Vintage View: The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
When The Babymakers was reviewed on Down with Film on September 24 2012, the reviewer made a sweeping statement about “disliking romantic comedies”. She lied. She does enjoy romantic comedies but only when they are produced correctly. To date there have been just five ‘almost perfect’ cinematic texts which encompass the generic traits of the so-called rom-com and these were released, coincidentally, one a decade from the 1930s until the 70s and include: It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1931), The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941), The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955), and Annie Hall (Woody Hall, 1977). However, out of these cinematic gems, there is just one, released in the sixties, which reigns supreme and that is Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.
Made in 1959, the establishing shot takes the viewer to the New York City skyline and a voiceover narrative belonging to the main protagonist C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon). He explains numerous facts pertaining to the population of the city in which he currently resides like, how many common colds the average person can expect to get…He knows “facts” because he works for insurance company Consolidated Life in which he processes claims on the nineteenth floor. Baxter has a charming apartment situated in a pleasant area – just right for a bachelor – however, he is rarely home and not always by choice. He lends his key to one of his work colleagues and word quickly spreads. His apartment becomes the venue of choice for all of the insurance big-wigs to wine, dine and bed their mistresses without the knowledge of their wives. It’s not that Baxter is happy to encourage men to cheat but rather is a compromised loner who allows himself to be manipulated and is just too nice to argue; his neighbours believe he is a “good-time Charlie”, over-consuming liquor and indulging in too many women. He is the embodiment of the typical Wilderian protagonist who is a general outsider to society; the every-man who is forced into a situation beyond his control.
Although often alone, the highlight of Baxter’s day is the morning elevator ride up to the nineteenth floor as this is when he gets to see and talk to lift attendant Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). His face lights up when he sees her and he is the only man in a sea of suits who removes his hat when in her company. Fran is sassy and sharp, not prone to suffer fools and certainly men, regardless of stature or job title, get a tongue lashing if they act inappropriately. She is also, like all of the characters in this movie, deeply flawed and, without giving too much away, circumstances unfold whereby both Baxter and Kubelik have to prove their mettle with and without each other’s help. Needless to say the man responsible for the running of the company, Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) finds out about the apartment situation and requests the key for himself. He, unlike the other Consolidated Life employees is willing to inculcate capitalist ideology and offers Baxter a promotion and a new office allowing him to climb the corporate ladder in record time and only when our hero has an epiphany near the film’s dénouement is the disenchanted and sardonic socialist worldview restored. (Wilder was a Socialist filmmaker).
The émigré director always maintained that the best mise-en-scène was the one the viewer didn’t notice; however, his European sensibility is evident through his expressionistic cinematography and impossible point-of-view shots. In, practically, all of his oeuvre there are a series of habitual motifs specifically, the inclusion of Eastern European characters (an obvious homage to his homeland) the resident game of cards, and the use of the mirror – often utilised as the exposure scene where both the character and viewer make a discovery at the same time. Wilder, here includes several telephone calls, the changing of television channels and making dinner as examples of the mundane in which the added realism enhances the wonderful story unfolding before the audience.
The Apartment is a brilliant film; a true classic which celebrates disenchantment, love and the flaws of humanity through its acerbic dialogue, intelligence, wit and heart. There are more comedic elements to the screenplay than romantic, however, at times there is real pathos to the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA award winning performances given by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, the film’s romantic leads. Their chemistry makes it a real joy to watch specifically as the viewer roots for both characters equally on their road to happiness; a road which is often tinged with cynicism. At one point Miss Kubelik declares “Oh God, I’m so fouled up” and asks pondering questions like: “Why do people have to love people anyway?” without a hint of sentimentality or overt romanticism. There is no archetypal plot formation and it is not predictable or vomit-inducing as most films made in its wake have been – Hollywood would do well to remember. There should never be an occasion where one chooses a single Billy Wilder film to view, however, if you do, make it this one.