Viewer Guide: The Apartment and The Ghost Writer

January 22, 2021 | Richard Peña


The Apartment (1960)

This week’s classic is The Apartment, the 1960 romantic comedy-drama directed by Billy Wilder.

Co-written by Wilder and his longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon in one of the great defining roles of his early career. Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, mostly known as just “Bud,” a junior accountant in the vast sea of employees working at the Manhattan midtown office of Consolidated Life Insurance of New York. Bud has a tendency to work late—partly because of a lack of a social life…but mostly because of a clandestine “service” he’s started to provide with his apartment. You see, Bud has drifted into the predicament of loaning out his humble bachelor pad for the afterhours assignations of upper level executives, which too often leaves him

shivering on the street waiting for things to “wrap up.” Yet despite the inconvenience—and a nagging sense the situation has gone too far—Bud continues to be cooperative, strung along by promises of recommendations to personnel director Jeff Sheldrake, played by Fred MacMurray. When Mr. Sheldrake finally does call, Bud can’t help sharing his excitement with Fran Kubelik, the elevator operator played by Shirley MacLaine who is also Bud’s secret office crush. But when Bud meets with Sheldrake, he’s dismayed to learn his reputation has preceded him in unwanted ways, landing him the junior executive promotion he’s dreamed of, but with an unexpected twist.

Also featured in supporting roles are Jack Kruschen in an Oscar-nominated performance as the bewildered doctor living next door, Ray Walston as a philandering executive, and Edie Adams as Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary with her own side of the story to share.

Nearly five decades before Mad Men ventured into similar mid-century terrain, The Apartment provided writer-director Billy Wilder with a perfect vehicle to explore one of his favorite themes—the uniquely American hypocrisy about sex, wryly observed with the Viennese-born director’s trenchant, outsider point of view. Jack Lemmon was already accustomed to Wilder’s fastidious insistence on adhering to every word as written in the script after brilliantly collaborating with him the year before on Some Like it Hot. However, Wilder did allow for some inspired improvisation from Lemmon, most memorably the moment when Bud accidentally squeezes his nasal spray at Mr. Sheldrake. But as a newcomer to a Wilder production, Shirley MacLaine soon discovered her ad libs were not appreciated. Fred MacMurray had famously starred in Wilder’s Double Indemnity in 1944, and was a last-minute replacement for character actor Paul Douglas, who died of a heart attack just two weeks before the start of production. Cast against type, MacMurray received bags of hostile mail from fans enraged by Mr. Sheldrake’s scoundrel

behavior, with the star retreating back to fatherly roles from then on. Production designer Alexander Trauner and art director Edward G. Boyle’s ingenious realization of the main office set cleverly employed the use of forced perspective, with row after row of successively smaller desks and people—including cut-out figures moved by wires in the very back—to create the illusion of a much larger space. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, The Apartment won five, including Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Director for Billy Wilder.


The Ghost Writer (2010)

This week’s indie is The Ghost Writer, the 2010 political thriller directed by Roman Polanski.

Ewan McGregor stars as a writer simply known as “The Ghost,” who finds himself summoned to the London offices of Rhinehart Publishing to take over a lucrative but unusual rush project: ghost writing the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan. A veteran of several memoirs,

The Ghost is wary of the project’s extreme secrecy, requiring him to work on location at Lang’s compound on a rain-swept Martha’s Vineyard. Furthermore, the Ghost’s predecessor abruptly died after falling off a Vineyard-bound ferry, with his autopsy revealing a high alcohol blood level. Greeted at Lang’s bunker-like beach home by his cool assistant Amelia Bly, played by Kim Cattrall, The Ghost is still getting acclimated to the job when news breaks of war crime allegations against Lang due to his alleged role in releasing terrorists to the CIA for torture. As Lang’s inner circle springs into battle to handle the crisis, Lang’s wife Ruth, played by Olivia Williams, takes a contrary point of view. Ruth it turns out has been with Lang since his university days, a critical detail holding a significance The Ghost takes too long to fully appreciate—or understand.

Also featured is Tom Wilkinson as a mysterious Harvard Law professor, with cameo appearances by Timothy Hutton, James Belushi and Eli Wallach in one of his final film roles.

If Pierce Brosnan’s role as “Adam Lang” invites comparison with actual ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, that’s no accident. The Ghost Writer’s co-screenwriter Robert Harris was reportedly inspired to write his original novel in reaction to Blair’s policies following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nicolas Cage and Tilda Swinton were originally announced to play The Ghost and Ruth, but a delay in the start of production forced both to drop out of the cast. And due to Roman Polanski’s inability to return to the US stemming from his controversial and unresolved 1977 rape charge, principal photography for the film was primarily conducted in Europe, with Berlin standing in for London and the Baltic Sea island of Usedome providing the exteriors for Adam Lang’s Martha’s Vineyard compound.

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