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Monday, December 19, 2022

Wilder for Run-Up to Christmas

Comedy and Serio, or Serio and Comedy?

Holiday picks at random, Witness for the Prosecution and The Apartment, years since seeing either occasion to view both different. Here’s charm of films I adjudge best, none writ better than Billy at his best. The pair can please those not necessarily fans of Wilder, but open to what is well-constructed and entertaining. How many were/are genuinely surprised by outcome of Witness for the Prosecution? I’d guess every mystery trick possible has been played on those who stream “Brit Box” and other dispensaries, no who-done device new to them. Once tipped to solution, encore depends on elements other than where guilt lies and why. Wilder makes returning worthwhile for stars and wit they apply to A. Christie situations he’d enhance, Witness for the Prosecution now more a question of whether Charles Laughton’s Sir Wilfrid Robarts, already hobbled by a recent heart attack, can survive his defense of accused Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power). Everything the barrister does defies medical warning as issued by nurse and constant accompany Elsa Lanchester as “Miss Plimsoll,” a vessel for comedy, but right in all effort to keep this fragile man alive. I hadn’t before paid such mind to that aspect of Witness, being impervious (or thought so) to the character’s health risk for its not being my own. Now I’m nervous for Sir Wilfrid when he sneaks brandy instead of cocoa that should be in his thermos, plus cigars he cadges when Miss Plimsoll isn’t present. This is all in fun, and for youth or fit parties that’s what it is, but what of watchers with their own blood pressure issues (Sir Wilfrid’s is 240 over 130, which Ann described as “stroke value”). Witness suspense becomes less acquitting the accused than Sir Wilfrid dropping dead in the courtroom.

For sake of humor too, this poor man is essentially condemned to death. What follows a twist ending is Sir Wilfrid confronting another capitol trial which he must engage immediately, having been an eye witness to the crime and thus more intensely engaged even than before. What’s worse, Miss Plimsoll tosses caution to the wind, cancels his vacation to Bermuda, and all but endorses brandy as continued relaxant, the patient on realist terms sacrificed to fulfilling his high-stress obligation, acceptable because he is Sir Wilfrid and no one can do his job better. How many individuals have we known who ceded their health to duty’s slow drip toward oblivion? So many ignore warnings because after all they have to work, or they enjoy status work confers, whatever makes one value occupation over continued life. I realize Witness for the Prosecution is entertainment, not to be confronted on life’s own terms, so blame Charles Laughton’s brilliant performance for invest of my emotion. I worry for him, knowing he triumphs for now, but what of price he'll pay for embarking upon another high-stress murder trial? Wouldn’t matter but for my knowing plenty who went a bridge too far for hyper-tension not being their hyper-concern. Footnote re ghost at Sir Wilfrid’s banquet: Tyrone Power had heart disease in his line, Power the elder dead at sixty-two in his son’s arms (1931) when young Ty was seventeen. Power’s last was Witness for the Prosecution, him gone with a heart attack a following year on the set of Solomon and Sheba, age forty-four. Ty’s intense performing as Leonard Vole seems basis for worry that the actor should himself slow down. Irony is Power had a check-up, got a clean bill, and did a TV ad for the Heart Association right before reporting for Solomon.

Watching The Apartment again and, like before, I think J.J. Baxter sort of gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop, to quote SLIH’s Sugar Kane. S. MacLaine as Fran Kubelik asks at midpoint why she can never fall in love with nice guys like Baxter, question pointed to him and tip-off she will never really love him, her settling at the end more result of realizing Fred MacMurray's Jeff Sheldrake is a hopeless cause, him no more willing to marry her after separating from his wife than before. Impression is he will return to home, hearth, and children once chill from having been caught wears off. Relationships in The Apartment are transactional, reason why its story shocked many in 1960. Baxter loans his residence for assignations to grease promotion he hopes to get for doing so. But for likeable Jack Lemmon, would audiences have accepted Baxter for a hero and identification figure? Sheldrake is at least honest in his way and does repay Baxter for the apartment key he shares, being sole higher-up who keeps his bargain. If not for Fran to complicate their exchange, the two men would have a mutually beneficial arrangement neither would have reason to regret. I wonder if same sort of negotiating went on between bosses and subordinates in NY’s concrete jungle of the fifties. Sheldrake wants what he wants, sees a way of getting it, and delivers on promises to Baxter. He shares technique for handling women to Baxter which I suspect in real life would bond the pair, only in this instance when he asks, “Is that fair?” with regards a mistress who wants status of a wife, Baxter replies that no it isn’t, “especially to the wife,” a remark most men would not appreciate coming from another man they are confiding to.

For a man of many affairs, Sheldrake makes woeful mistake of keeping a personal secretary around who he earlier (by years) seduced and subsequently jettisoned. This seems to me like hanging onto a hand grenade with the pin loose. Does Jeff not realize “Miss Olsen” will take any opportunity to even up an old score? After she does so by telling Fran of his past indiscretions, Jeff foolishly fires her, and right away she phones his wife to spill the works. And here we were thinking Sheldrake had good sense, at least for keeping a lid on mistresses new and/or discarded, let alone a wife they all would have easy access to. MacLaine as Fran tells Baxter at one point that she will call Mrs. Sheldrake and claim the woman’s errant husband for her own. Amusing is fact MacLaine herself made such contact with Mrs. Robert Mitchum during an affair the actress had with roving-eye Bob. Mrs. Mitchum explained to Shirley what a fool she was to imagine he would leave his family for company so fleeting as hers. Life imitating art. Did Ms. MacLaine note the Apartment parallel? Both Kubelik and Baxter get a kind of comeuppance for ending up together, him in still begging posture (“I absolutely adore you”), her replying he should “shut up and deal,” this to read as happy ending though I do not find it so. If Jack/C.C. has in effect been pimping for married men, at least five within the firm we know of, Fran enabling Sheldrake’s adultery, aren’t they dealing one another a hand that is empty marriage, her with a man now unemployed and without prospect, him with a woman who only scenes ago said she still loved the cad who caused her to attempt suicide? If argument is to be made that Billy Wilder was cynical, then The Apartment might function as Exhibit A to support it.

Much more Witness For the Prosecution, release, promotion, reception, etc. from Greenbriar (9/28/2008) HERE. Also Wilder's winning streak with United Artists HERE.


Blogger DBenson said...

My doctor father spent a year in Saudi Arabia helping set up an oil company's health program. He picked up a saying he invoked often thereafter: Health is a crown on the head of the well, visible only to the sick. A viewer's age and/or circumstance will likewise make visible crowns -- and chains -- that even the filmmakers didn't see.

To a fit and secure audience, Sir Wilfred living recklessly and Baxter p*ssing off his boss on the way out register as heroic but somehow not that risky. Laughton was still robust and seemingly immortal; no matter what the script said we believed he'd remain so. We refuse to envision him dwindling to a shell hooked up to IVs, preferring to imagine an impressive and swift courtroom death scene. And Baxter and Fran looked likely to secure at least a middle-class existence in those prosperous years; possibly retreating from NY to a duller hometown.

That was then. Now there are many of us who want to shout "Are you NUTS? Wilfred, do you want to end up in the ICU? And you, Baxter -- quit politely, maybe saying you have to move and take care of your mother. Kiss Sheldrake's behind just one last time, and get a reference letter."

If I may briefly reference my own novel, I had a young man getting more upset about losing control of his reputation than the very real possibility of death. With healthy family, death was still abstract for him. Embarrassment, in contrast, was something he experienced.


Sheldrake may be able to charm women, but his downfall is in not understanding (or caring about) other people beyond what he wants from them. I imagine Miss Olsen's transition from mistress to discard was gradual. Maybe she was as useful as Baxter early on, alibiing his flings in the belief she was the real love he'd return to (and perhaps did). Sheldrake lost interest but assumed he still had her loyalty with a good job -- that transaction thing. It simply never occurred that Olsen might interfere; when he fires her he doesn't reflect she's capable of doing it again outside the office. It's likely he was missing storm clouds at home as well, since his wife kicked him out immediately after lunch with Miss Olsen. What she heard was probably less news than confirmation. And in the very end he can't guess the source of Baxter's rage, and then cluelessly describes it to Fran, who knows what it means.


The one detail where I was almost ahead of Wilder: Sitting in the gallery, Miss Plimsoll feeds exposition to a young lady sitting next to her. Said lady is more glamorous than the bit players and extras around her; she's all done up because she'll have more to do. Chekov's Gun Moll.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Was ahead of WFTP, so no surprise twist for me. Semi-spoiler alert: when a witness on the stand is obviously dubbed, I begin to wonder why. Then when I scan the cast and ask, “Now whom among them would be incapable of producing a decent cockney accent,and therefore need to be dubbed?”

Game over…

11:13 AM  
Blogger Lee R said...

The Apartment is a movie I have watched for years right after or right before New Year's. The first several times watching (mainly because I was enthralled with beautiful Shirley MacLaine) I thought it was an excellent drama with great background music reflecting perfectly the times and sad too for Jack & then glad they finally got together. OK, but after these first few times watching each year I realized, what a low-life Jack is to be lending out his bed, a bed he has to sleep in too, to these other low-life's at the office. Imagine the smell and the ugly remains they must have left behind for Jack to come back to sleep on. Yechh. This was his bed, his private bedroom he's allowing these, basically strangers to use as their playground. What a low-life Jack is is what I realized. And now when watching it is my main thought, why in the world would he allow these bums to "sleep" in his bed? Did this bozo not know how to say "no"?

Well, I still watch this movie each year just for the sight of Shirley and it's also neat to see Fred as I see him every week on My 3 Sons and then seeing Uncle Martin, Ray Walston and also the Great Gildersleeve (Willard Waterman) all together in this one movie. All those shows I watch or listen to every week so here's a greatest hits of my favorite sitcom folk all together in one place. So all this provides more reason to come back every year and I just have to ignore as best I can what a fool Jack really is for allowing these rats into his bed.

6:30 PM  

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