The second Billy Wilder classic to be re-released in a perfect new print, The Apartment is possibly an even more welcome revival than the ever popular Some Like It Hot.
In The Apartment, Wilder’s most pessimistic narrative ironically forms the basis of his most poignant picture.
The material is essentially a mordant vision of office politics, where pimping rates more highly than probity in the race or career advancement. Insurance clerk C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) lends his apartment key to his superiors for their extra-marital affairs in return for the promise of promotion. But the harshness of the social message is cunningly disguised by Wilder until the appropriate moment. Because of the hero’s opening friendly narration and because of Jack Lemmon’s astute and winning performance, a sympathy is forged between hero and audience before the squalor of his situation is fully revealed. This is appropriate because the hero himself becomes embroiled in the situation before he fully appreciates its implications.
It is the humour of the situation that Wilder chooses to unfold first. Various confusions are deftly exploited for comic effect. Characters misread the evidence of their own eyes, leaping to wildly improbable and salacious deductions from innocent encounters. Running jokes, such as the neighbour’s wilful misunderstanding of Baxter’s own sexual proclivities, accumulate increasingly manic mileage as the mistake is perpetuated. Baxter’s timetable for his apartment is so complicated that, when he catches a cold and needs the apartment himself for a night, he has to spend an entire morning on the office’s internal phone rearranging the schedule of adultery. Baxter’s bizarre situation leads to a parody of domestic life, with ordinary routines such as eating, shaving and even sleeping interrupted by the clamours of impatient clients. He begins to take on the demeanour of a sad clown, simultaneously trying to juggle his home arrangements and respond to the intimidating whip of his gratified but menacingly insistent superiors.
Wilder succeeds in taking his basic situation all the way from humour through sadness to near-tragedy, the latter quality reflected in Shirley MacLaine’s deeply moving performance as the elevator operator unhappily involved in an affair with her boss. From an initial comic statement of his theme, Wilder begins to weave the most complex and dramatic counterpoint. The revels of a Christmas party shriek discordantly against shattering personal revelations. Baxter has to face the music when his discovery of an attempted suicide in his bedroom abruptly terminates his party with a casual pick-up. Tragedy is suddenly a mere room away from fun and laughter.
If the film is nevertheless more moving and exhilarating than depressing, and well worth its five Oscars, the reason for this is that it contains practically all the elements that one values in Wilder as a master filmmaker: his honesty as a social commentator; his skill with actors; the intelligence and care with which he structures and executes his material. Above all, there is his incomparable blend of wit and morality, whereby the absurdity of human folly is observed with a generosity of spirit that inspires humour more than hatred, compassion more than contempt. ‘If you want to tell the truth,’ said George Bernard Shaw, ‘you’d better make them laugh – or they’ll kill you.’ With The Apartment, Wilder has never seemed more fully alive.
Black and white.