Like so many of my favorite Billy Wilder films, The Apartment (1960) begins with a voiceover. Our very own buddy boy C.C. Baxter puts us firmly in the world of making a living, of rising up in the world, or being ground beneath its boot heel. He begins to show us all the ways you can be ground into dust, and those who will gladly do the grinding.

It is in this world that we begin to know our characters, to really take the time to understand them, both from what they tell us and what they show us. Once we come to the devastating suicide attempt by Fran Kubelik, genuine pathos has developed in spite of the biting satire and deft wordplay. As much a Jack Lemmon fan as I am, it’s Shirley MacLaine’s eyes and face that tell the story of a woman without a laugh left in her, and that’s what keeps me coming back to this story. Like my other favorite Wilder films, women are the most appealing characters. They are both great and terrible, human and farcical, and always three dimensional. They often have their eyes grimly set on the prize, without regard for the toll it will take on them or anyone else to reach it.

I think Billy Wilder was above all other things a writer. You cannot concoct a name like Consolidated Life to describe the behemoth to which our characters have become slaves (wage or love) without exalting the primacy of the written word. I think he would agree with me as well. We know that he visualized his stories in terms of specific actors, believing that no matter how talented, they all had their limitations. And so he would bend the script to fit the personality, and then coax career-making performances out of so many.

I often talk about films that make me feel something, and that this film can strike the balance between hilarious satire and deep melancholy and sadness is a testament to its enduring greatness. I know it is not the most cheerful way to ring in the new year, so just shut up and deal.

What you’ll find in this episode: how geography generates specific kinds of stories, a discussion of Billy Wilder as director versus writer, and what it might say about you if you love Glengarry Glen Ross.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Apartment on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Glengarry Glen Ross.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Midnight Cowboy.
Lord Huron’s The Night We Met.
New York in the ’60s: When Chelsea Apartments Were $111 a Month.

2 comments on The Magic Lantern: Episode 066 – The Apartment

  1. Jay MacIntyre says:

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your comments on THE APARTMENT–my favorite film of all time. You have some great insights, but I want to differ about C.C. Baxter. I think Baxter and Fran (MacLaine) are both “mensches” –decent human beings who are exploited by others for various reasons. Fran realizes she’s being used and she “gets took” as she says, thinking she can’t do anything about it. Baxter allows himself to be used for a goal that he thinks he wants (private office, more money). He explains at one point how the arrangement with his apartment just took on a life of its own. He’s stayed with that arrangement based on promises made by the higher-ups, who assume the arrangement will continue after Baxter’s promotion (something he will ‘owe’ them). Baxter feel struck in this situation. Notice at one point in reply to another worker’s lewd insinuation about Fran: “maybe she’s just a nice, decent girl, there are millions of them”. At this point we know he has a crush on Fran, and it’s because he senses she is not one of these other characters we see. I don’t think he sees Fran in the same way that Sheldrake and the other men do. The thrust of the film’s plot is the development of Baxter’s character. He goes from playing a cynical game he really doesn’t like (look at his misery early in the film, sleeping on a park bench, etc) to becoming a ‘mensch” (or realizing he really is one, despite Dr Dreyfus’s perception of him). He packs up his apartment at the end because he wants to get away from a place where people like Sheldrake run the show and people like Fran are unwitting victims. I’m not even a huge fan of Jack Lemmon, but to me this film is his finest hour. The annoying mannerisms proliferated later when he was established as a “great actor” and no one dared to reign him in. Thanks for the great podcasts!!! Jay

    1. cole roulain says:

      Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts, Jay! What you say makes a lot of sense. It may be a lack of empathy on my part rather than any shortcoming of characterization. I am such a huge fan of The Odd Couple that I may have to argue for at least a tie for my favorite performance of his.

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