September Highlights on TCM
I've always loved the idea of double bills and series, of putting one movie side by side with another movie. You see them in light of one another, and it enriches your sense of both. There's a name for it: programming. The people at TCM are exceptionally good at it, and it's one of the reasons we all love the channel--really, it's one of the reasons I wanted to do this column.
This month, there's a little suite of three films in which most of the action takes place in New York apartments: Laura, directed by Otto Preminger, made in the mid-'40s; Auntie Mame, based on Betty Comden and Adolph Green's theatrical adaptation of Patrick Dennis' novel about his own aunt, made in the late '50s; and Billy Wilder's The Apartment, which was released in 1960. Auntie Mame is an enjoyable but extremely stagebound picture, but the other two are great films, rightfully celebrated as classics. And in both pictures, New York apartments (actually, make that Manhattan apartments) are not only central, they're actually characters. In Laura, it's actually three apartments we come to know, room by room. Each one of them, belonging respectively to Clifton Webb's newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, Judith Anderson's society matron Ann Treadwell, and the title character, Laura Hunt, played by Gene Tierney, is extremely luxurious and posh, the epitome of Manhattan sophistication and glamour.
In Wilder's film, Jack Lemmon's C.C. Baxter lives in a drab, open-plan walk-up in a brownstone on the Upper West Side (at the time, the neighborhood was working class; today, the same apartment would go for millions). In the Preminger film, the details of the apartments are interesting, because they give you a sense of the shared tastes of the time, but they come alive in relation to the movements of the characters. In Wilder's film, one of the most beautiful black-and-white Cinemascope pictures ever made, the sets were designed by the great Hungarian/French art director Alexandre Trauner (who also designed Children of Paradise and Welles' Othello), and by the time the story has ended you know every object in that apartment, and you'll probably be able to draw a floor plan. Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, along with Trauner, the set decorator Edward G. Boyle, the actors Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine and the cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (who also shot...Laura), work out all the action with the greatest care: every movement and gesture is inseparable from the space itself.
Of course, the other thing about great programming is that it sets your mind at work thinking of other films that would complement and enlarge the theme. For instance: D.W. Griffith's great 1912 film The Musketeers of Pig Alley; Raoul Walsh's 1932 Me and My Gal, most of which takes place in a Lower East Side apartment building; Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which takes place entirely in an apartment and makes an interesting and more realistic contrast with Laura; George Cukor's It Should Happen to You, another West Side picture with Jack Lemmon, made in 1954; Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, a great Manhattan movie that takes place in a series of apartments. Or, for that matter, Whit Stillman's 1990 debut Metropolitan, which is playing one night after "New York Apartments" along with his follow-up Barcelona.
by Martin Scorsese