Monday, 14 July 2008

The Apartment (Column, Friday 11th July)

We talk a lot about rom-coms. The dreaded word comes up and instantly romance dies, one thinks of the ’90 minute rule’ and Hugh Grant starts acting like a tit, signifying charm and sophistication to American producers. The lovers always need obstacles to overcome: either one of them is big, fat and Greek, or thoroughly nasty (Priceless), or dedicated to Bill Clinton (Definitely Maybe).

Once you get to the final reel through, one thing always tends to happen. There is a reversal, the male suitor realises the error of his ways, Clinton-style, and starts running through the streets (of New York) to claim his loved one. As Billy Crystal says in When Harry Met Sally, “When you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want to the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

The roots of this run-to-romance can be found in 1960’s The Apartment, which is re-issued this week. Written and directed by Billy “Some Like it Hot” Wilder, and starring the incomparable Jack Lemmon, this movie is virtually the template for dramas with romantic pretensions, albeit one shot through with world weary cynicism.

Lemmon plays C.C. Bud Baxter, an insurance clerk for a huge New York firm, who gets taken for a schmuck by virtually all of his ‘superiors’ at the office. In trying to climb the corporate ladder, Bud loans them his Manhattan apartment so that they can have a ‘ring-a-ding-ding’ with their mistresses and floozies. For poor bud, he often can’t even go home, and things get worse when he falls for pretty elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine), who promptly shows up at the apartment on the arm of his scheming boss (the excellent Fred MacMurray).

In Billy Wilder’s story there are no gimmicks; Buddy Boy just seems destined to fail at love simply because he’s too nice. It’s a movie you have to listen to carefully, as lines of dialogue refer and build on what has been said minutes earlier, in a screenplay filled with delightful observations and wit. And finally of course, the romance, which comes from life as the man himself says: “I used to live like Robinson Crusoe. I mean shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand and there you were.”

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