In 1960, Billy Wilder won Best Picture with a film—whose basic plot swirls around the trials and tribulations of infidelity of both sexes—seemed like a shock to some, but for many more was the ideal precursor to the Swinging ‘60s and free love (cross-reference below).
Seen now in 2022, those sexual escapades seem trite if not lame, but Wilder’s insightful, smart writing is still as fresh as a daisy and the performances of the three principals (Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray—miles away from My Three Sons, whose first season was also 1960—12 years of penance, perhaps?) has only improved with age.
The premise is simple. Insurance clerk C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Lemmon) has visions of moving on up in the firm, so happily vacates his Upper West Side digs (a few hours at a time) in order to permit his uppers (Ray Walston the highlight of the philandering quartet) to wine, dine and bed their “how about now?” babes. And sure enough, their glowing “performance” reviews finally send Bud to the executive suite for what must surely result in a promotion.
The boss of them all comes in the debonair form of Jeff Sheldrake (MacMurray), who makes it instantly clear that’s Bud’s future hinges on yet another key under the mat so that the married senior executive can have his way with the current woman of his dreams (as opposed to his oblivious wife—over time, a weakness in the narrative: do five wives have no idea why their loving spouses work so late and come home with liquor on their breaths and aren’t “in the mood”?)
The comely fly in the ointment and glue to the plot is workplace elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine). Happy to take all comers to their office tower floors, on the DL she is head over heels for “soon I will get a divorce” Sheldrake. Naturally (or there’s no story), Bud is smitten with Fran, setting up an unexpected threesome that soon morphs into suicide attempts, gin rummy, and spaghetti strained by a tennis racket.
But all of this seemingly nonsensical mayhem is expertly guided by Wilder’s superb comedic sense as both director and writer (the four-fingers-up meaning three is a visual tour de farce with a hilarious payoff).
Lines like, “The door is always open [nudge, nudge]…[wait for it] to my office”, “When you’re in love with a married man you shouldn’t wear mascara”, gin rummy as a set piece and a Charlie Chaplin bowler expertly sprinkled throughout the comings and goings, keep the pace flowing seamlessly towards the last line (you’ll have to watch it to agree or not).
It’s a pity that movies like this are no longer “welcome on the voyage” (and, imagine, no nudity or expletives despite the subject matter; what’s a viewer to do? use their imaginations?).
When today’s largely miserable headlines send the heart asunder, a viewing is heartily recommended to remind us all that the world can still be fun then and now. JWR