Date: 08/07/2020
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All heart and no napkins

When asked to name their favourite film, many people name a film that they saw before the age of 25. In the years from 12 to 24, the mind is like blotting paper, and soaks up films, songs and books in a way that it never quite does afterwards. Films you see then may also change your outlook on life, while films you see later give pleasure to a mind already formed.


I was never the same after I saw Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Holy Grail as a young teenager. Had I seen them later in life, I would have found them very funny, but they would not have worked their way into my vocabulary and coloured the way I see history, religion and people.


Of the films I have seen more recently, one in particular stands out, and is my favourite film from after my formative years. It is an old film, but one I came across only a few years ago when it was shown on television to mark the death of Jack Lemmon. The film is The Apartment, also starring a young Shirley MacLaine and a terrifyingly amoral Fred MacMurray. The remarkable script is by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Mark Steyn, who is better on films than he is on politics, agrees that it was Billy Wilder’s best picture.


Their best picture together was The Apartment (1960), which scraped into the American Film Institute’s all-time Hot 100 at Number 93, but is, to my mind, vastly superior to Wilder’s more celebrated Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard. It’s a sad but true urban Christmas fable: there’s no snow, just flu all month long; the office-party booze makes everyone mean and sour; the only sighting of le Père Noel is an aggressive off-duty department-store Santa chugging it down at a midtown bar; and the Christmas Eve climax is an attempted suicide. I hasten to add I’m not one of those seasonal cynics like so many of my cheerless colleagues in the British media: “Ho, ho, bloody ho,” as the Daily Telegraph rock critic began his Xmas round-up a couple of years ago. But that’s what I love about The Apartment: its Wilderian cynicism is redeemed by one of the sweetest Christmas Day scenes in any movie. In his review of Rodgers and Hart’s amoral Pal Joey, Brooks Atkinson wrote: “How can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” Well, The Apartment pulls it off, wonderfully.

For Jack Lemmon, Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond created the character of C.C. Baxter, a lowly cog in the corporate machine who advances to the heights of the 27th floor and a key to the executive washroom by loaning his apartment to various adulterous superiors. Drawing the obvious conclusions from the traffic in the stairway, the clink of cocktail glasses, and the make-out music, Baxter’s neighbours assume he’s the swingingest cat in town. In fact, he’s a lonely schlub freezing to death on a bench in Central Park waiting for that night’s senior exec and whichever gal from the typing pool he’s picked out to exhaust himself with. Baxter has no moral qualms about facilitating adultery. He assumes it’s what a go-getting guy has to do to get going. His misgivings arise only when he discovers that his boss, Mr Sheldrake, ha turned his attention to Fran Kubelik. Miss Kubelik is an elevator operator and the girl Baxter loves, though he hasn’t told her yet, as their relationship to date has consisted of a few pleasantries exchanged as he rides her elevator up to the office each morning.

Fran is Shirley MacLaine at her early best, full of round-faced vulnerability and unable to accept that her boss’s interest is strictly carnal. As Sheldrake, Fred MacMurray is the apotheosis of Fifties corporate man, smooth, assured and ruthless as he exercises his droit du senior exec. As Baxter, Jack Lemmon’s likeable nebbish shtick is captured in embryo, before it got out of control and degenerated into a collection of exhibitionist mannerisms…

The Apartment is a comedy but it catches the desperation of inconsequential people passed over by the holiday season. And so it is that Christmas-wise C.C. gets to spend the day with the recuperating Fran, who’s abandoned at his apartment after Sheldrake goes home for the holidays with the wife and kids. In Fran and C.C.’s bedsit Christmas, there are no chestnuts roasting, but they do play gin rummy. Baxter’s face is never happier than when he’s straining spaghetti through his tennis racket and never more loving than when he tucks in his sleeping elevator gal. It may not be much of a Christmas, but it beats the previous year when he went to the zoo and had Christmas dinner at the automat. When I see The Apartment I find myself pining wistfully for Christmas in a rented room in a crummy brownstone. A lot of it’s the script, a lot of it’s the chemistry: Jack Lemmon gives his only truly touching performance, Shirley MacLaine is a delight, Fred MacMurray is the perfect boss for the 1950s dry-martini corporate culture - and the Christmas office party is a boozy, sexist elegy for the world before political correctness.

I have very little to add to Steyn’s review, which should be read in full. The Apartment has the edge over nearly all more recent films because it is so well-written. Jack Lemmon is quoted in Steyn’s piece as saying:

“There are fewer of what I’d call ‘book comedies’ now - with a first, second and third act through which the characters grow.”

The Apartment is very tightly constructed. No word is wasted. Remarks that first provide comedy get repeated by another character in a different context, and with a different function – perhaps moving the plot along, perhaps sad reflection. What sounds cynical and selfish on the lips of Sheldrake, becomes noble and self-sacrificing when spoken by Baxter. For this reason alone, the film must be seen at least twice. I have watched it for the last four years between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and each time I have seen something new in it.

It is a black comedy, which rarely makes you laugh uproariously as does Some Like It Hot. Rarely, not never.  The scene in which Mrs Dreyfuss, the doctor’s wife, warns Fran against what she supposes to be “Max the Knife” Baxter’s dissolute nature, is one such occasion. Proof that he is a reprobate - or “beatnik” - is furnished by his lack of table napkins. With its hilarious Anglo-Yiddish malapropisms, this scene must be based on a real-life character:

So what are you waiting for – a singing commercial?

You must eat – and you must get healthy – and you must forget him. Such a nice boy he seemed when he first moved in here – clean and cut – a regular Ivy Leaguer. Turns out he is King Farouk. Mit the drinking – mit the cha cha – mit the no napkins. A girl like you, for the rest of your life you want to cry into your noodle soup? Who needs it? You listen to me, you find yourself a nice, substantial man – a widower maybe – and settle down – instead of nashing all those sleeping pills – for what, for whom? For some Good Time Charlie?

The Good Time Charlie mit the no napkins turns out to be a mensch and gets the girl. But this is no “clean and cut” fairy tale. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a must. Be warned – it will spoil you for all those tediously predictable “romantic comedies” starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks or any number of interchangeable puppets.