MOVIE-WISE, THERE HAS NEVER BEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT - LAUGH-WISE, LOVE-WISE, OR OTHERWISE-WISE!
There’s a school of thought that suggests that Billy Wilder is the best director of all time, the reasoning simply being that he, arguably, mastered every genre he touched. If you were to ask someone what the best film noir of all time is, a regular answer is Double Indemnity. Asking about the best comedy ever, many will say Some Like it Hot. Many cite Sabrina as on of the best romantic comedies of all time, and Stalag 17 one of the best war pictures. In 1960, he released what many believe to be his best work, which won him three Oscars in the process – The Apartment.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a mid-level insurance clerk looking to rise through the ranks of his company, and who loans his apartment to company executives to use as place to take their mistresses. Things become more complicated when he develops a crush on a fellow employee Fran Kubelick (Shirley MacLaine), who is having an affair with the man who controls the promotions, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
There is story that’s often recounted about The Apartment, that Billy Wilder got the initial idea for the film when watching David Lean’s bittersweet tale of unconsumated love, Brief Encounter. So it goes that the thought occurred to him of a character we never actually see in that film, a friend of Alec’s whose home they go to for some physical congress, only to be interrupted by the friend’s unexpected return home. Wilder considered this character, someone who would climb into his own bed, which has only just recently vacated by two lovers… I know, kind of creepy, right? It’s not exactly the kind of light-hearted notion that rests at the heart of many films described by many as “romantic comedy.” Still, using this singular idea as the basis, Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond constructed the story of C.C. Baxter, a lonely bachelor trying to climb the corporate ladder by, essentially, loaning out his home and bed to a few company executives for illicit trysts with women who aren’t their wives. Really, in the hands of anyone else, this is the kind of thing that could go horrendously wrong and wind up starring Rob Schneider. It could have been too schmaltzy, too sordid or just incredibly depressing.
Thankfully, Wilder is much smarter than that. Clearly, he knew that, like all projects, it’s the rendering of the characters and how they would find themselves in such a situation that will help sell the film entire. Characters in The Apartment spend their time effectively compromising their own morals or their own current happiness, deferring to the whims of someone else, The Boss, hoping that it will lead to something better down the line. Once that’s been achieved, they can get on with their real lives. Baxter is a relatively faceless employee at the company, just another body sitting at a desk on the 19th floor (the shot of the vast sea of people at similar desks shows just what kind of odds Baxter must rise above). Owing to a simple favour to someone long ago and snowballing from there, he has begun to basically pimp out his own home as some sort of quick-stop motel to his superiors, who each make endless promises to put in a good word for him come promotion time. Baxter is so poor at confrontation, so susceptible to vague threats of not being considered for executive positions that he literally puts himself out constantly, sometimes even after he’s gone to bed.
Fran Kubelik is of a similar ilk, in that she is willing to sacrifice her own happiness, her own personal standing and self respect, all in the hopes of achieving something more down the road amidst promises from callous and rather despicable people. In the same way that Baxter wants to one day be the boss, Kubelik wants to be the boss’ wife. Again like Baxter, this puts her at the mercy of the rather insensitive personnel director Sheldrake, a married man who peppers her with promises of leaving his wife, just as soon as the time is right. It’s certainly not like Baxter or Kubelik are stupid people who can’t recognise that they’re unhappy or that they’re being walked on. They see it, but they’ve made the conscious decision to enter into these engagements because they genuinely believe that they can benefit from it later. And they do get some reward, so they’re not just operating on blind hope. They think it's just something they'll have to put up with for now.
The performances go a long way balancing out what could be a small gaggle of rather cynical and unrelatable characters. Baxter would actually be somewhat repellent as an individual if not for Jack Lemmon’s performance, which makes him appear so likable and sympathetic that you really feel like he’s being taken advantage of. That’s really the greatness of Lemmon here – he makes Baxter seem like the put upon Everyman. Shirley MacLaine is superb as Kubelik, taking her away from the kind of ditzy, naïve girl she could have been, and giving her a quiet dignity and intelligence which in turn gives her a great depth. Just watch how she plays out the whole Christmas scene with MacMurray’s Sheldrake. Most of it is done with just her eyes, but it’s a torrent of emotion writ in quiet expression. Fred MacMurray himself is on fine form as Sheldrake, a loathsome and unfeeling swine who’s gotten used to holding influence and power over people to his advantage, as his string of past workplace conquests can attest.
What has always rather troubles me about the legacy of The Apartment is that it is remembered and regarded as one of the great all time comedies. The American Film Institute put at number 20 in its list of 100 Laughs, and, in 2006, Premiere voted it as one of the 50 greatest comedies ever (the list itself was unranked). Don’t get me wrong, there is some wonderfully wry humour going on in the film, and it can be genuinely very funny, but all of this somewhat negates the more tragic side of things. I just always have visions of people sitting to enjoy their first watch of a classic comedy and being so completely blindsided by a mid-film suicide attempt of one of the main characters that they turn it off. It’s not even what you’d easily regard as a black comedy since they don’t really try to wring humour from these moments of sadness or moderate bleakness. It’s a drama, with a wide scope reaching into comedy and tragedy with equal focus and equal success. The funny stuff is funny, but the tragic stuff is tragic. In the same kind of way that it seems a little unfair to class American Beauty, which was greatly influence by The Apartment, simply as a comedy, this classification seems to be doing it a slight disservice. What should really be taken from this is the amazing skill and deft touch that Wilder is able to use to achieve these two very distinct modes and bring them together so beautifully and seamlessly.
The Apartment is a great and steady mix of wit, charm, and humour, but also pathos, sadness and a dose of cynicism. The script is tight and wonderfully written; Wilder’s direction is so delicately, but firmly controlled; the cinematography is crisp; and the performances are all excellent. It’s misleading to just call it a comedy, since such a description would belie the moments of tragedy and darkness it holds, but it is an absolutely wonderful film to take in precisely because of this excellent blend of comedy and sorrow. Whether or not you will agree that Wilder is the greatest director ever, there is no denying his great talent here.