Saturday, March 4, 2017

Three Billy Wilder Films on Self-Respect

Much goes on in these movies directed by Billy Wilder, but an important theme in each is self-respect.

Title: The Apartment (1960)
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

The main characters in The Apartment are commodities, useful to the executives in the company they work for. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a corporate drone who lets the higher-ups use his apartment for extra-marital hookups. Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is an elevator girl who has made terrible relationship choices. One executive in particular, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), has them living in the palm of his hand. They look to him to make their lives better, even though he's a major source of their problems.

By the end of The Apartment, both Baxter and Kubelik gain some self-respect. The movie plays out as a comedy sometimes, a drama too (with MacLaine's performance really holding the movie together and giving it its emotional weight). It's also a romance, though I didn't care much about Baxter and Kubelik getting together. They break free of Sheldrake, and the movie ends with a card game, which struck me as a reminder that they've now entered a chancier sort of life. They've lost some security in their future. Before, life played out predictably. Their increased self-respect is worth it, but it's risky. At least now they're stronger and can bear those risks.

Title: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

This movie depicts an abusive relationship, one that becomes increasingly intense, controlling, and violent.

Joe (William Holden) is a broke screenwriter fleeing from creditors, when he makes what will prove to be a very unfortunate turn and drives up to a grand decaying mansion. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film star, lives there with her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim). Although largely forgotten by the world, she believes she's still famous and adored, and Max helps keep her delusions alive in various ways.

She's currently working on a screenplay for her grand cinema comeback. Joe sees an opportunity to earn some easy cash and offers to help. She's a vain, middle-aged woman, with a starring role in her own delusions, so why not humor her for a while and make money off of her?

Slowly, she draws him in - first with the promise of work, then by increasing his dependence on her. He becomes her male equivalent of a mistress... gigolo, boy toy? Beyond that, she tries to cut him off from the outside world, until he's living in her world. She keeps a close watch on his activities. When he befriends Betty (Nancy Olson), a script reader and aspiring writer, Norma interferes. She makes threats and plays on his fear, guilt, and sense of obligation.

As in other abusive relationships, Joe isn't meant to have a life, any interests or dreams, outside of what Norma wants for him; he's a prop in her show. What also comes out in this movie is the loss of self-respect. At one point, Joe has an opportunity to leave Norma's mansion with Betty. He passes on it, as he doesn't consider himself worthy of Betty's company and attention. Though he didn't have a high opinion of himself at the start of the movie, his relationship with Norma broke him in some ways.

There's strong acting from the cast as a whole, though Swanson's performance justifiably gets highlighted. Swanson herself was once a silent film star, though unlike Norma Desmond, she adapted to the decline of her career by branching out to other ventures, including art, radio, TV, clothing design, politics, and business (including rescuing some European Jewish inventors from their likely fate during WWII by having them work for one of her companies). I wonder if Norma Desmond was a big "what if" for Swanson - what if she hadn't adapted and reinvented herself, and had instead sunk into decay and delusion and poisonous narcissism?

Title: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

A remarkable movie based on an Agatha Christie play, Witness for the Prosecution features a cantankerous, passionate barrister, Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton), who won't let a recent heart attack stop him from defending a man from a murder charge. The accused is Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who might have murdered an old widow for her money. Roberts believes that the charismatic Vole is innocent. The one person who seems suspicious in all of this is Vole's wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), who comes across as calculating and cold.

This case tests Roberts' professional capabilities and his perception of himself as a self-respecting barrister fully in command of his faculties. As for Christine, is she acting the way any self-respecting wife would?

Laughton's performance is enjoyable (including his irritable back-and-forth with Miss Plimsoll, the nurse overseeing his recovery and played by his off-screen wife, Elsa Lanchester). Dietrich is magnificent as Christine.


Brian Joseph said...

I have not seen Witness for the Prosecution but I think that Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment are brilliant films. I never thought of them as explorations in self respect but based on your perceptive observations I see how these themes play out in these films. Wilder was a great talent.

The casting of Sunset Boulevard is such an interesting story. Your speculations on what Swanson's career could have degenerated into are interesting. It would had been an interesting interview question to have asked her during her lifetime.

Barbara Fisher said...

I’ve seen all three of these but not for many years so it must be time for another viewing. I love older films they somehow feel more real to me even though the acting is sometimes a little ‘over done’.

Roderick Robinson said...

The Apartment is one of those hard unremitting comedies that Wilder does so well. I enjoyed it, it suited the cynicism I've tended to discard in later life.

It was perhaps Fred McMurray's best realised role (with the possible exception of Double Indemnity) and most critics said so at the time. McMurray was appalled, seemingly much less intelligent than the character he played. He announced publicly this would be the last time he'd ever play such a morally worthless person and it seems he kept his word, appearing only in Disney productions thereafter. A comical footnote on someone who failed to recognise his own skills.

For me the high point occurs when the doctor comes upon Lemmon and MacLaine in a situation which seems to confirm Lemmon's fallacious reputation as a womaniser. Tragedy is in the offing. The doctor glances around, stares at Lemmon and says contemptuously, "Baxter, be a mensch." The choice of the Yiddish word (it could, of course, be German but that would be pointless) is sharp and apt, all the more so since the innocent Lemmon must bear the accusation without protest. It is said (alas by Brits) that Americans can't do irony and Wilder's expatriate background doesn't entirely disprove that canard; but The Apartment's success seems to say irony is appreciated in the USA.

HKatz said...

@ Brian - I think you'd enjoy Witness for the Prosecution. It has strong characterizations and twists and turns until the end.

@ Barbara - I think some of the older films show a special pleasure in filmmaking combined with a stronger connection to theater that adds a certain weight to the film itself.

@ Roderick - I didn't know that about MacMurray. (I watched him in Double Indemnity, where he plays a character who becomes a criminal. That was an earlier movie, and to me he was overshadowed by Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. Here I also tended to overlook him compared to MacLaine especially.) And I remember that ironic moment too (though I'm writing about this movie a few years after watching it) - I agree, a great moment.