Long before the term “dramedy” was ever coined, and long before the likes of Annie Hall and (500) Days of Summer ever came along, Billy Wilder perfected the grown-up romantic drama with The Apartment. The three films – each a genre milestone of their generation – share a certain DNA, a cutting cynicism that distinguishes them from the overly syrupy, contrived narratives that rom-coms are largely known for. They also happen to be uproariously funny, hopeful, and uncharacteristically honest depictions of human relationships.
Jack Lemmon, in one of his career-defining roles, plays C.C. Baxter, a lowly office worker for a New York insurance company. To speed up his climb to success, he allows four of his superiors to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. Seemingly bending to their every whim, he even goes to the trouble of ordering in alcohol for them, and granting them use of his abode at last-minute notice in the middle of the night, causing him to stay out and catch a cold.
The Apartment broke relatively new ground for its time, even predating many of the French New Wave films which purported to confront flagrant sexuality with brutal honesty. The New York we see here is a grim, careless one; men use women without a moment’s thought towards either the mistress or their own wives, though in the interest of balance, most of the misogynists are depicted as foolish and thoroughly unpleasant people anyway
What consistently surprises about Wilder’s film is how he appears to gather a firm hand of cards, only to play them early, such as having Baxter’s activities become known by his boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) before the end of act one. Of course, the early reveal only serves a grander punchline, because Sheldrake proves just as corruptible as everyone else, requesting use of Baxter’s apartment for his own fling with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Wilder consistently surprises, bounding forward with inventive twists that continue to shake up the characters.
MacLaine’s Fran makes for a hilarious foil to Baxter and indeed, most male characters. She displays strength in showing up the crasser side of the male gender, but also appears emotionally vulnerable, and such is Wilder’s forte; nobody, in the end, is a caricature. It would have been easy for MacLaine to become a prototypical Hawksian woman of sorts, and to begin with, this certainly seems to be the case. Wilder’s infusion of some more grown-up character inflexions, though downbeat and unpleasant, give the film a rich, down-to-Earth feel. Few comedies would dare go there, but it feels more human as a result, detailing the dangers of a blasé attitude to the human heart, something most films of the type still fail to address today. It might not make for the intolerably earnest feel-good film its Christmas-time setting might imply, but in revealing the souls of its characters – both male and female – it gets at something more important.
The uneasy courting ritual between Baxter and Fran makes for a comic and dramatic power keg which encourages us to root for them despite the great possibility their relationship would struggle for stability. The notion of tortured souls finding comfort in one another is a potent one, and Wilder admirably doesn’t indulge in an over-the-top declaration of love that too-often typifies the genre. Rather, it ends on an understated, genuinely touching moment.
Even over a half-century on, The Apartment remains a biting classic due to its modern romantic sensibilities and Lemmon’s commanding, thoroughly charming central performance.
The Apartment is on limited re-release from Friday.