Billy Wilder / US / 1960 / 125mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 18 Dec 2017
As the 1960’s approached and the power of the Hollywood censor diminished, so the movies attempted to be more open about matters sexual. A slew of absurd sex comedies arrived starring the likes of Doris Day and Rock Hudson which winked at modern dating but were too candy-coloured and coy for words. Wilder, hot foot off the huge success of Some Like It Hot, made a film that was far more nuanced than anything he’d done before. He took a rather dim view of his fellow man and The Apartment is funny and cruel by turns.
In 1959 a famous TV cigarette ad’s tagline went “you’re never alone with a Strand”. It showed lonely male figure in a raincoat and trilby wandering the streets mighty comfortable in his own company. The ad campaign was a disaster. Viewers considered the smoker a lonely, pathetic loser, just the sort of character that Jack Lemmon cuts in The Apartment. But Lemmon’s character, CC Baxter, is so likeable it’s impossible to feel badly about him.
Baxter has a secret to his workplace success in a giant insurance office which makes a modern-day call centre look positively clubby. His rise has been hastened by his willingness to let his married superiors use his apartment as a fuck pad, even if it means he has to work late or roam the streets at night in his raincoat until his “tenants” have finished and gone home.
His desire for the forlorn elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) plummets when he discovers she is sleeping with one of the insurance executives who has a key to the apartment. She is being strung along by a sweet-talking department head Mr Sheldrake (Fred McMurray). Meanwhile CC’s attempts to pick up a woman in a bar on Christmas Eve end in disaster when he discovers the lift girl has attempted to end it all in his bed after she discovers Sheldrake’s promise to leave his wife is piecrust – easy to make and easy to break.
And while this bittersweet film is full of good cheer – as when Baxter regularly drains his boiled spaghetti with the use of a tennis racquet – there is a darkness and sadness at its soul that seems to comment not just on mid-century corporate America, but on hopelessness of modern romance.
Lemmon and MacLaine make for a perfect double act (their comic timing is a thing to behold), sharing a strange frailty. There is sharp writing, fine direction and photography and a host of wonderful supporting players that buoy the film along. Perfection.