In Billy Wilder’s hilariously acid The Fortune Cookie (1966), sports cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) gets clobbered by football star Luther “Boom Boom” Jackson (Ron Rich) when Jackson is tackled along the sidelines. Conniving lawyer Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau) convinces Harry, his hapless brother-in-law, to fake a more serious injury so they can make a bundle with a bogus lawsuit. When the insurance company gets suspicious, it brings in a couple of surveillance experts. They perch themselves across the street from Harry’s New York apartment and keep a 24-hour-a-day vigil. With cameras and an arsenal of listening devices, they record Harry’s every move during his “recuperation”. Harry reluctantly plays along until he can’t stand it anymore and reveals the scam. The jig is up.
Some of what makes Lemmon’s apartment the perfect setting for Matthau’s all-American greed and the detectives’ antics is in large measure the topic of The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975 by Pamela Robertson Wojcik, an associate professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theater at the University of Notre Dame. Wojcik wastes no time in telling the reader what she’s up to: the “apartment plot is any narrative in which the apartment figures as a central device,” she writes (p. 3), in an introduction that is longer than all but one of her chapters. The book’s underpinnings are fuelled by the work of, among others, America’s premier urbanist, Jane Jacobs, whose seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), became a talisman for those opposed to mid-twentieth century urban renewal plans that they believed were choking the life out of large cities:
(T)he apartment … functions as a particularly privileged site for representing an important alternative to dominant discourses of and about America in the mid-twentieth century, and as a key signifier of an emerging singles discourse. The apartment plot offers a vision of home – centered on values of community, visibility, contact, density, friendship, mobility, impermanence and porousness – in sharp contrast to more traditional views of home as private, stable and family based. The apartment is key, of course, to the imaginary of single and queer life, but it also offers alternative visions of urban married life and child rearing. (p. 5)
H.C. Potter’s Mr. Blandings Build His Dream House (1948) – a film Wojcik does not examine (despite its brief mention on page 19) – seems custom-made for the description above. The Blandingses inch along in their cramped New York apartment and are ripe for busting out as the city encroaches on their lives. Jim Blandings (Cary Grant), a successful advertising man, and his wife, Muriel (Myrna Loy), are convinced the city and their apartment are not right for them and their daughters. Even their morning routine is imperilled by the lack of space. Shaving becomes a dangerous sport as Muriel repeatedly opens the medicine cabinet door while Jim shaves. Privacy, stability and a base for the family are ever more difficult to achieve, so the Blandingses seek a home in rural Connecticut. The apartment has become nothing more than a daily reminder of crowding, noise and the eternal gaze at the greener pastures just a few miles away. Everything the Blandingses hate about their apartment suits Wilder’s insurance investigators just fine. The Fortune Cookie’s mercenary use of Harry’s apartment as something to be violated, peered into and bugged by a hilarious pair of insurance spies – its visibility, contact, density and porousness – allows them to do their work easily by camping out in a building across the street. If Harry had lived in the Blandingses’ rural Connecticut, the detectives would never have been able to spy so readily on Harry, his neck brace and his wheelchair.
After laying her urbanist foundation, Wojcik directs her gaze on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). She has a deep affection for the film (it is one of my favourite Hitchcock pictures) and sets up her argument effectively by briefly scanning some popular interpretations of the film: that it is about voyeurism, masculinity in crisis, and auteurism itself. She pushes past these potentially distracting themes of alienation, isolation and containment, by “viewing the film’s urban space … as porous, dense and permeable; and as navigating the tension between privacy and community, loneliness and density, contact and entanglement that are key to a philosophy of urbanism.” (p. 60) For Wojcik, Rear Window is the ne plus ultra of the apartment plot. She weaves Jacobs’ thinking into her argument, that streets need “watchers” as well as “users” (p. 63), and that the Greenwich Village locale is a district. Wojcik loses her way, however, in suggesting that L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is feminised or impotent because of his observer status in the film. This is a man who covers wars and automobile races as a photographer for a national magazine. In fact, it was an injury suffered on one of these assignments that landed him in a wheelchair with a cast on his leg to begin with. We might also ask Jeff’s girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) – who brings a sexy (for the 1950s, anyway) negligee to Jeff’s apartment one night – just how impotent she thinks Jeff is.
Simultaneity figures largely in Wojcik’s argument and she wields it persuasively to reinforce her argument that Rear Window is the ultimate apartment plot. The sounds that link disparate spaces, Hitchcock’s crosscutting and mobile camera, and framing that often leads us to watch actions in more than one space at a time – all are examples of simultaneity. It is a device that Wojcik tells us appears in other examples of the apartment plot: Richard Quine’s The Pushover (1954), Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk (1959) and Robert Ellis Miller’s Any Wednesday (1966) among them.
Jeff is a bachelor but his apartment is hardly a model of the bachelor pad, that swanky living space populated by single men in the films covered by Wojcik in subsequent chapters. She describes the bachelor pad aptly, as having
numerous modern paintings hung densely on the wall; contrasting textures with one exposed red brick wall and others covered in a nubby beige fabric; a fireplace; an earthy color scheme with dusty reds, brown and beige punctuated with a few bright red cushions. (p. 90)
This is the same bachelor ethos that Hugh Hefner advanced from the Xanadu that he built around Playboy magazine, which began publication in 1953. Hefner wanted the American bachelor to believe that he couldn’t be a bachelor without adhering to Hef’s principles. Wojcik weaves her apartment plot into Hef’s “particular philosophy of urbanism that links the urban with sophistication and seduction pitted against the suburban, which is associated with marriage and emasculation.” (p. 90) Sex in the city, yes. In the suburbs? Maybe not.
But in Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), as in Rear Window, C.C. Baxter’s (Lemmon) bachelor pad is anything but. Baxter’s tools of seduction – essential to fit Hefner’s definition of the bachelor pad – are limited to a television that gets just a few channels and a freezer full of TV dinners. In Rear Window, Lisa provides the tools for seduction when she brings her overnight bag, negligee and enough kisses shot in Hitchcockian close-up to steam up a bagful of Jeff’s camera lenses. Other than Lisa’s untrammelled libido, there are few feminine influences in Jeff’s Spartan digs. No queer element here, unlike Pillow Talk and Richard Thorpe’s That Funny Feeling (1965), both of which Wojcik offers as examples of the apartment plot under siege by feminising and queer influences. After all, if you’re going to have a pad that’s going to lure women, it has to be decorated. And if it’s too decorated, well, then there goes the Playboy philosophy. As Wojcik reminds us, in a dazzling passage, “an identity is not a simple thing to be expressed, but rather an ongoing process of negotiations, small acts, declarations and recasting.” (p. 138)
Wojcik contrasts the cool quintessential bachelor pad of Hugh Hefner’s world with Holly Golightly’s (Audrey Hepburn) bare-bones apartment in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), an apartment that makes Jeff’s look like a cover story for Playboy. In her chapter on how the single woman lives within the apartment plot, Wojcik says
her apartment maps an indeterminate space between domesticity and modernity, or a kind of modern domesticity that produces a particularly modern feminine identity … and enables women to create a transitive or liminal identity away from their family home, prior to – and sometimes, rather than – entering marriage. (p. 148)
If American men in the 1950s and beyond had Hugh Hefner to tell them how to live the good single life, women had Helen Gurley Brown, whose book Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962, and magazine Cosmopolitan, which she relaunched in 1967, gave the single American woman detailed advice on how to make the most of a serious single-ness. All is not glamour and style, however. The novels The Best of Everything and The Girls in 3-B “signal some of the contradictions at the heart of the single girl’s apartment plot” (p. 167):
The apartment plot of the 1950s and 1960s presents a model of modern promiscuity that challenges the logic of the fallen woman film of the 1930s and 1940s, in which sexually transgressive women are punished for their sexual desire. But the apartment plot is not yet fully participant in the logic of sexual liberation. Instead, these texts further the process of domestication by allowing for the power and appeal of the second chance. In these texts, female sexual history can be expunged, and female identity is figured as ephemeral and contingent. (p. 167)
Wojcik wraps up her analysis of the apartment plot with portraits of what some might say is its logical conclusion: “the married variation on the apartment plot.” (p. 189) The most extreme example is Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), in which Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgrass) is trapped in a marriage that exists – barely – in an urban setting. The apartment plot demands what the apartment demands: “a porous and permeable space that activates encounter, improvisation, play and spontaneity.” (p. 218) Tina finds none of these in her suffocating marriage and suffocating seven-room apartment in New York City. In this sense, she is like the Blandingses: they can’t move, can hardly breathe in their cramped New York apartment and seek fresh air and room to move in Connecticut.
Television gets its due when Wojcik discusses the black variation of the apartment plot in a chapter called, aptly, “Movin’ on up.” Centring on the successful situation comedy, The Jeffersons (1975-1985), the final chapter falters and strays from Wojcik’s central concerns because of stretched comparisons between Playboy and Ebony magazine, a publication criticised by some as portraying a make-believe world, although Ebony dealt with some of the same issues the larger black community wrestled with, such as the movement away from Harlem. She admits to this stretching when she includes tenements and Daniel Petrie’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970), films that do not contain apartment plots per se. George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley), the upwardly mobile business owner who moves from Queens to the Upper East Side in The Jeffersons, finds himself in between the white and black worlds much the way Holly Golightly finds herself in between her childhood and adulthood, between domesticity and modernity. I wonder if an expanded version of this chapter might not work better as a book unto itself. More examples of the black American experience in literature could be included.
I was disappointed that, in her discussion of A Raisin in the Sun, Wojcik did not even nod to Rear Window, the film that figured so largely in establishing the book’s direction and scope. Jeff’s cramped Greenwich Village apartment would have served as an effective comparison to the Youngers’ small living space. Their circumstances are driven by the racial divide, Jeff’s by choice (we presume) but the reader would have benefited from a less limiting view of the black experience and a more inclusive variation on the apartment plot. When Wojcik makes the point that the “ghetto particularly emasculates and diminishes black men,” (p. 239) she misses another opportunity, to compare their experience with the successful white men portrayed in the films of the 1950s and 1960s and their swinging bachelor pads. Jeff’s apartment is no roomier than the Youngers’. But his masculinity is never in doubt because of Lisa. And he is far from diminished, if only because he is white.
The force of Wojcik’s argument is demonstrated by Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon (1947), another film she does not discuss but one which – like Mr. Blandings Build His Dream House – demonstrates the pertinence of her analysis. Daisy’s (Joan Crawford) apartment is a Grand Central Station, not just for the comings and goings of the members of the film’s love triangle: widowed veteran Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda) and hard-charging (and married) attorney Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews) battling in gentlemanly fashion for Daisy. Wojcik’s original bevy of reliable descriptions for her apartment plot – porousness, encounter, contingency, density, spontaneity, play, simultaneity and improvisation – enter and exit like the three main characters. All are on a collision course. Like Rear Window’s Jeff, Daisy is successful, independent and in demand (she is a dress designer). Her apartment, like Jeff’s, might well be another character in the film. It wouldn’t work if either film took place in the Connecticut suburbs, next door to the Blandings’ spacious house. Too quiet. Not enough people. No reason to escape.
The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975, by Pamela Robertson Wojcik, Duke University Press, Durham, 2010.