It comes to almost no surprise that Billy Wilder, who crafted untouchable, immortal classics such as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd. and Some Like It Hot, came up with The Apartment – fresh from the hot heels of that sparkling Lemmon-Monroe-Curtis comedy threesome. At closer inspection, Wilder demonstrated sublime understanding of sexual politics, social mores and a precarious sort of cynicism that only a very few of his Hollywood contemporaries possess. He deftly balances darkness with lightness, without allowing one to bleed into the other – a balance he achieves remarkably in The Apartment, a scintillating, dark and darkly funny satire on office politics and sexual shenanigans. If you think Some Like It Hot teased and played merry-go-round with the censorship-baiting, gender-swapping sex farce genre, The Apartment grabbed the bull by its horns and dry-humped Hays Code on its face. It was the dawn of the 60’s, counterculture was at Hollywood’s doorstep and Wilder was one of the early risers.
This is essentially a sex comedy (perhaps the first of its kind) but one that’s grounded in drama, matching laughter and scabrous zingers with beautiful angst and bittersweet melancholia. Its protagonist, C.C. Baxter, recklessly yet blamelessly loans his flat to his bosses, who all use the place to fuck their mistresses – a l’arrangement that provides Baxter an opportunity to climb the corporate ladder. It’s barely a moralistic set-up and Baxter an infallible hero, with Wilder writing off corporate suits as hard-drinking, scheming, adulterous sonofbitches – enough to make Don Draper of Mad Men look like a start-up – letting us chuckle at the dirty deeds played before us. It’s a ripe material for comedy, which in other hands would have easily turned rotten, but in Wilder’s tutelage turns comic gold.
Jack Lemmon, who plays Baxter as a helpless, naïve and smothered little fish in a tank ran by corporate sharks, injects just the right amount of relatability to the role. His sad and silly attempts to ward his bosses off, especially new clientele, Fred MacMurray’s debonair and debauched Sheldrake, becomes futile as soon as the bosses offers him promises of promotion to the higher echelons. Beneath all this set-up is Wilder, in his trademark cynicism, opining that nobody reaches to the top without suspending one’s morality. In Baxter’s words, “That’s just the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.”
And then there’s Shirley MacLaine, whose delicate performance as the chirpy elevator operator Fran Kubelik elevates stereotypical characterisation. A disillusioned, suicidal and manic-depressive twentysomething is hardly sympathetic, but kudos to MacLaine, she makes it all very human. She’s self-centred, self-deprecating, but also compassionate, tender and charming – coming out of her foggy delusions and discovering resilience in perhaps one of the most unsentimental final lines in romantic cinema: “Shut up and deal.” A line that could have been wasted in non-relevance, but in the context of The Apartment‘s notion about the beautiful, ironic despair of life, it speaks volumes about two lonely people finding solace in each other.