Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon (C.C. Baxter), Shirley Maclaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (Jeff Sheldrake), Jack Kruschen (Dr. Dreyfuss).
Genre: Romance / Drama / Comedy
Released just a year after Billy Wilder’s smash-hit comedy Some Like It Hot, it’s easy to forget that The Apartment isn’t particularly funny. It’s a romantic comedy drama. But not in that order. Not that the movie is not without it’s charms, most frequently to be taken from Jack Lemmon’s fabulously fanciful character ticks. In fact the reason I’m writing about The Apartment here at all is because of just how charming a movie it is. Nevertheless, time away from the movie often dilutes just how dark it gets. The Apartment is not a light movie. But it is a wonderful one. And one that endures.
It concerns C.C. Baxter, mid-level grunt at a large Manhattan insurance firm, who is greasing his way up the ladder, promotions-wise, by letting out his apartment to his superiors as a place for them to take their mistresses. And whilst this frequently causes him discomfort and inconvenience, he is rewarded at the office. However, the whole set-up is thrown into chaos when Baxter discovers that the woman of his dreams, elevator operator Fran Kubelik, is company director Sheldrake’s bit-on-the-side. Sheldrake has finished with Fran at Baxter’s apartment, and, in a fit of despair, she has taken a bottle of Baxter’s pills. Baxter, despondent, returns to his apartment to find her unconscious in his bedroom, and moves heaven and earth to save her, all the while putting other people’s considerations before his own.
Naturally, Baxter and Fran grow closer as she convalesces with him over an otherwise dismal Christmas period. It is during this section – as they play gin rummy, or as Baxter demonstrates his unique use of a tennis racket in the kitchen – that Fran starts to realise not just what she’s lost, but what might be right in front of her.
“Why do people have to love people anyway?” Fran muses. It’s a rueful lament that the whole audience can share, and the heart of one of the many reasons that The Apartment remains so special to many who watch it. Billy Wilder was one of cinema’s most popular and revered directors. His work is so often celebrated simply because the man knew what the audience wanted. His career is chameleonic, always shifting genres. But few other directors, of his era or any other, managed to collect quite so many ‘masterpieces’ under their belt. The Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment. To name but a few. His style was never showy, but you can usually tell a Wilder movie when it’s on. Largely it comes from the sheer quality the man evokes in his central performers.
Supposedly The Apartment was meant for Marilyn Monroe, but after the infamous difficulties that hampered the shooting of Some Like It Hot, Wilder determined that someone else would be required to fulfil the emotionally wrought role of Fran. Enter Shirley Maclaine, looking disarmingly young and beautiful. She plays the part just right. Fran could so easily have been coloured as a miserable, weak wreck, yet there is something so bravely bold yet broken about Maclaine. A realist trapped in the desirable body of an optimist and romantic.
Better still is Lemmon, who, having successfully stolen every scene of Some Like It Hot* here is given full reign, making Baxter one of cinema’s most sympathetic heroes. Indeed, Baxter should not come out of this film looking so clean-cut as he does. His motives and morals from the off are questionable – he has at least some part of the blame for everything that happens. Yet, Lemmon makes the guy so fundamentally likeable, so amiable and well-intentioned, that the audience can do nothing but root for him.
Fred MacMurray, previously Wilder’s leading man in the fantastic film noir Double Indemnity, again plays against type as the thoughtless Sheldrake, insensitive affair man extraordinaire. The moment he gives Fran a hundred dollars in place of a Christmas present will have you jeering from your seat, trust me. Maclaine’s reaction to this is pitch-perfect also. Hell, even Jack Kruschen’s supporting role as Baxter’s doctor neighbour manages to be spot-on, all the time. Wilder knew how to cast, and he knew how to illicit memorable performances.
And so the film unrolls over two full luxurious hours; a not inconsiderable runtime for something that may read like more of a 90 minute romance feature. Yet, the film does not feel slow, cumbersome or over-burdened. True, the suicide-attempt cuts the film right down the middle, sobering up the frivolous plot and delivering something quite a lot more substantial than the genre usually aspires to. Yet Fran’s fraught recovery period, along with her jaded speeches, are as eminently watchable as the scenes of office frolicking when the company Christmas party gets under way. The intimacy of the scenes in the apartment between Baxter and Fran is not exploited, it simply is. Two lonely souls, together at Christmas.
So when it finally comes, moments before the curtain, and Baxter is able to tell Fran that he loves her, I defy you not to be beaming, if not goddamn welling up a little. It takes two hours to get there, but it’s so thoroughly earned, that the audience is right there with him. I’m a grown man. I’ll watch Bruce Willis leap off a building or Arnold Schwarzenegger machine-gun a village in the South American jungle, but I’ll bloody well get sentimental at a nice guy telling a girl he loves her over cards. Even if she does tell him to, “Shut up and deal”.
*except for when Monroe was wearing that dress.