While Billy Wilder movies are often spoken of in terms of romantic comedies (which many of them are – kind of), the thing that most strikes me about them is the melancholy that informs them.
More often than not his lead characters are lonely and sad. The stories that unfold are usually ones where that isolation is alleviated and happiness, to varying degrees, is found at the end – which generally is the way romantic comedies unfold.
But the humour in his films is often mitigated by the quality of sadness. They are often amusing, even funny, but not terribly so because there is a constant awareness of the human drama underpinning everything.
In The Apartment we get a good example of this. It’s a very good movie. It’s a funny movie – but not wildly funny.
Everything is flavoured by the quality of sadness which comes from who Wilder’s main characters are and their lonely situation.
Jack Lemmon plays C.C. (‘Bud’) Baxter, a bachelor who is trying to get ahead in a large corporation. For a year now, he has been lending his apartment to the company’s executives (his seniors in the corporation; men with pull who can help his career). They use it for their romantic trysts – extramarital ones.
Baxter has no life himself, not beyond his job. He lives alone, stays late in the office, and often spends his evenings killing time waiting till his apartment is free to come home to.
Shirley MacLaine is Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator in the building Bud works in. She is also single. Though seemingly above the sexual shenanigans of the office, it turns out she is (or has been) the mistress of the company’s head executive (Fred MacMurray).
Despite the questionable decisions they have made (Baxter to use his apartment as he does, Fran to be someone’s mistress), they are the only two decent people in the office. (Neither is comfortable with their morally compromised situations.) It’s interesting, and likely deliberate, that with the exception of Fran and Baxter the office has no genuine, decent people but those kinds of people do exist outside of it (such as Baxter’s neighbour, the doctor).
The consequences of the compromises Baxter and Lemmon make are tragic, even severe, but not insurmountable.
They find one another and this is what they need in order to get out of their situations – the strength and support they find in one another.
The Apartment is very good movie with a similar romantic theme to the later film, Avanti! Lemmon, MacLaine and MacMurray all give great and convincing performances.
(Originally posted 2003)
- The Apartment on Amazon (Collector’s Edition)