Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The way it crumbles, cookie-wise - Reviews #64

"Shut up and deal."

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

Mea culpa. That's Latin for "OK, a swift about-face coming up." I've really warmed to Jack Lemmon's performance here, the only aspect of this wondrous film that ever lodged in my critical craw. There is still that annoying bit where he sings the stupid song and does his nervous laugh as he's making the spaghetti, but that's really the only false note in a characterisation that sees his Buddy Baxter shift from neurotic nebbish to marvellous mensch as he casts off the shackles of corporate weaseldom. He's an ambitious, put-upon office worker whose journey up the greasy pole (that's not a euphemism) is quickened by lending his apartment to executives for their extra-curricular activities (that is a euphemism). Alas, his collaboration with all-time love-rat Fred MacMurray - superbly cast against type - means breaking his own heart, as the utter, utter bastard is getting it on with the love of Lemmon's life, sweet, bob-haired elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine, giving the showing of a lifetime in an appealing but complex part).

I think there's an argument that this is Wilder's greatest film. The script and story, by the director and frequent later career co-writer I. A. L. Diamond, is remarkably original, both in its conception and execution, centring on several lengthy set-pieces that are like nothing ever seen before in American romantic comedy: the hero laboriously rescheduling a series of home-wrecking trysts, a suicide attempt and the subsequent rescue. It also features one of the best "trying on a bowler hat" sequences I've seen, part of a tradition begun by Cary Grant in The Awful Truth and continued by Giulietta Masina in La Strada and Gary Farmer in Dead Man. There are three scenes I particularly enjoyed. Fran's last-minute change of heart and Lemmon taking the flak (and two blows to the face) for her overdose are obvious sentimental high-spots, as lovely as anything you'll ever see. The other is the amazing first encounter between Lemmon and MacMurray, and Buddy's dawning realisation of exactly what it is his brazen boss is asking for. With measured desperation, MacMurray says he had been led to believe by Buddy's previous clients that the ambitious young buck was "alert, astute, and quite imaginative". "Oh," replies Lemmon. "Oh!" It's a brilliant comic two-hander.

Gloriously, every scene is packed with that kind of Lubitsch-y invention and innuendo, aided by some sublime running references. There's Buddy's reputation with his neighbours as a medical miracle, of course, due to the amount of drinking and shagging going on his apartment. And then there is the suffix "-wise", which begins as management speak, soundtracks absurdity and despondency, and winds up as romantic poetry. In the final minutes, warming to the idea that Buddy really, truly loves her, Fran's face breaks into an excited grin. "What's he got against you, anyway?" asks MacMurray, missing the point by several blocks. "I don't know," she replies, eyes shining, before plucking a cherished Buddy line from her memory. "I guess that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise." (4)

See also: Like Lemmon? Then witness his star-making turns in It Should Happen to You, Phffft! and My Sister Eileen, via the medium of text. To read about his finest hour, mosey on over here.

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