Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) marks the director’s third appearance in this blog, for the moment passing Alfred Hitchcock (Sabotoge and Saboteur) in the top spot. (Wilder’s previous two entries were Sunset Boulevard and Witness for the Prosecution.)
The Apartment, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), was presented as a comedy that mocked romantic mores and man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit corporate culture, with its notorious attachment to the suffix “-wise.” But removed from its turn-of-the-decade context, and especially viewed in the light of the Me-Too movement, the film is chilling.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a peon in mammoth Consolidated Life Corp., has pimped out his Upper West Side apartment: he lets a quintet of executives use it for their trysts with secretaries and other female prey, in exchange for vague promises of corporate advancement. His neighbors, hearing the all-hours mayhem but unaware of the arrangement, think he’s a wild and crazy guy! Pretty funny! (Adding to the comic feel, inadvertently, is the fact that the five execs would go on to become staples of 1960s sitcoms: Fred MacMurray in My Three Sons, Ray Walston as My Favorite Martian, David White in Bewitched, and Willard Waterman on Dennis the Menace. David Lewis, meanwhile, played Warden Crichton on Batman, Senator Ames on The Farmer’s Daughter, and three separate roles on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.)
The movie-in-movie scene comes early. The Lewis character has stayed on past the agreed-upon-time, forcing Baxter to roam the chilly New York streets, his body hunched in the classic Jack Lemmon slouch, his tan cotton raincoat turned up around his neck. When he can finally return, he heats up a TV dinner, brings it to the couch, and turns on the TV using a remote control, unusual at the time.
BTW, I got the above image from an online discussion about the remote control in The Apartment, which suggests that any topic, no matter how obscure — or maybe the more obscure, the better — has its own online forum.
When the TV comes on, it shows an unctuous host announcing an imminent showing of the 1932 melodrama Grand Hotel, which Baxter seems to be happy about, maybe because its high-gloss world promises a complete escape from his own sordid one. But then the host presents a word from “our sponsor” and Baxter starts clicking. He successively lands on three different channels showing three different movies. (That is an anachronism. I lived in the New York television market in 1960 and can attest that it wouldn’t have happen that four channels would have movies on at the same time.)
Those three films are all John Wayne oaters: Stagecoach (1939), Angel and the Badman (1947), and Fort Apache (1948). The first and third were directed by John Ford, and I imagine Wilder, a German refugee who never made a Western, had in mind a subtle homage to that great Hollywood movie maker, different from him in just about every way. The scenes that come on Baxter’s screen are all gunfights and bar fights and galloping cavalry, however, which are too much for his nerves at the moment. So he clicks back to Grand Hotel, hopefully. What he encounters actually is funny.