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.
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.
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.
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~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©