Tuesday, September 27, 2011



In a distinct change of pace from the large scale bombast of the previous year's choice of BEN HUR, the Academy's pick for best picture of 1960 is a charming, low key, romantic comedy drama. It was the second best picture winner for writer-director Billy Wilder (the first was 1948's THE LOST WEEKEND), and while its subject matter is far less shocking today then it was back then, it still holds up as a bittersweet movie with wonderful performances from its entire cast.
Wilder first came up with the movie's idea while watching David Lean's 1944 film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER. At one point in that movie an unseen character allows two people to have an adulterous affair in his apartment, and Wilder was struck with the notion of telling a story from that character's point of view, "the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers."  (The theme of infidelity ran through many of Wilder's films, like THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and AVANTI!).
After filing away that idea because the production code of the time would never allow it, Wilder pulled it out of mothballs in 1959, correctly believing that the code had finally eased enough for him to make it. Buoyed by the enormous success of SOME LIKE IT HOT, Wilder spent $400,000 on building modern, realistic office sets for the film, and eventually spent $3,000,000 on the film's budget; it would go on to make almost 15.
It tells the story of C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a young bachelor who works at an insurance company in New York City.  To advance his career, he allows his superiors use of his apartment to engage in extra marital affairs.  Meanwhile, he pines for Fran (Shirley Maclaine), one of the elevator operators in his building.  When the company's main boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), tells Bud that he knows about the apartment, Bud is worried, until Jeff himself asks to borrow the key! Eventually, Bud discovers that the woman Jeff is meeting with is Fran. Even worse, when a depressed Fran, sick of Jeff's lies about leaving his wife, tries to overdose on sleeping pills, Bud has to be the one to nurse her back to health.
Jack Lemmon first worked with Wilder in SOME LIKE IT HOT, and he gave a great comedic performance there; he would go on to work with the director seven times in all. Wilder says that he and co writer IAL Diamond wrote this film with Lemmon in mind for the lead, and it's easy to see why: this is a perfect role for Lemmon's put upon everyman persona, and he deftly juggles the comedy and the drama of the story.  His performance is full of charming physical touches, like the way he strains spaghetti with a tennis racket, dons a ridiculous "junior executive" hat, or gently tucks Fran into bed after stopping her suicide attempt. His character is always likable, and, even if what he is doing is aiding infidelity, his desire to move up the corporate ladder is understandable.  And he becomes truly heroic at the film's end, when he finally gives up his lucrative job because he is so sickened by the thought of helping Jeff lead Fran on again.

Jack Lemmon in his Junior Executive Hat

Maclaine is just as good as Lemmon; her Fran is such a sweet, sad person that we can see why Bud is so taken with her, and her chemistry with both Lemmon and MacMurray is excellent and believable.  She has many moving moments; I particularly like her wonderful speech about the pain of loving a married man.  She really shows us how much she wants to believe Jeff's lies, and how much it hurts her to discover the truth (the expression on her face when he hands her money in lieu of an actual Christmas present is heart breaking).
And as for MacMurray, he coolly and effectively plays one of the great movie scumbags!  Here is a powerful and wealthy man who sees his womanizing almost as a right of his privilege.  He can plead to Fran that he really cares for her one moment, and then dismiss her to Bud in the next ("you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you're gonna divorce your wife."). It's to MacMurray's credit that he does seem to find some humanity in this skunk of a man, (he does seem to have some feelings for Fran)but not enough humanity that we can't cheer at the end when Fran finally walks out on him for good.

Fred MacMurray and Jack Lemmon

According to Maclaine, the script for the film was not finished until well into the film's shooting, but what could have been a recipe for disaster worked wonderfully as it allowed Wilder and Diamond to build on the characters based on the performances of the actors, and the result is that Mclaine and Lemmon are one of the best romantic couples ever: always  good natured and kind to each other, even as they both feel taken advantage of (the moment where Lemmon admits that he too tried to commit suicide over a woman is crucial to their connection).  They are so right for each other that the film's conventional happy ending does not feel false or contrived in any way, with Maclaine's run across town becoming one of Hollywood's great romantic moments.
Wilder also put that expensive office set to good use, especially in the film's opening when Bud appears to be working in a sea of identical desks, illustrating his desire for a promotion more than words ever could.  Really, there really aren't any major flaws in this film(even the score by Charles Williams is perfect for the story); it is an expert blend of humor, sadness and romance without a bad performance or slow moment.
Overall, this is a classic, one of the best romances ever filmed, and it had an influence both direct (it was turned into a Broadway musical, PROMISES PROMISES, in 1968) and indirect (TV's terrific MAD MEN borrows a page or two). 


 This is a tough call, because while I obviously love this movie, another very different film was released that year that probably has had even more of an influence: Alfred Hitchcock's PYSCHO.  The difficulty of comparing these two films has me tied up in knots!  So I won't argue with the Academy's choice.