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The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

The Apartment does whatever it can to remain a dramatic comedy when it shouldn’t be anymore. And sort of isn’t. When the film shifts into real drama, there’s no going back. Director Wilder gets it too. The film has a good comedy opening, a breathtaking dramatic middle, and a decent comedy end. The comedy in the opening and the end is very different. The opening comedy is sort of bemused–oh, isn’t it funny how office drone Jack Lemmon gets into management because he lends out his apartment to company managers to use with their girlfriends. You know, away from the wives.

Now, there’s drama of some kind forecast in the opening comedy. The comedy, drama, and comedy split doesn’t exactly fit the three acts. But is sort of shoe-horned to fit. Anyway. There’s some inevitable character drama forecast during the comedy. Lemmon’s got a crush on elevator girl and confirmed non-dater Shirley MacLaine. Turns out she’s not a non-dater, she’s just more discreet than the rest of the office staff. And by office staff, there are thousands of employees. An absurd number of them, actually, for the space. Because before The Apartment becomes a romantic pursuit comedy, it’s a modern office comedy.

Writers Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond do pretty well at the modern office comedy. It all hinges on Lemmon, who’s really got to do everything for twenty-five minutes. It’s a two-hour and change film. So the first fifth is all Lemmon and the modern office comedy involving his apartment. MacLaine shows up, but she’s just another piece of the office comedy.

It’s when Lemmon finally gets busted and big boss Fred MacMurray demands use of The Apartment does the film start moving. All the setup is Lemmon–quite spectacularly–spinning his wheels. There’s no narrative drive to Lemmon’s promotion goals because it’s unclear they’re goals. Certainly why they’d be goals. Lemmon’s character is the force of his personality and performance. It isn’t until the scene with MacMurray Lemmon has to do anything different. That scene changes the whole movie.

Then there’s sort of this mini-first act to the dramatic material, moving the film away from the comedy, bringing in MacLaine’s story. Told in exposition. There’s a lot of character revelations through exposition in The Apartment and they’re often spectacular, but never explored. Lemmon and MacLaine never get to develop in their scenes together. They spend most of the dramatic middle together. The middle of The Apartment is this short film within the film, where the direction changes, the script changes, the performances change.

And the middle is wonderful. Both Lemmon and MacLaine are fantastic. They have this parallel development arc. Lemmon’s falling for MacLaine, MacLaine’s getting back together with MacMurray. There are dramatic stakes involved; the film doesn’t prepare for them. Wilder and Diamond have some absurdism at the beginning, then they’ve got some shock value. But all very mild. The script relies on these sturdy narrative devices, but always carefully; making sure they never creak.

Wilder’s direction is outstanding. He, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, and editor Daniel Mandell create a seamless visual experience. So seamless when it detaches from Lemmon and MacLaine in the last third, the second comedy section, it does so ahead of the story. The filmmaking and the writing are both phenomenal. Even when The Apartment is skipping character development for these short, tragic, cynically comedic set pieces in the last third. Wilder and Diamond make the film into a drama–almost entirely straight drama–in the middle, then try to avoid having to do a dramatic finish.

Because they want to do the romantic comedy, which is cute–Lemmon and MacLaine are cute, MacMurray’s great as the sleazebag boss–but they haven’t really set up. There are some big Lemmon revelations in the finale and they don’t fit with the rest of the character. Not how Wilder and Diamond handled him in the opening. The script also has a problem with MacLaine’s naiveté. Sometimes she has so much she couldn’t have gotten to where she’s gotten. She also gets some big revelations, but in the middle dramatic area–so not played for comedy like Lemmon’s later revelations–and they scuff with some of the earlier character development; the finale could fix it. But doesn’t. Because as much as the final third distances itself from Lemmon, it abandons MacLaine.

And when she is in it, Wilder and Diamond keep her as flat as possible. It’s very strange. The finale just feels perfunctory. Technically inspired, beautifully written, but perfunctory. The film stops worrying about its characters and concentrates on the most efficient way to finish things up.

The acting’s all great. Lemmon, MacLaine, MacMurray (whose paper thin character never gets any thicker). David Lewis and Ray Walston are awesome as a couple of Lemmon’s apartment leches. Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens are Lemmon’s neighbors, who think he’s a sex addict with all the activity in his apartment; they play a big part in the middle. They go from being bit comedy background to this spectacular dramatic support.

Hope Holiday is hilarious. It’s kind of an extended cameo; the part’s beautifully written and Holiday’s fantastic. The other thing about The Apartment is how little Wilder and Diamond try in the final section. They employ these particular, different, precise narrative devices–always beautifully executed–and then they give up on trying for new ones in the finale.

Edie Adams is good as MacMurray’s secretary. She too goes from background to… well, not support, but also not background. The way the script makes room for bigger parts for the characters is another phenomenal quality of it. And another one the finale ignores.

The Apartment is rather frustrating. It’s spectacular film. Masterfully, exquisitely produced. But still disappointing. It pulls off this great transition from comedy to drama and then shrugs at the transition back. It never runs out of enthusiasm just ambition.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Adolph Deutsch; released by United Artists.

Starring Jack Lemmon (C.C. Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (Jeff D. Sheldrake), Jack Kruschen (Dr. Dreyfuss), Edie Adams (Miss Olsen), Naomi Stevens (Mrs. Mildred Dreyfuss), Ray Walston (Joe Dobisch), David Lewis (Al Kirkeby), Johnny Seven (Karl Matuschka), and Hope Holiday (Mrs. Margie MacDougall).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE GREATEST FILM I'VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DEBBIE OF MOON IN GEMINI.


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High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)

High Noon is a film all about courage and cowardice, so it’s appropriate the film starts with the most courageous thing it’s ever going to do and it does a few. It commits to its theme song. Not a piece of music from Dimitri Tiomkin, but a country song (written by Tiomkin, lyrics by Ned Washington, sung by Tex Ritter). It’s about the movie. It’s the story of the movie, sans specifics, from the perspective of the protagonist.

And High Noon uses the song throughout when lead Gary Cooper is walking around alone. Only the character in the song is nothing like the character in the movie so it creates this disconnect. The song lionizes, Cooper humanizes. Fits sort of perfectly in with the Western hero, which the film comments on rather quietly. High Noon is an intentional metaphor for the HUAC witch hunt. It’s all about Cooper needing help from his neighbors and his neighbors chosing their own self-interest, with a lot of excuses.

In those excuses, screenwriter Carl Foreman comes up with a great deal of transcendant material. Noon becomes not just about a person’s cowardice in HUAC, but about a community’s cowardice in general. There’s a lot of little stuff in High Noon–the film’s not even ninety minutes and it often refuses exposition–and there’s the steady theme about how greed and racism fuel self-interest. The racism comes in with Katy Jurado, who plays a Mexican businesswoman. She gets one of the four plot lines. Well, she sort of shares it with Grace Kelly but Jurado gets the better character.

Let me back up.

The film opens with the song and Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef is by himself, waiting, playing with his gun or something. Just being creepy and ominous. As the song plays, the lyrics soon confirm the ominous. But Van Cleef does it on his own. Along with Zinnemann’s stark composition. The settings aren’t neccesarily stark, but Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby shoot the film with completely empty skies. It’s bright and unforgiving, intensely examining its characters.

Cooper is marshal in a developing frontier town. Thanks to him, decent women can walk the streets during the day. Not sure about night time. After Van Cleef joins up with two other villainous types–Sheb Wooley and Robert J. Wilke–they ride into town and passed the justice of the peace where Cooper is getting married to Kelly. The song has already let us know what’s going to happen in the movie and introduced at least two characters–Cooper and wife Kelly–so the actual introduction to Cooper and Kelly is… not strange, but startling. It’s a long song. It takes Van Cleef and pals a while to get through the opening titles and into town.

The three bad guys are going to the train station to meet another bad guy. That bad guy is the one who’s going to come after Cooper. He just got out parolled from prison (“up north,” where the bleeding hearts free killers) and so he’s on his way home to kill Cooper. Or so everyone assumes.

And so the good townsfolk put Cooper and Kelly on their wagon and send them out of town. They were leaving anyway. Cooper just resigned as marshal. In addition to being half his age, Kelly’s a Quaker. No more gunfights for Cooper.

Only then Cooper decides he can’t run. So he turns back, confident the good townsfolk will help him. They’re all neighbors and friends.

The first friend to turn Cooper down is judge Otto Kruger, who hightails it. Then there’s Harry Morgan, Thomas Mitchell, and Lon Chaney Jr. They’re all good friends with Cooper, but none of them will help. See, the town doesn’t have enough deputies and the only other active one, Lloyd Bridges, picks that day to finally lose it.

See, Bridges is jealous of Cooper and wishes he could be Cooper but resents Cooper for his envy. Bridges wants to be the next marshal, Cooper thinks he’s too immature. Of course, Bridges has already proven his manhood by shacking up with Jurado, who had a romance with Cooper a year before. Pre-Kelly. Jurado’s aware of Bridges’s personality flaws, but apparently finds him amusing. It’s in Jurado’s performance. She has a patience with Bridges.

So Bridges isn’t going to help Cooper. Bridges has a fantastic character arc in the film. Probably the best. It culminates in a great fist fight where Zinnemann and editor Elmo Williams show off. High Noon’s fist fight is better than its gun fight, because Zinnemann’s got a reason not to glamorize the gun fight but the fist fight is fair game.

The story lines are Cooper, Bridges, Jurado and Kelly, and Van Cleef and friends. Everyone except the bad guys intersect throughout the film, which is fairly real time and has Cooper trying to find people to help him before the bad guy arrives at, well, High Noon.

And there’s the song to accompany Cooper when he’s out alone. Until it’s not there anymore. The film picks just the right time to eighty-six the song and let Cooper’s performance take over. And it’s no different in how it handles Cooper, other than the song being gone. He’d been doing this performance the whole film. The film just decides it’s time to stop talking about Cooper and instead be about him.

And the other story lines. Though the bad guys’ waiting for the train one is pragmatic and Bridges’s masculinity one is truncated (and very nicely echoed through a lot of the rest of the town, definitely in the bar scenes), the one with Kelly and Jurado gets a lot of attention. It’s the film’s main subplot, specifically Jurado. She connects to all the characters, eventually.

Cooper’s great. A lot of his part is reactive and the film never gets too interior–Cooper’s experiencing a lot of fear, anger, and disappointment. He ought to be seething, but he doesn’t get to seethe because he’s got to be the guy in the song. The song haunts him. And hounds him.

Kelly and Jurado are good. While Kelly will break down in front of Cooper, she won’t in front of anyone else. Jurado doesn’t break down in front of anyone. So when they finally get together, Kelly and Jurado are adversarial. Only Foreman’s script has much higher ambition for the characters. It gives Jurado a great arc in the film too. Cooper and Kelly end up with the least impressive character development arcs in the picture. They still have perfectly good arcs, Foreman just concentrated on Jurado and Bridges. Because Cooper and Kelly’s arc is tied and very complicated. She doesn’t just object because he’s outnumbered and she’s a Quaker. There are things going on. With Cooper too. Their arc builds–is surface, is subtext–it even echoes.

Foreman’s script is really, really good throughout and especially on that arc.

Bridges is fantastic. Mitchell, Chaney, Morgan. They’re all good. They’re kind of cameo parts though. Kruger’s fine. He’s a lot better being a weasel than not, however.

High Noon’s great. Zinnemann, Foreman, Cooper, producer Stanley Kramer. They make something singular. And not just because they get away with that song.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Carl Foreman, based on a magazine story by John W. Cunningham; director of photography, Floyd Crosby; edited by Elmo Williams; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Gary Cooper (Marshal Will Kane), Grace Kelly (Amy Fowler Kane), Katy Jurado (Helen Ramírez), Lloyd Bridges (Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell), Sheb Wooley (Ben Miller), Robert J. Wilke (Jim Pierce), Lee Van Cleef (Jack Colby), Thomas Mitchell (Mayor Jonas Henderson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Martin Howe), Harry Morgan (Sam Fuller), and Otto Kruger (Judge Percy Mettrick).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 4TH WONDERFUL GRACE KELLY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA AND EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME.


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Lonelyhearts (1958, Vincent J. Donehue)

The most frustrating thing about Lonelyhearts is Donehue’s direction. While not a television production, Donehue directs it like one. He’ll have these shots of star Montgomery Clift baring his soul to girlfriend Dolores Hart and Donehue will stick with Clift, no reaction shot on Hart much less letting her hear the whole thing. Of course, less reaction shots in Lonelyhearts isn’t a bad thing. Donehue shoots them terribly. The first scene has one, while Clift is sitting in a booth with Myrna Loy and Robert Ryan and cuts from the three shot to a medium shot of Clift in his seat… obviously alone at the table. Coverage isn’t Donehue’s strong suit. Nothing is Donehue’s strong suit.

Lonelyhearts is based on a novel and a play, but producer and writer Dore Schary’s screenplay seems to favor the play. Unless the Robert Ryan character spoke in incessant monologue in the novel too. Not to complain about Ryan, who kind of gives the film’s best performance as a cruel newspaper editor who enjoys torturing his discontented staff almost as much as he likes torturing suffering wife Loy. She cheated on him once ten years ago, as a response to his multiple affairs, and has been waiting for him to forgive her since.

Yeah, Lonelyhearts has a lot of misogyny issues, even when it tries not to have them. While Ryan’s not a good guy because his cruelty, Loy’s only sympathetic because so she’s so contrite (and has been for so long).

Ryan gives the best performance throughout–he’s incredibly believable in his cynicism and loathing and self-loathing–and occasionally steals scenes from Clift. Only Ryan and Clift are guaranteed close-ups. They’re not the two top-billed for nothing. But once Clift’s story gets going and he starts collapsing in on himself, once he gets to make that self-loathing Ryan wants to engender in him physical, Clift’s got some great scenes. But he’s also got a somewhat crappy part.

Clift’s a young man with gumption (clearly not playing his thirty-eight years) who gets stuck writing the advice column because Ryan thinks he’s an idealist and Ryan likes breaking idealists. Clift’s also attractive and nice to Loy, so it gives Ryan a chance to be cruel to her about something else. Hart–Clift’s girlfriend and de facto fiancée–is twenty. Clift looks too old for her as the movie starts and he always looks older than her, but once he starts getting broken down, it’s like it takes the years off him.

The first half of the movie is everyone telling Clift he cares too much about the people writing to the advice column. It’s most effective when it’s Hart telling him he’s too empathetic because it just seems like Clift’s life is lose-lose. Then we find out he’s an orphan, then we find out he’s not really an orphan, his dad (Onslow Stevens) is just in jail for killing his mom for she cheating on him. The scene with Clift and Stevens facing off ought to be a lot better. It’s poorly directed and paced, but at that moment Clift looks way too old for the scene, even though Stevens actually is old enough to be his father.

Lonelyhearts has some terribly bland lighting from John Alton. It’s visually tedious, with these occasional moments when–somehow–Donehue manages to hold the shot on Clift or Ryan and get something good. Then it’ll cut away and Alton won’t match the lighting. But still, the actors are there to work. So it’s really unfortunate Loy gets squat and poorly directed squat at that. And it’s even more unfortunate Hart gets the “faithful girlfriend” role, only for Donehue to avoid her during her character development scenes, and her most frequent costars–Frank Overton (two years Clift’s senior) as her dad, Don and Johnny Washbrook as her brothers–give shockingly inept performances. Particularly bad writing for them as well. Schary’s not comfortable with silences, but he also doesn’t write background chatter well.

And the film’s use of sound effects to suggest they’re not shooting on a sound stage or an empty bar set? Inept. If Lonelyhearts were a television production upgraded to feature, it’d have some excuses. But as a feature made with television production standards? It’s got none.

The real drama in the film involves Maureen Stapleton and Frnak Maxwell. She writes to the column, devastated about the state of her marriage to handicapped Maxwell. Clift feels sympathy for her. Ryan says she’s a tramp wife on the make and demands he meet her in person. Things get complicated.

All Lonelyhearts needs is better direction. The script, albeit problematic, is more than passable–it doesn’t seem likely a film of its era would be able to get rid of the undercurrent of passive misogyny, given the subject matter–maybe some awareness of it would be nice. Though Hart getting a reasonable character arc and Clift or Ryan showing some real self-awareness instead of just implied future self-awareness would do a lot too. But Donehue’s direction sinks it.

The film starts low and claws its way up through its stagy production, poor technical efforts, wonky screenplay, all thanks to the cast. Ryan’s outstanding, Clift’s is occasionally but usually excellent. Both Stapleton and Maxwell have great moments; it’s unfortunate higher billed Hart and Loy don’t get the same courtesy.

A real musical score might’ve helped too. Conrad Salinger’s credited with one but it’s beyond sparse.

For having so many problems, Lonelyhearts is a kind of achievement. Acting-wise, anyway.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincent J. Donehue; screenplay by Dore Schary, based on a play by Howard Teichmann and a novel by Nathanael West; director of photography, John Alton; edited by John Faure and Aaron Stell; music by Conrad Salinger; produced by Schary; released by United Artists.

Starring Montgomery Clift (Adam White), Robert Ryan (William Shrike), Myrna Loy (Florence Shrike), Dolores Hart (Justy Sargeant), Maureen Stapleton (Fay Doyle), Frank Maxwell (Pat Doyle), Frank Overton (Mr. Sargeant), Jackie Coogan (Ned Gates), Mike Kellin (Frank Goldsmith), and Onslow Stevens (Mr. Lassiter).


THIS POST IS PART OF FROM THE STARS TO A STAR: CELEBRATING DOLORES HART HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann)

Despite taking place in a very English hotel with very English residents–all of them long-term residents, not temporary guests–Separate Tables hinges almost entirely on the Americans. Burt Lancaster is one such American. He’s a regular resident (even ostensibly engaged to manager Wendy Hiller; they’re definitely carrying on illicitly anyway). And Rita Hayworth is the other American. She’s one of the two inciting incidents. Though, arguably, Hiller and Lancaster’s engagement is the root inciter on that one.

The other inciting incident is retired British Army major David Niven getting into a bit of scandal. Niven is a blowhard, genially annoying to all his fellow residents–except Deborah Kerr. She’s there with her mother, Gladys Cooper. Cooper’s a nasty upper class widow, Kerr’s her terrorized, utterly controlled daughter. Cooper browbeats her, while Kerr resents her own day dreams. Only with Niven does she get a little bit of relief.

Cooper disapproves, of course, and is very glad to manipulate Niven’s scandal to hurt both him and Kerr. In a very British upper class sort of way. Cooper’s the film’s villain, but of course she’s a villain. Her behavior can’t be anything but reprehensible, given her character. Hard to feel malice towards her.

The Niven scandal–and Kerr’s reaction to it–is half the story. The other half is Hayworth and Lancaster. They used to be married. She’s a former fashion model, he’s an author of some renown. Their marriage ended with Lancaster in prison for assaulting her. But now she’s heard he’s fallen on hard times and was in London meeting her fiancé’s family and thought she’d look him up. To provide moral support. And, you know, seduce him. Because brute working class guys made good is the only thing ever to do it for her.

Except Lancaster still resents her for forcing him into the assault–she denied him his conjugal rights. Hearing Lancaster complain she didn’t let him treat her as property kind of undermines his sympathetic potential. Though, as it turns out, even though the Americans keep Separate Tables moving, they’re not really supposed to be the sympathetic ones.

They’re an extreme. Cooper (and Cooper’s way of thinking, which influences Kerr and even Niven) is another extreme. Tables is all about finding the balance.

The film takes place over a particularly eventful sixteen or so hours. Just before dinner to breakfast the next day. Tables runs a couple minutes under a hundred minutes, with the first act establishing a bunch of characters. The other residents include Cathleen Nesbitt as Cooper’s partner-in-crime, Felix Aylmer as a stuck-up retired public school teacher, May Hallatt as a horse better, and Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton as two indiscreet lovers. Taylor’s studying for his surgical exams. Dalton’s ostensibly there to help, but she mostly just seduces him–literally–away from them. Initially, it’s through Taylor and Dalton the implied activity of sexual congress–which Cooper, Nesbitt, and Alymer–all find so distasteful, gets mentioned.

Cooper and Lancaster have just been doing it in secret for years before the engagement, which is still tentative and super-hush hush.

Separate Tables is a lot of talking, a lot of listening, a lot of silent, pained emoting. Once Niven breaks down in the first fifteen minutes–see, he knows the scandal is about to become known–it’s obvious the film’s tone is going to be somewhat peculiar. Director Mann relies entirely on the performances. He’s got a handful of showy moves, which all work beautifully, but it’s almost entirely shot to facilitate the performances. With Charles Lang’s gorgeous black and white photography. The film’s technically stunning–great music from David Raksin, great production design (it’s all on sound stages, including the exquisite exteriors) by Harry Horner. Except the editing. Every once in a while, Charles Ennis and Marjorie Fowler’s cuts will be jarringly bad. And even when they’re not jarringly bad, they’re never fully in sync with the performances. It never ruins a scene or really hurts one overall, but the editing causes some stumbles. It’s worst when it’s in a Hayworth and Lancaster scene, because they’re already a little rocky.

Hayworth’s cold, shallow, calculating former fashion model is kind of perfect counter for the cold, calculating, but repressed Brits around her. Hayworth’s best when she shows humanity, which rarely happens around Lancaster. Lancaster’s best when he’s opposite Hiller, just because his scenes with Hayworth are usually a combination of silent rage, silent lust, or noisy exposition dumps. While both Lancaster and Hayworth are good, they’re the weakest parts of the film. Especially when they’re together.

Meanwhile, the trouble brewing over Niven is positively enthralling, as Cooper musters her fellow residents in a revolt and each of them works through their personal feelings about the situation. Only Kerr gets to explode. And the movie–through Cooper–has been promising Kerr will explode since their first scene together (which is the second or third scene in the picture), so there’s a lot of anticipation.

Kerr doesn’t disappoint. Not once in the picture, even though much of her performance is just sitting looking upset. Niven never disappoints either. He’s got the biggest character arc and kind of two parts to play. One and a half at least.

Hiller’s great too, sort of better than the film deserves. It only makes it because of her. She’s able to support her costars enough to get them through their sometimes perfunctory or abbreviated character development.

Separate Tables is deliberate, careful, thoughtful. Mann and screenwriters Terence Rattigan (adapting his play) and John Gay pace it all perfectly. It never feels stagy, never feels confined, never feels perfunctory. At least not in the plotting or events. Sure, sometimes the character development is a little too slick, but it is only a hundred minutes and the present action is only sixteen or seventeen hours. The performances are sublime, the production (save the editing) is sublime. It’s a lovely, often impeccable film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Terence Rattigan and John Gay, based on the play by Rattigan; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Charles Ennis and Marjorie Fowler; music by David Raksin; production designer, Harry Horner; produced by Harold Hecht; released by United Artists.

Starring Burt Lancaster (John Malcolm), Rita Hayworth (Ann Shankland), Deborah Kerr (Sibyl Railton-Bell), David Niven (Major Angus Pollock), Wendy Hiller (Pat Cooper), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Railton-Bell), Cathleen Nesbitt (Lady Matheson), Felix Aylmer (Mr. Fowler), Rod Taylor (Charles), Audrey Dalton (Jean), Priscilla Morgan (Doreen), and May Hallatt (Miss Meacham).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE DEBORAH KERR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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