Sunday, September 17, 2017


I'm here today to play devil's advocate - to advance an observation that will probably be unpopular with most movie critics and film aficionados.

It's my contention that there is no such animal as a "perfect film" - that even an entitled movie lauded universally as a masterpiece or masterwork can have a distracting flaw or blemish. It's a troubling notion, particularly when the seemingly perfect film in question is the work of a favored director. Blind loyalty can delude even the most reasoned movie buff.

Throughout the years, there have been certain filmmakers in my private universe who can do no wrong - early on Billy Wilder and Richard Quine, and then Hal Ashby and Paul Mazursky, and perennially, Vincente Minnelli and Alfred Hitchcock. Especially Alfred Hitchcock. To him, I'm blindly loyal.

It's disturbing for me, after watching a masterwork for the umpteenth time, to discover belatedly (and improbably) that it has - this can't be! - a flaw. This just can't be. But it be. Suddenly, a film that's the definition of "perfection" isn't. This revelation is the result of having watched Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" for the 758th time and Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" for the 962nd time, both on Turner Classic Movies, always on Turner (even though I have DVDs of both that, for some reason, I've never watched).

"Vertigo" routinely tops every arbitrary movie list as "the greatest film ever made," and deservedly so. "The Apartment" has been a personal favorite since forever, the one movie that fueled my passion for movies.

It pains me to say this but neither one is the perfect film that I discovered decades ago. Their respective blemishes, while hardly damaging, are disillusioning nevertheless. As well as annoying and ... unnecessary.

"Vertigo" is Hitchcock's lulling 128-minute metaphor for the tingling dangers of falling in love, the operative word, of course, being "falling."

Jimmy Stewart spends the first half of the film simply following Kim Novak around a shimmering '50s San Francisco. Kim Novak is gorgeous. San Francisco is gorgeous. So far, perfection. Stewart's obsession mirrors Hitchcock's for actresses who worked for him and, in the film's second half, after Novak is seemingly gone, he tries to recreate her cosmetically, the way a controlling filmmaker would. He's blissfully possessed. The initial dreaminess of the film becomes a nightmare that is not at all unappealing.

Blemishing the wonder of "Vertigo," however, is the unwatchable tribunal scene - archly written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor and poorly acted by Henry Jones as a sonorous, accusing coronor and Tom Helmore as the old friend who framed the Stewart character. It stops the film cold, adds little to the narrative and, largely because of Jones, is a trial to watch.

It's difficult to believe that this scene, which is heavy-handed and atypically unsubtle (in contrast to the rest of the film), was written by the same authors and directed by the same filmmaker responsible for the movie surrounding it. It could be cut without affecting "Vertigo" at all.

As for "The Apartment," it's a caustic and acerbic workplace comedy, streaked by nastiness, and comes with Wilder's trademark cynicism and his rather blatant lack of sympathy for any of his characters. It remains as bracing and as incorrigibly satisfying as it was almost 60 years ago.

But then there are those awful scenes with Shirley MacLaine (in the victim phase of her career) as a lovelorn elevator operator and Fred MacMurray as the imperious, rather repellent (married) executive with whom she's having an affair - an affair not the least bit believable. One never has an understanding of what these two see in each other. Would MacLaine's character actually be attracted to someone as dull as MacMurray's?  And he seems more inclined to seduce a tall blonde - a model or an actress - rather than a downtrodden unskilled worker with a kookie haircut.
These scenes are pure soap opera - glaringly out of place in a movie as smart as "The Apartment" - and they're poorly acted. Or perhaps MacLaine and MacMurray simply have no chemistry. Or perhaps the actors don't believe this relationship any more than I do. Whatever, it doesn't work.

MacLaine, meanwhile, has been given True Romance dialogue (tied to the affair) that is cringe-worthy. For example:

"Why do people have to love people anyway? "  


"I was jinxed from the word go. The first time I was ever kissed was in a cemetery."


"I just have this talent for falling in love with the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"When you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara."
This stuff was written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond? Really? (And I don't buy for an instant that MacLaine is "in love" with MacMurray.)

There are curious elements in two other films by Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock that, while not exactly flaws, never made much sense to me and could be explained by only the filmmakers themselves - if they were still around to answer questions. In the case of Hitchcock, the film is "Rear Window" and the curiosity is the villain played by Raymond Burr.

Perhaps it's the contrarian in me but, except for his confrontation with Jimmy Stewart at the end of the film, I never found Burr's Lars Thorwald to be much of a threat. In fact, for me, through most of the film, he's a rather sympathetic character married to what appears to be a harridan.

That's not to excuse the character for murdering his wife, but it seems that, as conceived by writer John Michael Hayes and Hitchcock and as played by Burr, Lars is an ineffectual man more than a little pathetic.

I almost feel sorry for the guy as he's relentlessly targeted by Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter. Is it just me or did Hitch plot this reaction?

Finally, there's Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," always heading lists as "the best comedy of all time" - and a seemingly perfect one at that.

But there's this inconsistency in the film that has come to annoy me...

The early scenes in the film paint the Tony Curtis character as an unapologetic womanizer and irresponsible screw-up and Jack Lemmon's as the voice of reason, trying to keep his friend in check.

With me so far?

But once the guys crossdress, their personalities seemingly switch. Suddenly, Curtis is the cautious one, intent on reigning in Lemmon who is acting like a flake. Plus, Lemmon is now the womanizer, ogling the women in the band he and Curtis just joined and fantasizing about sex - and getting "a cup of that sugar" - i.e., Sugar Kane (aka Marilyn Monroe).

If Wilder were still alive, I'd like to ask him if putting on dresses is the reason why Tony Curtis suddenly becomes, well, proper and prudent and Jack Lemmon transforms into a leering, incorrigible burlesque comic.

I don't presume to rewrite Wilder and Diamond's inventive script, but wouldn't it make more sense if Lemmon remained the more serious one of the two guys, becoming involved with Marilyn, and if Curtis remained the irredeemable scamp that he is - and in Joe E. Brown's arms? Just asking.

* * * * *
(from top) 

~Paul Bryer (seated from left), James Stewart and Henry Jones in the tribunal sequence from "Vertigo"
~Jones and Tom Helmore in the same scene
 ~photography: Paramount 1958©

~Two images of Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray in "The Apartment"
 ~photography: United Artists 1960©

~Raymond Burr in "Rear Window"
 ~photography: Paramount 1954©

~Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot"
 ~photography: United Artists 1959©


Alex said...

Joe- I never "got" the tribunal scene in "Vertigo" either. Everything is laid on just a bit too thick and the Henry Jones character comes off as contemptible. Yes, it is diffricutl to watch.

Rita L said...

RE The Apartment, my impression was that the Fred MacMurray character was basically having a series of brief affairs with any woman in the building who would look at him. And of course, this being the era, none were executive women.

joe baltake said...

Rita- You're right - MacMurray's character is a pig. And a lazy one at that, sleeping with whoever is available in that insurance office. Good point.

Brian Lucas said...

Joe, I prefer your rewrite of "Some Like It Hot." Yes, Lemmon should have stayed in character as the serious musician who becomes involved with MM and Curtis remained as a loser who ends up with Brown. But when the film was made, Curtis was a sex symbol and Lemmon wasn't. So I guess it made sense for two sex symbols to end up together.

Kevin Barry said...

Joe, I am always amazed when I find something irritating about a film I have long cherished. I recently noticed some sloppy continuity in Dial M for Murder. Of all the directors to accuse of sloppiness! (Hawthorne wrote a wonderful story called, The Birthmark, about a man who is married to a ravishingly beautiful woman, but he can't get past the fact that she has a tiny blemish on her cheek). I always go into a bit of a slump during that scene in Vertigo. And, yes, I hate the attitude and tone of Henry Jones, too, but I console myself with what Patty McCormick did to him in The Bad Seed. In The Apartment, I wonder if Paul Douglas would have made a difference. Douglas was replaced by Fred MacMurray after having a fatal heart attack days before shooting was to start. I guess Wilder figured he cast MacMurray against type once before so it should work again. As for Some Like It Hot, the guys were playing the type of roles they were expected to play at the time. Your idea is stimulating, though, like Pauline Kael's suggestion that A Place in the Sun would have had an extra level of social commentary if Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters had switched roles.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- Yes, Paul Douglas was Wilder's original choice to play the boss but, frankly, I can't for the life of me imagine a Douglas-MacLaine pairing. Maybe I can't get into Wilder's thinking here, but the casting of both actors - at least opposite MacLaine - seems a big stretch, unless her character has father issues. Of the actors available at the time, William Holden (with whom Wilder had worked often) would have been a better pairing with MacLaine.

Kiki said...

What a perfect column! I loved this because I loved the movies you mention. I feel the same way about Vertigo -- it lost its shimmeriness when it got into legallities. But I have to disagree a bit on Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Here's why. Re the MacLaine character in "The Apartment," I lived in NYC in the early 60s and I KNEW the girls who had jobs in those big buildings -- not elevator operators but secretaries and receptionists. "Girls" who had little opportunities and were under the thumbs of "the boss man." Sure he was married but he could take them to a French restaurant for lunch or give them a bauble. They were desperate to be married to "the boss" but figured they'd take what they could. It was an awful time for women. You're right -- the MacLaine character wasn't "in love" with MacMurray (one of his best roles) but he was something. But as Glenda Jackson said in "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," "Sometimes nothing is better that something." As for "Some Like It Hot," no doubt in my mind that the Sugar character would end up with the slimebag Tony Curtis. It's what girls like Sugar do. Over and over again.

Marilyn Halprin said...

Your readers seem to be so intelligent and knowledgeable about films. These responses say a great deal about the quality of the blog which you write.

Jimbo said...

Perhaps your description of the Raymond Burr character in "Rear Window" is correct but things aren't always what they seem to a voyeur, which is one of the themes of "Rear Window." The busty blond beating back men in her apartment gives a very different impression from the reality which shows her to be a dedicated girlfriend to a soldier. In the same way that the Raymond Burr character comes across like a victim of a harridan, he instead proves to be her murderer. But you can't say that scoundrel Hichcock doesn't warn you in advance. At the beginning of the film the Burr character is introduced with background music from the chase scene in "A Place in the Sun." That movie, which stars Burr, has him persuing the boyfriend of a woman he has killed. It's hard to believe that Hitchcock wasn't chuckling as her chose that music to introduce Burr.

joe baltake said...

Jimbo! Great stuff here. Never knew about the source of Hitch's music selection for the Thorwald character. Thanks for the heads up. -J

Steve Levine said...

Well, of course "Some Like It Hot" isn't a perfect film.

Nobody's perfect.

joe baltake said...

Well, of course, indeed. Great comeback, Steve! -J

Vienna said...

Great topic. My problem with Vertigo is, how could a shop girl like Judy pull off such a great acting job? Hiring an actress would have made more sense.

joe baltake said...

Good point, Vienna!

Joyce said...

Provocative and thoughtful column - but it's been age since I've seen either "Vertiog" or "The Apartment." (I saw "Vertigo" in a movie theater when I was kid and always loved Kim Novak still do.) As for McMurray, I find that women are often attracted to power and security rather than youth and a great physique. And, let's face it, many women just have a penchant for picking the wrong guy. As for men - generally speaking - anything in a skirt, if you get my drift.

wwolfe said...

"I almost feel sorry for the guy as he's relentlessly targeted by Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter. Is it just me or did Hitch plot this reaction?" I absolutely think Hitchcock plotted this reaction. He wanted us to catch ourselves feeling sorry for the guy who murdered his wife and then chopped her up into pieces - and also killed his neighbor's dog, if I recall correctly. Making us complicit in the evil doings in his movies was possibly Hitchcock's most devilish pleasure - which is one of the many reasons we love, and are a little unnerved by, his movies.

joe baltake said...

Yes, I think you nailed it, Bill. -J