Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Apartment

Grade : A+ Year : 1960 Director : Billy Wilder Running Time : 2hr 5min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

I’ve heard about Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” for a long time now. Why did it take me so long to finally watch it? Simply told, because I’ve had too many films to watch and catch up with over the years, and while I’ve wanted to see it, it always would get pushed down by other films. Now, with Billy Wilder firmly in my “A Movie a Week” rotation, I can finally see it, and see how it compares to other Wilder greats like “Some Like It Hot,” “Sunset Blvd.” and “One, Two, Three.” However, can you really compare one Billy Wilder film to another, on account of how versatile he was as a director and writer? Of course so, but first, it’s important to take time and marvel at just how easily Wilder was able to move between genres and tones from film to film, and sometimes within the same film. “The Apartment” is one of his best examples of that.

Written in collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond, “The Apartment” follows the life of CC Baxter, an insurance underling played by Jack Lemmon, who had just starred in Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot.” Baxter’s life would be a miserable thing to watch were it not for the sharp wit Wilder and Lemmon infuse the character with. All Baxter has in life in a little apartment, and sometimes, he doesn’t even have that, as he has taken to loaning it out to the executives at his work for their extramarital dalliances on the promise that they will recommend him for promotions and raises. One day, he gets sick after one of the executives accidentally leaves with his apartment key, and he’s unable to get in, meaning he has to switch some people around in the schedule so he could get some rest. His confidence is high after this high wire act for himself when he is called up to his bosses’s office, and strikes up a conversation with an elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine) he has had his eye on. When he gets up to his bosses’s office, however, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) promotes him…but with the caveat that he, too, is able to use Baxter’s apartment. Soon, things go out of control when it turns out Sheldrake’s woman is also the elevator girl, and Baxter finds himself falling for her.

Wilder’s choice to shoot this film in black-and-white- he had already started working in color- is inspired, as it mutes the tone from what might have been an otherwise jovial comedic romp into something sadder. Baxter is not a silly character, and his life is not a happy one. He’s lonely and spends more of his energies catering to other people’s needs than his own. There’s something to be said for being happy being single, but that’s not the case with Baxter, and is especially noticeable when he is asked to give up his apartment to Sheldrake, just another hoop to jump through towards a promotion. Comedically, Wilder and Lemmon are on-point when the situation arises, but this isn’t a film where laughs pour out of the story. Wilder sympathizes with Baxter, but also affords him enough self-awareness to know that how he’s living isn’t right, both from a moral, or personal, standpoint. Wilder isn’t one to punish his characters out of spite, though, but rather, to show how they deal with the adversity of their situation. He cares about Baxter just like he cares about the other iconic characters in his films, but he doesn’t see fit to give them an easy way out of their situation, though. I would argue, to an extent, that his ending in “The Apartment” is a bit too tidy, but on reflection, I don’t know that it’s any more so that “Some Like It Hot” or “The Seven Year Itch”- it just feels like a more upbeat ending than this story deserves.

Films like “The Apartment,” which we may hear about for a long time before we have the opportunity to see it, have a tendency to be built up in our minds- we hear about their greatness so much, we wonder if it can live up to the expectations. Personally, I would put “The Apartment” below “Sunset Blvd.” and “Some Like It Hot” when it comes to Wilder’s films easily (and I’m not quite sure it lands as high as “One, Two, Three” for me), but it’s not hard to see how the film, and the performances by Lemmon and MacLaine, have influenced others, from Sam Mendes when he made “American Beauty” to Cameron Crowe, who has listed it as one of the best films of all-time, and who very likely had this film in his head during key sequences in his best films, “Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire.” Billy Wilder’s films are studies in storytelling that runs the gamut between serious drama, playful romance, and subversive humor. “The Apartment” isn’t quite at the top of my list in how he does it, but it’s definitely not too far down from there, and how, and why, it’s influenced others is very easy to see.

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