The Apartment (1960, USA)

It’s amazing how much office culture and workplace ethics have changed since the 1950’s. In The Apartment, Jack Lemmon‘s character can move up on the corporate ladder, because he lets the higher ups use his apartment for trysts. Hence the title. The sad thing is that he is actually good at his real work, would be worthy of advancement based on merits, but nobody notices it. Most of the love affairs shown are between coworkers. No, scratch that, they are between male bosses and younger female subordinates. Today the unbalanced power relations (and their effects on the relationships) has been revealed, so again, this would unimaginable in an ethically ran company.

The apartment shows the Christmas season of 1959, an era when the corporation was a different kind of fixture in the economy. The “organization man” was still considered a somewhat positive concept. The rows of identical desks at the office are a scary view for me having seen them taken to the extreme in Brazil and 1984. As I learned from a review the image was first used in a 1928 silent movie The Crowd. From a work-ergonomic point of view it suggests decreasing work activity for me, but here the workers seemed to busy bees in the rows. But our anti-hero, manages to get his won office, due to his willingness of sharing his place for extra-marital affairs. Which, by the way were following the (expected) norms back then according to this picture.

But beyond the social criticism the movie (and the era it shows) deserves, it is a healthy combination comedy, a drama and realism. Lemmon is fighting with a cold coming, his neighbors–who are disturbed with the frequent noises from his place–, his loneliness, but most importantly with the conflict between career and morals. Don’t get me wrong he has nothing against the affairs on a moral ground, up to the point when it involves his potential girl, the lovely elevator girl, played by Shirley MacLaine.

I know that I have seen her in movies in the past (e.g. In Her Shoes, Bewitched, Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment, Being There), but never as a young actress. My oldest memory of her is that both of my late grandmothers were keen reading her autobiography when it came out in the 1980’s in Hungarian. I was a teenager at a time, and thought that if they are into something or somebody that means I should not be, as it would not be “cool”. So., I promptly put MacLaine out of my mind. But now, having seen her as a twentysomething, prompted me to reevaluate and my existing prejudice.

There is one image from the movie that keeps popping in my mind. When MacLaine talks on the phone with her lover in Lemmon’s apartment and her feelings get a blow there is little statue behind her head. It is a female figurine in a rocking chair with her eyes blindfolded. It is an interesting symbol of love is blindness notion. Interesting because Maclaine is not just lovestruck, but also realist. She is fully aware in her more sober moments that the guy only used her as a summer fling, while his wife and family was away on vacation. She had burnt herself in the past. But then she gives him another chance and another one again. The blindfolded lady gets rocked back and forth into this unhealthy liaison.

I want to close this review with a short quote from the movie that touches on a lot of the themes I mentioned above. Lemmon (Baxter) and MacLaine (Kubelik) are heading towards the office Christmas party:

C.C. Baxter: Shall we join the natives?
Fran Kubelik: Why not? They seem friendly enough.
C.C. Baxter: Don’t you believe it. After a while there will be human sacrfices. White collar workes tossed into their computing machines and punched with one of those square holes.
Fran Kubelik: How many drinks did you have?
C.C. Baxter: Only three [showing 4 fingers]

This is a top 1000 movie.


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