Billy Wilder’s The Apartment was one of a huge list of movies that are considered classics which I haven’t seen, and indeed knew very little about (other than the level of admiration which many people have for it). Having a vague knowledge of the stars of the film (Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine), for one reason or another I was expecting a light-hearted comedy filled with innuendo and witty banter, a tradition of filmmaking that was common around the period when this film was released. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed, as these elements are all in play in The Apartment, but what really thrilled and surprised me was the much more serious subject matter that the film deals with. To say this is simply a comedy is completely false, as it’s a somewhat dark and daring study of the nature of love and infidelity, and the stunning performances and filmmaking on display had me enthralled from the first frame.
The film certainly begins as a comedy. C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) is a young bachelor trying to ascend the corporate ladder by allowing a group of his superiors to use his apartment for their extra-marital liaisons. After he falls for charismatic elevator attendant Fran (MacLaine), who is engaged in an illicit relationship with Mr. Sheldrake, the married head of the company, Baxter tries to free himself from the demands of his bosses, with hilarious results. While this is certainly risqué subject matter (for 1960), the film takes an unexpectedly sombre turn when Fran makes a suicide attempt in the apartment after learning the truth behind Sheldrake’s motives. What follows is a touching, and at times heart-wrenching flowering of Baxter and Fran’s relationship, and if the ending is a little predictable, the journey getting there is really something wonderful.
The Apartment features an excellent selection of fully-formed support characters, but the film really belongs to Lemmon and MacLaine. Lemmon’s reputation as cinema’s greatest everyman is really on show here, and it’s impossible not to root for him and sympathise with his plight. Playing Baxter as a charming yet awkward underdog, his character is the embodiment of the ‘nice guys finish last’ maxim, and although some elements of his life may be a little shady to say the least, Lemmon is flawless. MacLaine is completely up to Lemmon’s high standard as Fran, effortlessly making audiences fall in love with her just as Baxter has. She’s just so damn cute that even when she’s recovering from an overdose of sleeping pills, she exudes such a potent ‘girl next door’ allure that can’t be avoided. Her chemistry with Lemmon is palpable, and when they inevitably end up together, it’s one of those truly satisfying romantic moments seen all too rarely in modern cinema.
I’m not usually one to get nostalgic when it comes to film periods, but while I do have great fondness for many more recent romantic comedies, Hollywood really doesn’t make movies like The Apartment any more. Wilder’s screenplay (co-written with I.A.L. Diamond) is clever, witty and engaging, particularly in the subtle motifs and unique idiosyncrasies of all the characters, and the film is just so expertly crafted. I’m determined now to seek out more Wilder films, along with catching up on my Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. I can’t recommend The Apartment highly enough!