This is our second Classics Week, so for the next several days we’ll be reviewing our favorites from the 1960s. And, as in the week we devoted to movies from 1959 and prior, I’m kicking off this week with a movie from my favorite director of all time: Billy Wilder.
The Apartment, a success with both critics and audiences in 1960, was also the last black and white film (with the exception of 1993’s Schindler’s List) to win the Best Picture Oscar (Wilder also won for best director and best original screenplay). But from the perspective of 2008, the miracle of The Apartment is that, despite the fact that it was released 48 years ago, it remains refreshingly new and surprisingly contemporary. Unlike modern romantic comedies, there’s no outrageous conceit, no gimmicky premise, no zingers, dick jokes, or pratfalls. Nor does The Apartment feature gastric humor, zany madcappery, or hijinx. Hell, no one even raises a voice or slams a door in The Apartment. It’s a simple, straightforward, single plotline movie with killer dialogue and amazing performances.
But what really gets to me about The Apartment is that it’s one of the most romantic films I’ve ever seen, yet there is not one single kiss in the entire film — the mushiest thing anyone says, really, is “shut up and deal,” four words that— cinematically speaking —- have never melted my heart more. And the biggest irony of all is that The Apartment is the anti-romantic comedy: A brilliantly dark, caustic tale of adultery, corporate whoredom, and what it takes to get ahead, featuring illicit affairs, sleazy pricks, and even suicide attempts; it takes up space on the film spectrum somewhere between farce, drama, and a morality tale.
In his first real turn at dramedy, Jack Lemmon balances his comic everyman with the sense of desperation he would later (achingly) reveal in Glengarry Glen Ross. I haven’t seen a lot of Shirley MacClaine’s early stuff, but she’s wonderful here, playing a brassy heroine with just a touch of Barbara Stanwyck’s edge. And Fred MacMurrary is a goddamn force; he may be my favorite actor of the black-and-white era, and The Apartment is just one of the reasons why. The man’s range is unreal: a despicable philanderer here, a sympathetic murderer in Double Indemnity, a duplicitous navy man in The Caine Mutiny, and a genial family man in all those ’60s Disney films, in addition to his 12-year-run on “My Three Sons.” There is no modern-day counterpart to MacMurray.
Inspired by Brief Encounter, a 1945 adultery film about a man who borrows his friend’s residence to entertain a mistress, Wilder became fascinated with the story’s unseen friend and his apartment. The result: Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a lonely singleton and old-school cubicle schnook (they worked in typewriter farms back in the day) at an insurance firm with a nose for statistics and the terrible misfortune of having an apartment close to the office. Consequently, when an executive asks if he can use the apartment to change his clothes before a banquet, Baxter unwittingly agrees. The next thing Baxter knows, he is serially loaning his apartment out to a crew of married executives who use it to entertain their mistresses. Despite the inconvenience of having to stay at work long after his work is done, or hanging around outside his apartment in the rain while his colleagues get their freak on in his living room, Baxter nevertheless goes along with it, believing that somewhere down the line a promotion awaits him. Meanwhile, Baxter’s nosy neighbors don’t know that he loans out his apartment, so they all think he’s a hard-drinking womanizer when, in fact, he’s just a mensch with a TV dinner, who spends his evenings getting annoyed at small-screen commercials (“… do you have wobbly dentures?”)
Baxter also has a monster crush on Fran Kubilick (pre-crazy MacClaine), a sassmouth elevator operator with a permanent handprint on her ass, thanks to the hands-on bastards in the world of insurance. Unfortunately for Baxter, Fran is in an adulterous relationship with Mr. Sheldrake (MacMurray), company president and philandering ass. Though she’s wise enough to realize that Sheldrake has put on the long-play edition of “music to string her along by,” Fran nevertheless dances to the tune, blindly hoping that Sheldrake’s promises to leave his wife are not as empty as they sound.
Eventually, Sheldrake approaches Baxter for the key to his apartment, which Baxter exchanges for an executive-level promotion, sleeping his way up the corporate ladder by proxy. The catch, of course, is that Sheldrake uses Baxter’s apartment to entertain Fran. Though there’s an obvious affection between Baxter and Fran, Baxter wants to be Sheldrake’s assistant just as much as Fran wants to be the next Mrs. Sheldrake, so the jaded realist in each of them eschews morality to pursue their own ambitions.
Indeed, The Apartment isn’t just a love story; Wilder’s script presents a fairly damning indictment of the capitalism and sexism of the time. Wilder utilizes the traditional romantic comedy conventions, but he wraps substance around them, crafting likable but morally flawed characters. The exploitative relationships that Sheldrake has with Fran and Baxter represent the ugliness of the patriarchal corporate world. He uses his powerful position for sexual gain and, initially anyway, both Fran and Baxter are complicit: Baxter chooses to ignore love for the promise of climbing the corporate ladder, while Fran does the same for the prospect of ending up with a wealthy, powerful husband. Ultimately, it’s the Christmas holidays, which bring out Baxter’s loneliness, as well as Fran’s suicidal despair at the notion of being the “other woman,” that finally break the spell of Sheldrake’s false promises.
It’s all pretty heavy stuff for a film billed as a comedy.
And the genius of The Apartment, like most of Wilder’s work, is that the complex cultural and ideological stuff lies under the surface — you just have to scratch to get there. But, in other ways, The Apartment is the perfect third-date flick: you can just as well skim off the top layer and appreciate The Apartment on a superficial level: A melancholy comedy that, nearly fifty years on, is as funny as it is heartbreaking.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
The Apartment / Dustin Rowles
Film | January 21, 2008 | Comments ()