"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 9, 2011

"The Apartment" (1960) by Billy Wilder (Film review)

In The Apartment, insurance clerk C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is doing something akin to Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face: he rides the elevator to success by making his New York apartment available to his bosses when they want to be unfaithful to their wives (and that is on an almost daily basis). The pathetic Baxter even provides drinks and snacks and stands waiting outside in the cold until the rendez-vous is finished. The film takes place during the end of the year with its holidays and wrings some calculated sympathy from the public for doubly lonely guy Baxter. But at work he advances from the noisy common office to a nice private room. His neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss hears every evening passionate sounds from Baxter's apartment and asks him to eventually donate his body to science - this guy looks so ordinary!

This set-up goes wrong when big boss Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) lets his eye fall on the girl Baxter himself fancies: elevator girl Miss Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine). Like Baxter, she is into job prostitution hoping to become Mrs Sheldrake one day (which is a rather foolish thought - she should have taken her cue from Stanwyck in the above mentioned Baby Face!). She is also vulnerable for when she discovers that Sheldrake has lied to her about this, she tries to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills - in Baxter's apartment. Sheldrake flies and Baxter has to save her with the help of the doctor next door and nurse her back to health. Baxter cooks spaghetti for her and this gives Lemmon the chance for a famous scene in which he strains the pasta with his tennis racket.

This is not a simplistic romantic comedy, but a tough film that shows us the wrongs of society without moralizing. "Bud" Baxter and Fran Kubelik don't immediately fall for each other. They are too realistic for that, both their future prospects depend on the way they have been living so far. So after the attempted suicide Miss Kubelik even gives the boss a second chance and Baxter goes on enjoying his new office.

When they finally decide to join their fates together, and Baxter gives Sheldrake the big finger, it feels like a let-down. It certainly is a break in the internal consistency of the film. How can they give up everything they have suffered for so far? Does Baxter really want to loose his comfortable job and become a lowly clerk again in another company - if he can find a new job?

The film was directed by Billy Wilder and has his trademark witty dialogues; both Lemmon and Maclaine were starters at the time (although Lemmon just came from his first success, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and give committed performances. Baxter is a mean weasel, the type of pathetic boss flatterer one in real life would avoid like the pest (also as boss), but Jack Lemmon almost makes us forget the nastiness of his role.