Back on the Big Screen: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment at The Sugar Club

by Padraic Coffey

Fred MacMurray and Jack Lemmon in The Apartment

On the surface, it would seem ludicrous to compare John McTiernan’s 1988 trailblazing action thriller Die Hard with Billy Wilder’s 1960 comedy-drama The Apartment, yet both occupy that strange subgenre of film: the ‘alternative’ Christmas movie. Mention It’s A Wonderful Life, Home Alone or Elf to anyone, and they’ll all but smell the aroma of turkey while being curled up in front of the television with the folks. Nor do ‘typical’ Christmas movies have to even take place in December: Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz are both perennial seasonal favourites, despite not referencing the occasion.

Perhaps the reason people do not associate The Apartment with Christmas is that it takes place not in lush familial home but the titular abode, a lonely one-bedroom dwelling rented – though rarely inhabited – by C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon). Baxter is a pencil-pushing accountant in a thriving New York firm, looking to better himself and rise to an executive position. In order to aid these ambitious, he allows his apartment to be used by senior personnel to conduct extramarital affairs. At first, the most negative by-product of this service is sleep-deprivation and suspicious glances from the neighbours, until Baxter’s professional opportunism clashes with his personal life, and he discovers one of his boss’s conquests is the object of his own unrequited affection, elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).

Wilder’s film was the follow up to 1959’s hugely popular Some Like It Hot. An early in-joke involves one of Baxtor’s superiors informing him that his date “looks like Marilyn Monroe”, though Wilder thumbs his nose at a crowd-pleasing cameo with a similar-looking actress. While The Apartment is indeed a comedy featuring Jack Lemmon, it is a much less of a screwball effort than its immediate predecessor. Some Like It Hot may have been set against the backdrop of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but there were no scenes in which a doctor violently slaps a woman in order to resuscitate her after an attempted suicide.

The Apartment is really a character of study of Baxter: lonely, but craven and complicit in the seedy lifestyles of his employers. There are moments when Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond deliberately draw parallels between Baxter and Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the sleazy, philandering company head who smooth-talks his way into using both Baxter and Fran. At times, Baxter regurgitates lines he has absorbed from Sheldrake, to whom he is almost in awe, telling neighbours, “you take a girl out a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away she thinks you’re serious”, almost verbatim what Sheldrake has just told him.

Jack Lemmon, one of the greatest of all screen actors, gives a performances that veers masterfully between humour and pathos. Sometimes his motivations are never fully explained. When a doctor enquires of Fran’s circumstances, and Baxter fabricates a romance between them, we are not sure if it is to protect Sheldrake’s reputation, or indulge Baxter’s fantasies. The moral climax of the film rests on whether Baxter will continue to assist his colleagues’ misbehaviour in order to reap the nepotistic rewards, or whether he will resist their bullying tactics for the sake of his principles. Lemmon is matched by MacLaine, who is given many of the film’s finest lines of dialogue, masking her sadness through mordant wit. The screenplay is far from short of memorable lines, however. When one of Lemmon’s bosses is questioned by his mistress on whether he sees other girls, he replies, “Certainly not. I’m a happily married man.”

Wilder, an Austro-Hungarian Jew by birth, peppers his screenplay with Yiddish dialogue: “nebbish”, “meshugass” and, of course, one of the most famous exchanges in the film, Baxter’s neighbour imploring him to “be a mensch”. As an analysis of the inexplicable nature of unrequited affection, The Apartment ranks alongside Carol Reed’s The Third Man, though Wilder opts for a more optimistic note than the devastating kiss-off with which Reed ended his picture. The film’s crisp black-and-white cinematography has aged beautifully, as has the set-design on Baxter’s apartment, evoking a bygone era in New York’s onscreen representation.

The Sugar Club will screen The Apartment as part of Film Fatale on Saturday 3rd November, 2012.

Twitter: @Padraic_Coffey

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