Beginning an occasional series in which I attempt to explain devotion to my favourite movies. There’ll be ten in all; not necessarily ranked in order, but each demanding repeating viewings from the off. Commencing with Billly Wilder’s 1960 classic…
I feel like C.C. Baxter in Wilder’s ‘Apartment’. That particular arrangement just came out of the blue. And who was it who sang ‘I know that you love one, so why can’t you love two?’
– The Long Blondes / ‘You Could Have Both’
A comedy of manners. Of fidelity and infidelity; the titular residence essentially a fuckpad – only you can’t call a film The Fuckpad; not unless you’re targeting a rather specialist audience. Indeed, the five shiny Oscars The Apartment garnered will tell you that there’s nothing uncouth about this; instead, Billy Wilder does what he does best, layering light and shade across the narrative in equal measure. Vim, and zip, and breeze, nothing forced.
A comedy of manners – both good and bad. We root for the protagonist, Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter, precisely because he’s an everyman figure, actuarial tables under his arm, persistent cold hanging off his nose. He strains his spaghetti with a tennis racket. He plays gin rummy. He hangs about in the cold and rain of a New York evening whilst those who should know better take advantage of his amiable nature, his naïvety, his menial position within the insurance conglomerate where he conscientiously toils.
In fact, you can put a Marxist slant on interpretations of this movie and they wouldn’t look out of place; that by permitting senior colleagues to gain use of his humble apartment – pretty much whenever they want it – in exchange for a good word to those upstairs, the narrative works as a satire of capital. Baxter as proletariat, exploited by those higher up the food chain (not for nothing is he remorselessly saluted as ‘Buddy Boy’ by middle management), whilst simultaneously enticed by the baubles and trinkets on offer from furthering one’s corporate aspirations. Baxter’s motives have a chivalrous quality; of course, he’s essentially complicit in adultery by granting the keys to his front door to middle-aged schmucks intent on unceremonious dickens and durkins with their latest victim from the typing pool. Yet as sordid as these assignations are, this point is as unlaboured as Baxter’s intentions are understandable in such a reading. He’s simply the little guy trying to get by as best he can in a world where, the nearer to the top one climbs, so the denizens grow increasingly corrupt.
(The pay-off being that, disgusted at what he could become, our hero eventually rejects the sullied advancement his complicity rewards. And gets the girl in the bargain – hurrah).
Okay; Wilder was never a red under the bed, just as humility verses the machine exist way beyond conventional Marxist narratives (five Oscars, and a further five nominations – no way would the Academy bestow all that on one of those damn Commie films. I should also point out that no other movie in this series of LGM’s most valued achieved this amount of industry adulation, Carry On Camping strangely failing to earn a single best film award back in the day).
In other words; The Apartment fosters layers. I mentioned earlier that the fuckpad element of this film is unlaboured. “Underplayed” would have been an equally useful term. There is a villain of the piece – Sheldrake, Head of Personnel – whose serial philandering works in synergy with the power he wields in the office hierarchy; his instant firing of secretary (and former conquest) Miss Olsen for having the temerity to warn his latest conquest of a married lover’s false promise is full of cold, casual indifference. And yet even here the extra-marital themes function primarily as a carrying device. A method through which the romantic comedy (and this very much is a romantic comedy) flows.
The romance comes in the shape of Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine at her most elfin), the insurance corp elevator operator whom catches Baxter’s affections. This being mainstream Hollywood there’s an inevitably to how events conclude; thus what fascinates is our route towards destination, and the drama upnderpinning as much unresolved sexual tension any writer/director partnership could smuggle under the era’s mores and tight censorship laws.
In order to achieve this, here Wilder deploys pathos in an intelligent fashion, not only kicking our hero when he’s down and therefore moulding the audience’s sympathy in a certain direction (a first date ruined by Fran standing him up), but also by letting us in on the secret that this love interest has, unbeknownst to the central character, already fallen prey to Sheldrake’s attentions; the dejection on Baxter’s face as he waits in vain outside the theatre for his date, his date otherwise engaged battling whatever temptation Sheldrake continues to offer, makes us yearn to give Baxter a hug (especially as, in exchange for the keys to a certain apartment, you’ll have sussed who gave him the show tickets in the first place, even if you haven’t seen the movie).
The comedy – that’s primarily the reserve of C.C. Baxter himself, whom Lemmon portrays with a humble grace that neatly counter-balances the film’s timbres. There’s nothing over-the-top to his performance; simply a zing that runs throughout, enhancing the character’s believability within subtle notions of Baxter as sad clown. There are all sorts of clever little touches – mannerisms, faces pulled, ill-suited bowler hats, gorgeous snatches of dialogue – that help to elevate this over the mush of generic mainstream rom-com (“Miss Kubelik, one doesn’t get to be a second administrative assistant around here unless he’s a pretty good judge of character, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re tops” – the irony being that in this context, promotion to the heady heights of second administrative assistant is at the whim of dodgy patronage, rather than endeavour or good judgement).
Most successful of all these touches are Baxter’s interactions with Dr Dreyfuss and his wife, the neighbours harangued by the symphony of constant partying emitting through the thin dividing walls. And whilst Dreyfuss has made five from his two plus two, believing Baxter to be an unscrupulous, hedonistic womaniser, it’s an impression Baxter himself does nothing to assuage; there’s a scene as the doctor encounters him at the front door, taking yet more empty liquor bottles to the trash, and the smirk upon Lemmon’s chops when faced with Dreyfuss’ weary disgust is a joy to behold.
Yet The Apartment is so much more than a series of amusing set pieces; the comedy is tempered by elements of genuine drama. Far be it from me to talk you through the plot; save to say that it’s Fran’s redemption, facilitated by Baxter’s tender, little guy chivalry, that ultimately saves the day. That by biding his time (and taking a unwarranted punch on the chin), it’s his ingrained tenderness by which he entices Fran away from her Sheldrake-cast fugue towards a far greater understanding of what she wants from a love interest. Elements of this film haven’t aged well; there’s a lack of strong female presence – the one woman who has the guts to stand up to such cosy patriarchy receives the unceremonious boot – whilst Fran as character feels somewhat under-developed, certain melodramatic inclinations never fully formed.
But that said, there’s such panache about the execution to make this a marvel. Fred MacMurray as Sheldrake exudes just the right degree of callousness so as to add texture to his scoundrel act (he doesn’t even receive his deserved comeuppance, Baxter choosing to extricate himself from such a house of cards rather than the more obvious end-game of pulling it down – although traditionalists were at least placated with Mrs Sheldrake throwing him out of the marital home). The four shag-happy middle managers operate as a soiled, sly, corporate chorus. Jack Kruschen is excellent as Dreyfuss, swapping his outer bluffness to come to the rescue when needed most. And whilst the central themes of the film never run especially deep, the narrative is woven around the emotions, the comedic intent and dramatic interludes with such blithe artistry, it makes every viewing a joy.