charisma. Some of the magic of a manic pixie dream girl but written to have a much more complex character who doesn't exist just to serve male character development. I love how the story bits fit together. Somehow this is light even with such a heavy subject matter. If there's a theme I'm seeing in Billy Wilder so far it's cultural critique, especially of American culture, in a very light and enjoyable frame. Would love to hear other people's thoughts about this film!

Next movie in Billy Wilder Film Club: Sunset Boulevard - Monday, Oct 16. It's streaming now!
posted by latkes at 6:37 PM on October 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah MPDG came to mind but there's no way she's one here. Maybe back then it was primordial MPDG? Outgoing for an elevator girl? Dating one's boss? I don't have the period experience to say. Regardless, she's so perfect in and for this.

One thing that came to mind: it felt quite long! Not overlong, but just longer than it seemed like it would be, but perhaps that had to do with my only really having a sense of the first act going into the movie, which is different than the rest of the movie.

I think I have to watch it again!
posted by rhizome at 7:43 PM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think in general older movies are hard to adjust to in terms of length and pacing, eh?
posted by latkes at 8:13 PM on October 9, 2017

Oh my God I am so in love with Shirley MacLaine so much in this movie. "Shut up and deal."
posted by kirkaracha at 8:55 PM on October 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

posted by mochapickle at 9:06 PM on October 9, 2017

This isn't a particularly old movie for me, I think it's just my stupid expectations.
posted by rhizome at 9:21 PM on October 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Been a couple years or more since I saw it, but I did catch it more than once at the local revival theater. I was fortunate enough to have no clue what it was about the first time I saw it and so get all the surprises. Heck, first time I saw it I had no particular opinion about Lemon or MacLaine, knowing them from their later career only.

I love it. Friends who aren't "old movie" fans like me loved it. I suppose some people don't love it, but that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.

I really don't like the Shirley MacLaine as MPD pitch. She was one of the early ones called out but unlike almost everyone else on the list I know, I think she has a fully imagined existence. You are supposed to think about her and her feelings and the pain she suffers. Not to say there aren't gender issues. But at least in my memory of the characterization I think it's 50-50 who is helping whom evolve here.
posted by mark k at 11:24 PM on October 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

“Just because I wear uniform doesn’t make me a Girl Scout.”
posted by chrchr at 6:31 AM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

The first time I saw this movie I had only ever caught SMc in her later years - think Steel Magnolias - or on the covers of her New Age books. To see her in this was a revelation. I liked her before, but I loved her after this.
posted by ikahime at 10:25 AM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you can sign me up for wishing the MPDG thing would sort of take a breather for awhile since, whatever merit it initially had as a way to see certain tropes in movies, it now seems to have become so well known that it's more a checkmark category used to avoid thinking about relationships in films than a help. MacLaine's character here, like in so many other alleged MPDG movies is the center of the film, not just a cliche to bring Lemmon's character to life. I mean no one watches Breakfast at Tiffany's for George Peppard, here at least we care about MacLaine and Lemmon.

The tone shifts early on in the movie exemplify the difference, Lemmon is the "manic" one here, as is often the case for him, who doesn't see the fuller existence MacLaine's character has since he's blinded by his own desire for promotion and in his acceptance of the world view of the executives he gives the key to his apartment. He is on the path to becoming like Fred MacMurray's Sheldrake, someone looking for advantage without much thought as to the consequences of his choices. (Interestingly perhaps, MacMurray started out playing a number of characters more like Lemmon's Baxter here in romantic comedies, nice guys set against their betters.)

His role is comic at first because he is so willing to put himself out to cozy up to his "betters". That the first four execs are so obviously not better in any way makes his suffering amusing because they are as ridiculous as he is. It's only when Sheldrake gets involved that the scheming becomes something more personal since his approach isn't so blatantly false on its face. He actually deceives through more subtle manipulation that isn't immediately transparent and carries a malicious intent behind it. The viewer can read that as either suggesting Sheldrake's difference from the other men, or as the story flipping the perspective on all of them using Sheldrake as the example of what could come from any if one prefers.

The audience gets to understand Miss Kubelik before Baxter does when we see her with Sheldrake at the Chinese restaurant he uses as a date spot. That's the first big tone shift of the film, and it hints at the way Sheldrake has a regular routine developed for seduction. He isn't picking "Marilyn Monroe" types up at bars for random thirty minute encounters, he has a plan with a goal in mind that he intends to see through. Miss Kubelik's attitude and responses to Sheldrake tell us not only has she been through this before, but that she'd "dealt with" her attraction to him and had moved on. The seriousness of the tone suggests the importance of the emotions to her, which makes the deception we learn of and his callousness over his relationship with her all the more painful. We already have come to like Miss Kubelik as Baxter already did, but Sheldrake doesn't care much about her at all other than as a conquest.

The second major tone shift then is in Baxter finding out what we already know when he uses Miss Kublik's mirror to check his hat and sees its the same one he returned to Sheldrake. Baxter, just before that, was at his manic best, Miss Kubelik at first was his equal partner in the emotion, ale to keep up with his flights of fancy without any trouble. It's only when she's informed of Sheldrake's other affairs that she turns cold, or, as she suggests, we see her cracked like the mirror she keeps because it matches how she feels. Both Lemmon and MacLaine are quite wonderful and a bit heartbreaking in that scene, Lemmon for the ridiculous banter in leading MacLaine to the party and the nervous glee he has in showing off his new hat before the realization of Sheldrake's relationship with Miss Kubelik, while MacLaine moves from office pleasantries to engagement with the party to realization of her foolishness and resolve not to let on the depth of her pain. It's an excellent scene providing a pivot point for the movie. The fun of the party at the beginning of the scene is depressing and more than a bit ugly at the end.

There are so many lovely telling little bits in each scene, When Baxter is hit on in the bar and the woman plays "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" on the jukebox, MacLaine's line about never wearing mascara when you're dating a married man, both funny and a history for her, and the look MacLaine gives at the 100$ "present". MacLaine's balance of light sarcastic acceptance of her place with Sheldrake and withheld hurt is nicely observed, no histrionics, just the weight of her reality playing itself out. Lemmon is equally good playing the drunken upset would be lover who has to deal with Mrs.MacDougall's desires, Miss Kubelik's suicide attempt, Dr. Dreyfuss's scorn and his own concern over Fran.

One thing that I really miss from old movies, that isn't so common anymore, is how vital the minor characters often feel. The writing style Wilder and Diamond used, like that of many of their peers from the era, places so much more emphasis on a well written line delivered in character than much of modern film writing does where such niceties are deemed "unrealistic" and dialogue is reduced to minimums and saved for the leads or built so much around the leads that any hint of offscreen life for minor characters feels like a minor miracle.

Anyway, it was a great first choice for Wilder and I was only too pleased to watch it again as Shirley MacLaine has long been one of my favorite actors.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:40 AM on October 10, 2017 [12 favorites]

Wow that's an amazing analysis gusottertrout! I will say the first time I watched this movie it packed a huge wallop I wasn't expecting. I had only seen Sabrina and Some Like It Hot by Wilder, so the really heavy veer into the darkness took me by surprise. I know it ends well enough, but I remember feeling still sorta shellshocked after the end of it. I have shared it with a few people through the years and really enjoy it overall, it's one of my favorites, so great starting choice :).
posted by Carillon at 3:56 PM on October 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love this film. It was the first time I'd seen Shirley MacLaine in a younger role and I was just enchanted by her.

What a great analysis, gusottertrout!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:08 PM on October 10, 2017

I guess I probably should have mentioned I do tend to go on a bit when I first expressed enthusiasm for the Wilder club idea. I hope it doesn't put anyone off, I often just get carried away once I start writing about movies and the like.

With that in mind, I did want to also note a couple other things I enjoyed about the movie that I forgot to mention earlier.

One is that Baxter starts off the movie as someone who only thinks about externalities, causailty, statistics. He sees people as an abstract. His fussing with calendars and love of statistics and physical data points to this. It's only at the end of the movie, when he becomes a mensch, that he can see the individual reality of Miss Kubelik rather than her as a function of her relationship with Sheldrake. This is what makes his claim about "using" Sheldrake instead of Sheldrake using him so important and crass. It suggests as much that he too was using Miss Kubelik almost as much as Sheldrake was, that the failure to see the person instead of the exterior relationship is almost as harmful as actually manipulating the person himself. It's a refreshingly current notion, if expressed in somewhat outdated terms, that speaks to abuse being a systemic issue rather than simply a personal failing.

The movie doesn't judge adultery as such, Mrs. MacDougall, for example, is not viewed harshly and the film certainly doesn't question Miss Kubelik's desires or past experiences with married men. Even in showing the Sheldrake household, the emphasis isn't on the problem of breaking up a happy home, but in the manner in which Sheldrake avoids responsibility for his actions. The scene with his son, speaking about "propagation" of flies, that shocks Sheldrake a bit, suggests his attitude may be catching on with his son in the abstraction in which he speaks of sex, which apes that view of it as simply an externality. Sheldrake's divorce then can be accepted as a good since Sheldrake's family wasn't benefiting by his presence any more than the women he had affairs with. It was only ever about Sheldrake's wants.

One final thing is I should have noted how good MacMurray is in this too. Sheldrake is imposing for most of the movie because he is best able to exploit those external relationships and worries about titles and reputations for his own gain. He understands the causal, impersonal, world better than Baxter ever could because Baxter is limited by his restraint in wishing to cause harm. MacMurray sells this calculating and possibly ruthless side well, but by the end also is able to embody the limits of his own perspective, coming across as foolish at the New Years Eve Party, and a bit at Christmas, when Miss Kubelik doesn't allow herself to be sucked in to his point of view. Sheldrake's strength is in the acceptance of a impersonal and degrading system, when that acceptance is withdrawn, he is ridiculous and weak. That's something as true today as it was then, system-wise.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:02 AM on October 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Okay, now you're just showing off. :-)
posted by Naberius at 6:41 AM on October 11, 2017

Love all the thought gusottertrout!

Re: MPDG - I think this is a character that lesser movies imitated in a lesser, more sexist way, creating the trope. Shirley MacLaine has such sparkle and zing (copied by other characters in other films) but also has complexity and emotional development (sadly not carried over in lesser films). MPDG is a crappy, sexist attempt to capture a character like this?
posted by latkes at 7:38 AM on October 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Okay, now you're just showing off. :-)

Heh. Nah, just didn't want to to feel like I left something out since lord knows I'll probably never have occasion to talk about The Apartment again, so I want to make the most of the chance.

Re: MPDG - I think this is a character that lesser movies imitated in a lesser, more sexist way, creating the trope.

I think there's something to that idea, maybe not just MacLaine's character, but lesser movies do often try and imitate better ones, fail or miss the point and end up with characters that are nothing but tropes rather than feeling fully realized. That, I'd think, is where the more problematic areas come from, creators just following the numbers rather than thinking things through.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:06 AM on October 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I *just* read Hitchcock adored this movie and sent Wilder a letter saying as much.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 9:16 AM on October 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi all, I went to post our next film and realized: Sunset Blvd has already been posted to Fanfare!!

Head on over to that post if you wan to talk about it! We'll confuse everyone who posted about it back in 2015, and maybe bring some more folks over to Billy Wilder Film Club!!

Next up on October 23rd (so reserve those DVDs from the library!): One, Two, Three
posted by latkes at 9:04 AM on October 16, 2017

One thing that came to mind: it felt quite long! Not overlong, but just longer than it seemed like it would be, but perhaps that had to do with my only really having a sense of the first act going into the movie, which is different than the rest of the movie.

We just watched this for the first time this weekend, and I think what makes it feel longer is that the film is playing with the regular three-act structure. It seems like the Christmas party is the end of the second act. Baxter has learned that Fran is the woman who his boss is seeing in his own apartment, and everything we know about regular movie structure tells us that this is close to the final roadblock for our protagonists to get together. And then when Fran finds the prescription bottle, we’re primed for her to see Baxter’s name on the label and for her to have her own realization.*

But that’s not the end of the second act; it’s more like the end of the first. When the movie swerves instead into her suicide attempt, her rescue and recovery, it’s so effective because it has caught the audience off-guard. The fact that this still works 60 years after it came out shows how daring a formal shift this was; that so few other films have replicated it shows how hard it is to actually pull off.

(* One thing we were discussing last night was whether prescription bottles would have had names on them at the time, or if that is something a bit more modern. It would change the expected audience response a bit, though I still think this is why the movie feels “long.”)
posted by thecaddy at 5:28 AM on April 24, 2023

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