Very few directors have as many iconic films to their name as Billy Wilder. When the American Film Institute named its 100 Greatest American Movies in 1998, four of Wilder’s films made the cut, three in the top 50. Over the past few years I’ve seen those four movies, plus a fifth. In fact, Double Indemnity (1944) was the subject of my very first Craving Classic Hollywood post and continues to be my idea of film noir perfection. Most recently I watched The Apartment (1960).
I always had the impression that The Apartment was a rather zany comedy, perhaps associating it with Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). And yes, the premise has zany written all over it. C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon, is a low-level businessman who hopes to advance his career by letting executives use his apartment for trysts. Scheduling conflicts and awkward encounters with the neighbors naturally ensue. Baxter also hopes to woo spunky elevator operator Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. While both are fantastic comedians, there’s a deep sadness to each of their characters. Baxter is profoundly isolated, waiting in the cold for married men and their mistresses to vacate his apartment, and Fran happens to be in love with one of those married men.
The dark side of The Apartment is actually mentioned in the first season of Mad Men. Joan is upset with Roger after seeing it because of the way Shirley MacLaine is “passed around” by the men. Watching the movie myself, I could easily imagine how it would feel a little too realistic for Joan’s character. Not only is Fran deceived by both of the men in her life, but the affair distresses her to the point that she tries to commit suicide. Looking back at the Wilder movies that I’ve seen, there are two other occasions when women attempt suicide over men. That’s what we in the world of feminist critique would call problematic.
Wilder often wrote about women wreaking havoc on the lives of men, such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond is former silent-film star who is clearly mentally ill, so her attempted suicide is at least quite plausible. Fran Kubelik, on the other hand, seems self-possessed, if a bit glum. The most perplexing example is found in Sabrina (1954), which involves a suicide note played for laughs. None of the women succeed, and with the exception of Sabrina, the attempts are treated seriously. However, the fact that none of them succeed also frames it as an attention-seeking act. Not a particularly enlightened view of women, Billy.
Underneath the veneer of comedy or glamour, there’s a cynicism to much of Wilder’s work. He takes on the Hollywood star machine in Sunset Boulevard and acknowledges the ugliness behind the womanizing businessman in The Apartment. Actors deliver great performances in his movies, and some credit must be given to his writing and direction. Setting aside the aforementioned problematic elements, Shirley MacLaine brings depth to a character who could have become a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In one monologue she describes kidding herself about dating a married man until “it all begins to look so ugly.” Lemmon’s performance has the physical comedy and nervous energy you would expect, but he also taps into Baxter’s loneliness in subtle and heartbreaking ways.
Although I’ve now seen the Billy Wilder Greatest Hits, there are many lesser classics if I really wanted to delve into his career. The Apartment fit perfectly into my 1960s reading and viewing theme of late. Despite his shortcomings, I would have to say that Wilder is among my favorite Classic Hollywood directors, perhaps second only to Hitchcock. It might be because he writes as well as directs, or because women wreaking havoc is not my least favorite thing to watch.