Tag: Jack Lemmon

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like It Hot header
Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe make comedy gold in Some Like It Hot

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Marilyn Monroe (Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk), Tony Curtis (Joe/“Josephine/“Shell Oil Jnr”), Jack Lemmon (Jerry/“Daphne”), George Raft (“Spats” Colombo), Pat O’Brien (Agent Mulligan), Joe E Brown (Osgood Fielding III), Nehemiah Persoff (“Little Bonaparte”), Joan Shawlee (Sweet Sue), Dave Berry (Mr Bienstock), Grace Lee Whitney (Rosella), George E Stone (“Toothpick” Charlie)

It’s the funniest comedy that ever started in a hail of bullets. It’s the best chick flick to stare two men. It’s probably Billy Wilder’s sweetest comedy and it’s almost certainly its most beloved. They say Nobody’s Perfect, but you can be pretty sure this film gets as close to it as possible.

In 1929 in Prohibition Chicago, down-on-their-luck musicians saxophonist Joe (Tony Curtis) and double bass Jerry (Jack Lemmon) can’t get a break. First the speakeasy they are playing gets busted by the feds. They’ve lost all their money at the dog track. And, oh yeah, they accidentally witness gangster “Spats” (George Raft) eliminate his competition in a hail of bullets. They’ve got to get out of town incognito and quick – so what better option but joining an all-female band as “Josephine” and “Daphne”? Problem is, playing at a hotel in Florida, Joe and Jerry find themselves in all-sorts of romantic entanglements: Joe is wooing lead singer Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) in the guise of heir to an Oil fortune, while Jerry is wooed by smitten millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown). And if that’s not bad enough – guess which hotel the mob are having their annual convention at?

Wilder’s comedy is a fast-moving, brilliantly written (by Wilder and IAL Diamond) buddy comedy with a twist that dives into a whole world of gender and identity concepts that puts it way ahead of its time. Shot in luscious black-and-white (Wilder’s preferred style, and colour exposed all too strikingly the drag act look of Curtis and Lemmon), every scene has at a zinger and our heroes fall into one a string of madcap situation through misfortune and rank incompetence.

But the film’s real interest is in how far ahead of its time its gender awareness was. When they first appear disguised at the train station, the camera pans up their legs and behinds in just the way you would expect it to do (and indeed it does seconds later with Monroe) to ogle the women, only to reveal it’s the men striding their way down the platform. Both of them comment (and complain) on the objectification and unwanted physical attention (from slapped bums upwards) from men – “it’s like a red rag to a bull” Joe describes their feminine appearance, before he and Jerry complain they can’t wait to get back to being the bull again. It’s part of the fine tight-walk the film works, where the men are both men and women, victims and hypocrites, open-minded and conservative.

Dressing as women seems to give both of them a new perspective on things. Lothario Joe seems to gain a new sympathy for women – while at the same time, passing himself off as a millionaire to seduce Sugar with a string of lies – and comes to see himself as exactly the sort of lousy bum he probably has been. For Jerry the whole experience is a revelation. It’s part of as fascinating debate as to how much this film is aware of transgender and homosexual urges, and how much it’s just a very wittily delivered joke that’s so respectfully done it can be embraced by one and all. But for Jerry, the whole experience seems to redefine his own internal perception of himself.

It’s there from when he first glances Monroe at the train station: after tripping in his heels, he’s stunned when she works past, not by her looks, but by the ease she moves, his eyes not starring at her behind with lust (as Joe’s does) but with envious admiration. On the train he takes the blame for Sugar’s illicit bourbon – is it a sense of fellowship, or a bizarre way of making a pass at her? This leads to a slumber party in his bunk with the whole band, all in their nightwear – through which he constantly forces himself to remember he’s a boy (seemingly out of sexual excitement). But we very rarely see Jerry out of some layer of feminine disguise: and later confusion seems to abound during his courtship from Osgood, where he delights in the dancing, the jewels and the engagement and has to disappointingly remind himself that he’s a boy. After initial doubts Jerry finds a sort of freedom in dressing as a woman, that Joe never does.

How much is Some Like It Hot aware that it is playing around with fluid gender perceptions, and how much is it a stunningly well delivered joke? It’s not clear – and I doubt any film-maker in 1959 would even have the vocabulary to begin to conceive the sort of conversation the film provokes today.

But does it really matter when the jokes are this good and the performances so brilliant? Jack Lemmon is superb here, the sort of career-defining performance actors dream about. Anxious, fussy, slightly whiny, Jerry becomes the more playful, sassy Daphne – and what Lemmon does brilliantly is make both personalities fully-formed yet existing consistently within the same character. That’s not mentioning his verbal and physical comedic gifts and consistently perfect timing, his performance comedic but not a broad drag act. He makes Jerry/Daphne a living, breathing person anda comedic character, someone we can never imagine meeting in real life but also would not be surprised to sit down next to on a bus. This is skilful acting on another level.

Which is not to do down Tony Curtis, who is very funny as the lothario Joe uncomfortably squeezed into feminine attire. While Jerry comes to relish some of the accoutrements of ladies clothing, Joe is never as comfortable – for him it is practical solution. That doesn’t change Curtis’ hilarious comic timing – or his wicked Cary Grant impersonation (“No one talks like that!” Jerry complains) when taking on a third disguise as a Shell Oil heir, which also seems like a sly parody of Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. Curtis’ comic timing is as faultless as Lemmon’s, and the two actors produce such a sparkling double act, it’s a shame they didn’t work together again.

As the third wheel, Monroe was never so radiant, culturally iconic and luminous than she was here. Reports are rife of the troubles she caused on set – the hours waiting for her to turn up, the lines she couldn’t or wouldn’t learn, the dozens and dozens of talks she demanded for the even the simplest scenes (this in particular drove Curtis – an instinctive actor whose performance declined with retakes – up the wall – it’s fun to spot how little they actually share the same shot during the film). Wilder later commented she was a terrible actor to work with – but a God-given talent up on the screen. Can’t argue with that, and she turns a character who, on paper, could be a dumb blonde joke into someone very sweet, endearing and lovable, who we never laugh at (Monroe is a generous enough performer to never worry about making it clear to the audience that she is smarter than her character is, or treat her with contempt).

Wilder brings it all together with his genius behind the camera. He cuts the film with superb comic timing – the intercutting between the seductions of Joe/Sugar and Jerry/Osgood are masterfully done – his sense of the momentum is spot-on and he is as skilled with flat-out farce as sophisticated word-play. That’s not to mention the wonder of the tone – he makes a concept that had the suits sweating in 1959, easy to swallow without ever once treating the idea as a revolting perversion, making it funny but never humiliating. The film’s sweetness is partly why its become so loved.

Possibly the funniest film ever made – and it’s also littered with gags about old-school gangster films, taking advantage of its inclusion in the cast of the likes of Raft and O’Brien enjoyably sending themselves up – it’s won a place in the hearts of film buffs and casual moviegoers for generations. And it’s going to continue to do so. With one of the greatest closing scenes ever, it’s always going to leave you wanting to come back for more.

Short Cuts (1993)

Anne Archer and Jack Lemmon are just two of many intersecting lives in Altman’s Short Cuts

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr Ralph Wyman), Anne Archer (Claire Kane), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Robert Downey Jnr (Bill Bush), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Lily Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller)

Helicopters fly over Los Angeles, spraying against medflies. Beneath them, people’s lives entwine over the course of a couple of days. It could only be an Altman film. The man who turned the whole of Nashville into a set for, repeats the trick here with a brilliantly handled adaptation of a series of Raymond Carver short stories into one single inter-linked narrative, that explores a full gamut of emotions in that strange race we call humanity.

The son of TV commentator Howard (Bruce Davison) and his wife Anne (Andie MacDowell) is hospitalised after he is accidentally clipped by the car of waitress Doreen (Lily Tomlin). He’s treated by Dr Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine), currently feuding with artist wife Marian (Julianne Moore). Marian befriends clown Claire (Anne Archer), who is horrified when her husband Stuart (Fred Ward) and his friends decide not to let finding a dead body spoil their fishing trip. Marian’s sister Sherri (Madeline Stowe) is becoming increasingly exasperated with philandering cop husband Gene (Tim Robbins), who is having an affair with Betty (Frances McDormand) estranged wife of Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher) who flew one of those helicopters spraying medflies. That’s not even mentioning a furious baker (Lyle Lovett), a sexually frustrated pool cleaner (Chris Penn) and his phone-sex worker wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) or Howard’s unreliable father Paul (Jack Lemmon).

There aren’t many directors in Hollywood who could throw this many plates onto sticks and keep them spinning. Certainly very few who could make it look as easy as Altman does. With no less than twenty leading characters spread out across at least nine storylines, many of which intersect but without those taking part of them being aware of it, this is such a carefully woven tapestry even a single loose thread could have led to the entire image unravelling into a sorry collection of fabric. The fact it doesn’t, and the film moves so confidently and vibrantly from place-to-place, shifting from perspective to perspective without ever once confusing or alienating the audience, demonstrates this is the work of a master at the top of his game.

Altman’s verité style is at its best here. There is no need for flash or intrusive cinematic tricks, when the entire film is a brilliant expression of the potential of cinematic narrative. Altman’s camera, with its observational stillness, is perfectly matched with masterful editing (the film is superbly assembled by Geraldine Peroni) that not only makes this a coherent whole, but also finds every trace of reaction and nuance from the characters. Time and time again the camera (and the editing) searches out and finds that little moment of reaction that adds a whole world of depth to the story.

Because, like some of Altman’s best films, this is all about a cascade of little moments that combine into one beautifully enlightening whole. Each story demonstrates a different facet of the human experience, but what they all have in common is the unpredictability of how events many turn out and how people may react to them. There is a wonderful unknowability about people which the film captures. Just when we think we have a person sussed, they will do or say something we don’t expect. A philanderer’s wife will be amused by his cheating than horrified. An abusive baker will have depths of kindness. Feuding couples will find they have more in common than not.

There’s also darkness and sadness. The film is largely anchored by the increasingly heart-string tugging collapse of Howard and Ann’s son – and the pain that can lie in parent-child relationships is also seen in the dysfunctional relationship between jazz singer Tess (Annie Ross) and her talented but depressed celloist daughter Zoe (Lori Singer). As Ann, Andie MacDowell gives one of her finest performances as a powerless mother desperate to do the right thing, her fear and vulnerability as touching as her pain is devastating. Somehow, it’s all the more affecting by knowing how distraught Lily Tomlin’s Doreen would be if she knew the terrible impact of her very minor accident was.

That’s another beauty of this tapestry. As characters ‘guest’ in each other’s stories, we don’t see them in black-and-white but as ordinary people doing their best. Tim Robbins’ cop would probably seem a selfish rogue agent in the eyes of several characters, but as we see more of his home life (dysfunctional but strangely loving), it’s hard not to warm to him. We understand why Ralph (Matthew Modine) is a bit distant with the Finnegans, because he’s distracted by concerns that his wife is having an affair. We can’t be angry at Doreen, because we know she’s such a decent person.

The film doesn’t shy away from the darkness of people, not less the slow bubble of sad-eyed depression in the eyes of Chris Penn, jealous of the people his wife (a very good Jennifer Jason Leigh) talks dirty to down a phoneline – a bubble that will burst before the film’s end. Peter Gallagher’s cocksure and charming pilot has the potential in him to do something quite unpleasant to his wife. Even Tim Robbins’ cop seems only a few degrees from potentially taking the law into his own hands.

Short Cuts is wonderfully constructed – and never feels overbearing or overlong despite its great length – but it’s not perfect. It’s very hard not to notice today that it’s view of the great melting pot of Los Angeles is overwhelmingly white. Nearly every single woman takes her clothes off at some point (Julianne Moore famously does an entire domestic argument nude from the waist down, which is making a point about the impact of long-term marriage but still Modine is fully clothed). Altman at times lets his cynicism (and even slight condescension) for some characters show a little too clearly.

But, despite those flaws, Short Cuts is an almost perfect example of smorgasbord story-telling in cinema. And no one else could surely have done it with such ease and wit as Altman did.

JFK (1991)

Kevin Costner goes on a quest for the truth in Oliver Stone’s crazy but brilliant JFK

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Walter Matthau (Senator Russell B Long), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Donald Sutherland (Colonel X), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Michael Rooker (Bill Broussard), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivan), Edward Asner (Guy Banister), Brian Doyle-Murray (Guy Banister), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Sally Kirkland (Rose Cheramie), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel), Priutt Taylor Vince (Lee Bowers), Tony Plana (Carlos Bringuier)

When great events happen, it’s hard for us to accept they might take place for random reasons. Rather than freak occurrences or boring individuals, we’d rather see them taking place due to an impenetrable web of shadowy figures. There is something in us that rejects randomness and embraces order. Conspiracy theories are the (ironic) result of these, with their exponents often the most passionate believers in the all-pervading genius of big government. Events like the death of President Kennedy can’t be because some nobody shot him. Instead it must be part of a wider junta of baddies, with every man you see merely a front for a cabal of the wicked. It’s hard not to be swept up by the lure of the conspiracy theories (they invariably have the best stories after all) – and Oliver Stone’s JFK is perhaps the definitive mainstream conspiracy theory essay.

Taking the campaign of Louisiana DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) to find out the “truth” about the murder of President Kennedy, Stone’s film is part a fascinating presentation of half-truths and “might-have-beens” and part a sprawling mess of irresponsible nonsense. Either way it’s assembled with astonishing panache, a level of filmic skill that makes it (literally) almost impossible to tell whether what you are seeing is true and what is invention. Stone’s film superbly interweaves a variety of film stocks and effects to seamlessly splice together newsreel footage, Zapruder film and his own reconstructions so brilliantly it frequently becomes hard to tell which is which.

The same logic also applies to the script. JFK is frequently engaging and fascinating. But you have to remember that it is the equivalent of meeting the most literate and articulate street corner “End-of-the-Worlder”. Such is Stone’s skill he could, I am sure, have created an equally compelling film which would have you questioning the Moon Landings or the shape of the Earth. JFK throws an army of questions, objections and theories at the screen. And while it rarely provides much in the way of answers, only points that it wants you to think about, these theories frequently fascinate. Imagine JFK as a sort of video essay, linked together with dramatic scenes, with its points delivered by authoritative and trusted actors like Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

There is absolutely no doubting the technique of Stone here, or his mastery of the language of cinema. The work of Robert Richardson’s photography, with its myriad styles, and of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia’s editing, pulling together a host of images, snapshots and flash cuts into an insidiously convincing whole, is breathtaking. Light in particular is superbly used, casting some characters in shadow, flaring up to (literally) blind others – light frequently plays across Garrison’s glasses, a visual metaphor for his own struggle to see the light. The speeches he writes for his characters are superbly done, and make their points with great skill – Sutherland (superb) has a hugely convincing story of military black ops action (and inaction) before and after the assassination that fills almost 20 minutes of screentime.

There are compelling arguments made about the ability of Oswald to fire the shots, the triangulation of fire, the spurning of an easier shot before the fateful turn, Oswald’s seemingly illogical movements after the shooting etc. etc. There is decent reasoning behind all of this, and the points are marshalled very well. But, like all extremist theories, suddenly it will turn into something just a little batshit (Lyndon B Johnson ordering the hit or some sort of cabal of Cubans, CIA, FBI and Secret Service working together to conduct a coup).

Much of Stone’s passion for finding the truth (the film’s mantra) is rooted in his own romantic view of Kennedy, as some sort of lost “Prince Who Was Promised”. To Stone, Kennedy would have withdrawn us from Vietnam (news I am sure to the President who started and escalated America’s involvement in it), ended the military industrial complex (contrary to his platform when elected of a stronger US military), bought the Cold War to an end (again, running against his sustained opposition to the Soviet Union) and introduced full Civil Rights (a cause he was lukewarm on at best – unlike his brother or his successor Johnson).

But Kennedy was a romantic figure who had the ability to invite people to invest him with whatever qualities they wanted (both good and bad), a magic cemented forever by his untimely murder. In reality there is no indication that JFK would do (or want to do) any of the things JFK argues he was assassinated for. But that’s all part of the magic of the conspiracy. Facts and events can be marshalled into whatever you want them to be. (Tellingly the only member of Garrison’s investigative team who questions these theories is shown to be a creep in the pay of the conspirators.)

So Kennedy can be a saint, and the film can outline (with no evidence at all beyond a series of coincidences and unlikely or random events) a grand vision of master schemers reshaping America over the body of a dead President. Does it really stand up? Well no of course not. But I will say it is compelling viewing – even if it is essential to keep an open mind about it. Stone later wished he had made clearer that much of the work here was pure fiction (and speculative at best). Certainly it’s a point to keep in mind.

Perhaps Stone should also have looked again at some of the other beats in the film. The film’s version of Jim Garrison as a kind of saintly campaigner for justice flies in the face of many (then and later) who believed the Louisiana DA a shameless self-promoter – an argument made easier to believe by the real Garrison’s cheeky cameo in the film as his ‘nemesis’ Earl Warren. No mention is made in the film that the case he brings against Clay Shaw was dismissed by the jury after less than an hour, and the film avoids explicitly showing his lack of evidence. Costner delivers the final speech, with its famous “back and to the left” commentary on what seems like Kennedy’s unnatural movement after being hit by a bullet and breakdown of the “magic bullet” (both theories now largely discredited), with aplomb, but the film puts a halo on Garrison which doesn’t really stand up.

But again at least it’s entertaining. Other parts of the film don’t even manage that: the baseline narrative that links up the various compelling conspiracy lectures is frequently dull, insipid and lamely written. Sissy Spacek has perhaps the most thankless role in film history as Garrison’s wife whose nearly every line is a variation on “Honey please stop reading the Warren Report and come to bed”. Even that though pales against the exploration of the 1960s gay scene in Louisiana (which Clay Shaw and his “fellow conspirators” were leading members of) which has an unpleasant stink of homophobia, playing into a host of deeply unpleasant (and false) stereotypes of gay people as perverted, promiscuous and preying on the straight. One suspects there was more than a little truth in the idea that Garrison’s fury at Shaw was at least partly motivated by homophobia.

These sequences work considerably less well today – and frequently go on far too long – but when the film focuses on its Kennedy theories it is at least compelling, even if it’s all rubbish. The film made it mainstream to believe Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy in which Oswald was, if he was involved at all, only a patsy. How different would the world have been if Oswald had lived and been made to explain why and how he killed Kennedy? But then chances are, being such an average an unremarkable man, people wouldn’t have believed him anyway.

Stone’s film is a triumph of agenda-led fantasy. Stuffed with faults it makes you at least ask questions – even if you wisely use those questions to affirm many of its points are questionable at best. But any film buff will love the skill it’s told with and the beauty of its technical assembly. Costner was perhaps a little too bland to drive the thing along (although the film uses his innate morality very well), but there are several good performances not least from Gary Oldman who is brilliant as put-upon, used but unknowable Oswald. Nuts, crazy and packed with compelling nonsense, it at least always encourages you to find out more about the actual history.

The Apartment (1960)

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in an unusual relationship in the brilliant The Apartment

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Jack Lemmon (CC “Bud” Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (JD Sheldrake), Ray Walston (Joe Dobisch), Jack Kruschen (Dr Dreyfuss), David Lewis (Al Kirkeby), Edie Adams (Miss Olsen), Hope Holliday (Mrs Margie MacDougall), Joan Shawlee (Sylvia), Naomi Stevens (Mrs Mildred Dreyfuss)

How do you get ahead in business (without really trying)? Well a good way of going about it might be just farming your New York apartment out so your bosses can take ladies who aren’t their wives there. It works for CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) – known to all his superiors as “Buddy” – who makes his apartment freely available on rotation to a host of executives as bolt holes for their mistresses. Just arrange a start and finish time, pick up the key from under the mat, and Baxter will keep out of the way. However, things get complex for Baxter when the Head of Personnel, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), demands exclusive use of the apartment – and when it turns out his mistress is none other than Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the lift attendant Baxter himself has fallen in love with.

The Apartment is a brilliant mix of bitter social satire and comedy. It’s striking that the film is remembered as a sort of dark romantic comedy, as I think I’d be hard pressed to think of a film with as bitter a view of America and its values. Baxter and Kubelik make for a sweet couple (eventually) but the pair of them are in awe of the American dream. This working dream is however a complete fake, one in which the rich and powerful take what they want and those at the bottom bend over backwards to assist them, praying that the next big job or the next big marriage is round the corner. 

Wilder’s film skewers the ambition and manipulation behind the American dream. Baxter, a down-trodden schmo, works in an office where hundreds of workers sit in lines entering data like worker ants. (The sequence was Wilder’ visual tribute to King Vidor’s 1928 The Crowd). Acclaimed French art director Alexander Trauner (thegenius behind Les Enfants du Paradise) created the effect with intelligent use of false perspective (those at the back are little people made to look far away), and Baxter’s office is a triumph of capitalist indifference made flesh. The big wigs (the only ones with individual offices) are interested only in getting what they want and value nothing more than the keys to the executive bathroom.

It’s Mad Men before its time. A drunken Christmas party is a picture of debauchery, a hotbed of drinking and sex. Kubelik can hardly operate her lift without getting her bottom pinched by an executive. At the apex is Sheldrake the personnel manager, brilliantly played by Fred MacMurray as a heel who thinks he’s reasonable. Sheldrake is the personification of selfish indifference, interested only in getting what he wants all the time. He strings along both Kubelik and Baxter with empty promises (of marriage and promotion), constantly with the fixed smile of the uncaring professional, glancing at his watch during illicit dates with Kubelik and interested in Baxter only as long as he can gain access to his apartment.

As the owner of that apartment, Jack Lemmon is superb as the nebbish Baxter. No one could look or sound more like a struggling nobody like Lemmon, the film brilliantly playing on his relatable every-dayism. With his head jutting forward, his voice and manner always too eager to impress, to ingratiate, he’s the American dreamer ground down by the reality of having to get ahead. It works so brilliantly due to Lemmon’s charm, even though many of the things Baxter does in the film are slightly unpleasant. He’s ambitious, but only because he feels like it’s the only chance he has. But deep down Baxter is kind, he’s playing the role that he thinks he needs to play to make a success of life – so you never stop kind of loving him, even as he enables cheating spouses and good-time girls (at least one of whom is a not-even veiled spoof of Wilder’s bette noir, Marilyn Monroe).

But Baxter is one of us, he’s a down-trodden, a bit clueless and so his good intentions are constantly misdirected. So we care about him, just as we care about Kubelik, wonderfully played by Shirley MacLaine. She’s sweet and endearing, full of quirky charm and endearing sparkiness. But it covers the pain of all misused mistresses, constantly being strung along by their lovers with the promise that yes, eventually, they will leave their wives. The film heads into dark territory with the impact this has on Kubelik but even after all this, she still gives Sheldrake yet another chance. Because, in Wilder’s world, it’s hard to turn your back on how the world works.

It’s the same rules of the world that leave Baxter sitting outside his apartment in the rain, waiting for his boss to “finish”, or spend the night walking the streets or being stood up at the theatre because his prospective date is his boss’ mistress. But despite all this, the film is funny, partly because the set-up is in itself funny and Wilder laces the cynicism with plenty of humour (acidic or otherwise). There are hilarious misunderstandings – all of Baxter’s neighbours think he is the ultimate party animal – and relatable comedy of the lonely, with Baxter’s TV dinners and imaginative use of tennis rackets to strain spaghetti.

The film also throws together a neat romantic plot between Baxter and Kubelik that’s underplayed, endearing and feels truthful. Many people have criticised the ending as feeling tacked on and betraying the coldness of the film’s social satire. But I think it’s there throughout – this is a film that has a fury for the cruelty of capitalism and people like Sheldrake, but no end of affection for the real people who are trapped at the bottom of it. Baxter and Kubelik are never the film’s targets and always the film’s heart. Their eventual happy ending – with the film’s famous closing line of “shut up and deal” – might seem like it flies in the face of the acid of the film, but that’s to overlook the heart that underpins all their interactions.

The Apartment is a near perfect mix of both comedy and drama, dealing with deep and dark themes with an assured and gentle touch, with a wonderful script by Wilder and IAL Diamond. With its two lead roles filled with a brilliant aplomb by Lemmon and MacLaine, plus superb support from MacMurray and Oscar-nominated Jack Kruschen as Baxter’s next-door neighbour, it’s still a superb treat.

Missing (1982)

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek are on a quest for the Missing

Director: Costa-Gravas

Cast: Jack Lemmon (Edmund Horman), Sissy Spacey (Beth Horman), John Shea (Charles Horman), Melanie Mayron (Terry Simon), Charles Cioffi (Captain Ray Tower), David Clennon (Consul Phil Putnam), Richard Venture (US Ambassador), Jerry Hardin (Colonel Sean Patrick), Janice Rule (Kate Newman), Richard Bradford (Andrew Babcock)

Politically motivated American films are few and far between, especially ones that take such a starkly critical view of American foreign policy. So it’s a testament to the respect given to Greek director Costa-Gravas that his first American film is an angry denunciation of America’s attitude towards Latin and South America and a criticism of the cosy assumption of so many of its citizens that the very fact of their being American will open all doors and make them invulnerable to harm. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of Pinochet’s military coup in Chile in 1973 (although for various legal reasons Chile itself is never named), young American journalist and filmmaker Charles Horman (John Shea) goes missing. His wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) is left alone in the increasingly dangerous city, while his father Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) flies into the country. Ed assumes his government will swiftly work with him to solve the mystery, and that his son must have been wrapped up in some dodgy dealings to have gone missing. He is to be brutally disabused of both notions with a painful swiftness, as he finds he and his son are insignificant factors in America’s geopolitical interests.

Costa-Gravas’ film wisely avoids focusing too much on the details of Chilean politics, or the causes of the coup, or even really concentrating on the left-wing politics of many of the American citizens wrapped up in the coup. Instead it zeroes in on the human impact of loss and pain, and by focusing less on the politics of a coup but on the impact of it, it places the audience attention instead on the atrocities that military revolutions bring. Alongside this, Costa-Gravas places front-and-centre of the story not a firebrand liberal, or a left-wing polemicist, but a character who could not be more of a strait-laced conservative, a quintessential American who firmly believes his country is the greatest in the world and heads into a foreign land anticipating doors will be opened for him and his government is here to help. 

It’s vital for the film’s success that it’s the experience of Ed Horman that drives the film narrative. First appearing 25 minutes into the film, the rest of the narrative charts Ed’s growing shocked realisation that his government doesn’t give a damn about his son and, even worse, is more than happy to lie to his face about the level of their involvement. While Ed believes America to be the font of all goodness in the world, he is horrified to discover that it is at the centre of a far more shady world of realpolitik. And that his own complacent belief in the country, and unquestioning assumption that it can do no wrong, is part of what empowers its representatives to back murderous regimes. “If you hadn’t been personally involved in this unfortunate incident, you’d be sitting at home complacent and more or less oblivious to all of this” the Ambassador haughtily tells Ed, after the frantic father has angrily denounced America’s policies. And, from what we saw of Ed at the start, he’s right.

It’s a superb role of growing disillusionment and a stunned realisation that his own home-grown principles and believe in truth, justice and the American Way turn out to be just words. And Jack Lemmon is just about the perfect actor for it. This might be Lemmon’s finest performance, superb from start to finish, a perfect emobodiment of All-American principles that disintegrates into someone angry, bitter and disillusioned. But at its heart as well – and the films – is the very real grief of a father who has lost his son. Worse, a father who only feels he grows close to – and understanding of – his son after losing him. Lemmon’s performances mines every ounce of empathetic sympathy from the role, in a series of heartbreaking moments as Ed begins to realise just how much he has lost in a son he begins to feel he never gave a chance.

This very personal story is at the centre of the film, but Costa-Gravas never for one moment allows us to forget – or avert our eyes – from the horrors coups like this bring. By not naming Chile, it manages to make this the face of all brutal revolutions. As characters move through the streets, or squares, in controlled, carefully framed long-shots and takes we see all around, uncommented on by the camera, unfocused on by the director, the signs of brutality. Throughout the film the background action sees casual arrests, violence, assaults, book burnings, bodies being left in the street or thrown into trucks… All around ordinary people keep their heads down or run for terror. Curfews leave people trapped outside – Sissy Spacek (very impressive) as Beth is caught out and is forced to spend a night hiding in the porch of a hotel, while gun shots ring out around the city (a regular soundtrack for every scene).

The investigation into Charles’ disappearance is pushed forward not the embassy – which presents a series of acceptable faces of the new regime and a smiling reassurance that every thing is being done – but by harried and scared survivors and asylum seekers in European embassies, who tell snippets of the events they have seen, the deaths they have seen glimpses off, the horrors of detention centres. It’s finally dragged home to Ed and Beth as they are taken to an office block with every room containing executed corpses, some identified some not, the bodies piled on every floor of the building. 

In all this America – and shady military and industrial interests – are complicit, and the executions and deaths of citizens of this country (and a few Americans who unwisely mixed themselves up in it) are seen as acceptable collateral damage, the price of doing business to protect American financial interests. The Government is happy bed fellows with murderers and crooked officials, and the idea that the death of one American citizen is going to matter at all is nonsense. Costa-Gravas’ film has a firm point to make – but it makes it within the context of a very human and personal story. “They can’t hurt us, we’re Americans!” are Charlie’s final (on-screen) words: in this attitude he’s as naïve as his father, and he clearly believes just as much in the divine goodness and special status of his homeland. America has no special or outstanding moral character: it’s as mired in dirty world realities as anyone else. This rude awakening will cost the son his life and cause untold grief to his father as well as shattering all his cosy greatest generation idealism.

The China Syndrome (1979)

Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon struggle against Big Business interests in the Nuclear Industry in The China Syndrome

Director: James Bridges

Cast: Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman DeYoung), Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Peter Donat (Dan Jacovich), Richard Herd (Evan McCormack), Daniel Valdez (Hector Salas)

Do we really trust nuclear power? There is something about the dangerous possibilities of splitting the atom that alarms people even today. For all that burning coal wrecks our atmosphere, people would still rather that than live downwind of a station powered on substances that could obliterate everything within a five mile radius if something went wrong. The China Syndrome is about exactly that, an accident at nuclear power plant that could spell disaster for California.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a roving reporter for a Californian news channel, who (thanks to her sexist bosses) is constantly relegated to ludicrous puff pieces (“Today a hot air balloon landed in downtown LA!”). Sent to a nuclear power plant, she stumbles upon the real news story she has waited her whole career for when she and camera-man Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) secretly film a near catastrophic incident. Investigations try to brush the event under the carpet, but shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) knows corner-cutting and cost-saving is putting the whole of LA at risk – and, much against his inclination, he needs to speak out. 

The China Syndrome comes very much from that burst of 1970s conspiracy thriller films where shady big-business types are willing to throw almost anything under the bus in order to make a big bonus. It’s a film that takes a pop not only at the heartless bastards running a shoddy nuclear power plant (who couldn’t care less if the reactor is poorly welded together, so long as the money keeps rolling in) but also the hypocritical cowards running the media. The heads of the news channel kowtow swiftly to big business and are staggering in their sexism and race-to-the-bottom news coverage.

This film is as much about this brainless conformism as it is the dangers of nuclear power. The film is full of people who don’t want to rock the boat: half the people working at the plant would rather turn a blind eye to problems than pay the personal price of exposing them – even Jack Lemmon’s manager is the most reluctant whistleblower you’ll see in the movies. Fonda’s journalist may not be happy with her role as airhead eye-candy, but she will play the game in order to get ahead in the industry the role – and many of her media comrades seem almost totally lacking in any journalistic instincts. The film is bookended by inane TV coverage and advertising, a condemnation of an America that doesn’t ask questions and is sleepwalking towards catastrophe.

This catastrophe is, of course, extremely close – the power plant nearly goes into meltdown because a single dial gets stuck on a high reading, leading the control room to believe the nuclear rods are about to get flooded rather than nearly being exposed. Bridges mines a heck of a lot of tension from this crisis – told entirely from the perspective of the control room – as workers react with both stressed fear and a practised professionalism to a crisis that could become a disaster. Its part of a film where regular joes are generally professional and good at their jobs, but are let down and betrayed by the culture encouraged by the higher-ups.

Some of these themes, however, get a bit muddied in the film’s middle third, which gets bogged down way too much in nuclear theory, committee meetings, slow explanations of different types of weld, and dry lectures on the functioning of nuclear energy. While it is admirable that the film has no score, you can’t help but feel that a little music here to add some drama to Lemmon looking at x-rays or Fonda staring at diagrams could have helped pump up the tension. 

But it all gets paid off by the sudden (and surprising) shift to action and drama in the film’s final third, kickstarted by a surprisingly gripping car chase between Jack Lemmon’s quiet station manager and some shady goons hired by the company. Suddenly the film is powering through a tense series of set pieces that both feel like a different movie, while still a natural progression of the stakes.

Bridges directs the film very well. Each scene is calmly and coolly assembled, and he has a great eye and ear for technology and the noises and motions of machinery, which dominate the film – even if the film is rather in love with these background sounds, which risk taking over the soundtrack. It’s all part of stressing the cold mechanicalism and lack of humanity throughout both these industries. Sometimes the foot comes off the gas a little too much – you could probably trim at least 15 minutes – but when it comes to the moments of tension he directs with sharp snappiness.

The acting is also sublime. Jane Fonda is extremely good as Kimberly Wells. Initially she seems as light and superficial as the stories she is forced to cover, but Fonda paints a clever picture of a woman squeezed into playing a role, but yearning for (and capable of) so much more, who when she finds her moment shows levels of determination and cunning you would never have expected. For all her desire to become a ‘proper’ journalist though, Wells is savvy enough to make sure she is being filmed from her good side… Fonda makes her a careerist who uncovers a sense of moral purpose. She also manages to bring real emotion to the role, making Kimberly Wells a character we swiftly connect with.

The movie however is stolen away by Jack Lemmon, brilliantly low-key and everyday as the shift manager who becomes an overwhelmingly reluctant whistleblower. Lemmon’s performance is a perfect study in smallness, of a quiet dignity. He’s got no desire to rock the boat, quietly stating that the “plant is his whole life” – but when stirred, his professional pride transforms into determination to do the right thing, even while his lack of magnetism makes him unpersuasive and hard to take seriously. It’s a terrific performance of low-key tragedy, with Lemmon building the tension with small flashes of resentment, fear, determination and disillusionment flashing across his face. It’s a great reminder of what a marvellous dramatic actor Lemmon was.

Expertly produced by Michael Douglas (who does sterling work in the third-banana role as the camera man overflowing with conviction), The China Syndrome may at times be dry, but it makes up for that with its moments of high drama and moral conviction. By and large it avoids hectoring and lecturing the audience (when not teaching us about nuclear power), and lets its points be soft-sold rather than banged home. With some terrific performances, it’s a film that still feels relevant today, and is a great example of the 1970s conspiracy thriller genre.