When Billy Wilder saw David Lean's Brief Encounter an idea began to take shape in his head. He made a note of it: "Movie about a guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers." Had Wilder's notebook fallen into the hands of a lesser director, who knows what wrist-slitting aria of angst and unrequited lust we might have been subjected to. Thankfully, Wilder kept close hold of it. Fourteen years later, with cryogenic attitudes to sex beginning to thaw, he and writing partner I. A. L. Diamond spun this evocative fragment into the most perfectly tuned, bittersweet urban comedy of the pre-Woody era.
The Apartment is the story of C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Lemmon) a grey-flannel drone at the Consolidated Life Of New York insurance company. Consolidated is a monolithic corporation whose home office has 31,259 employees, "more than the entire population of Natchez, Mississippi," notes Baxter in the voiceover that accompanies Joseph LaShelle's opening montage of New York (the shot that settles on Baxter, adrift in a sea of identical desks, is a homage to King Vidor's The Crowd (1928). Like most big companies, Consolidated is rife with sexual intrigue, and Baxter is right in the thick of it, although not as a participant. Bud Baxter is a pimp. In exchange for periodic hikes up the corporate ladder, he loans his West Side apartment to office lotharios so they can carry on extra-marital affairs without the cost or inconvenience of a hotel room. It's a sordid existence, as Baxter comes to realise when he discovers that Fran (MacLaine) the elfin elevator girl he adores, is flattening his mattress twice a week with Head of Personnel J. D. Sheldrake (MacMurray, magnificently loathsome).
It's also a pretty sordid premise on which to build a romantic comedy. That Wilder pulls it off, treading a perilously thin line between cynicism and sentimentality, is a tribute to the man's deft touch. And Lemmon, an actor who when not guided by a firm hand can stray into disastrously mawkish excess (has anyone ever watched Days Of Wine And Roses without vomiting?), turns in a performance that perfectly mirrors this delicate balancing act. On the surface Baxter's behaviour is pretty deplorable, and yet,
because Lemmon invests him with a precisely calibrated measure of pathos, we're rooting for him all the way.
Wilder and Diamond are also instrumental here, cleverly entering the story way after Baxter's opening deposit in the favour bank has got out of hand. Throughout he's more sinned against than sinning. " [Lemmon] beautifully maintains the appearance of a lamb among ravening wolves," was how New York Times critic Bosley Crowther put it. In the canon of Billy Wilder comedies, The Apartment will always be overshadowed by Some Like It Hot, and that's perhaps as it should be. What is interesting, though, is that although the films were made barely a year apart, they appear to come from entirely different eras. Compare the innocent, giddy eroticism of Some Like It Hot to the jaundiced take on human relationships that runs through The Apartment. Banging one's secretary is still quaintly referred to as "the old ring-a-ding-ding" and, a half-decade before the 60s began to swing in earnest, martinis are the preferred sexual lubricant. But when one oiled-up exec demands the use of Baxter's pad for a hasty tryst, the time specified is 45 minutes — adequate, but without much room for the niceties of romance.
On Christmas Eve when Sheldrake, in a moment of sublime callousness, stuffs a 100 dollar bill into Fran's handbag with the line: "You go and buy yourself something" the truth of their "love affair" is laid bare: she's a whore, he's her John. It's an ugly scene, but Wilder's brittle humour is up to the task. "You'd think I would have learned by now," sniffs Fran, "when you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara."
After Sheldrake leaves, Fran notices a bottle of Seconal in Baxter's closet and ODs. Baxter saves her in the nick of time, but even though the following scenes are full of tenderness, they are never cloying. They are however surprisingly shocking (Fran having her stomach pumped noisily in the bathroom gets a nod in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous) and desperately sad ("Why can't I ever fall in love with somebody nice like you?" asks Fran. "Yeah, well, that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise "'shrugs Baxter, his heart quietly breaking.) And yet, thanks to the interjections of Baxter's neighbours, who think he's the fast-living Don Juan, they're also absolutely hilarious. Quite how Wilder marshals these disparate strands without suffering either schmaltz meltdown or terminal Bergmanitis remains a mystery. But the film has the courage of its wry convictions right up to the fade out. When Fran ditches Sheldrake in the midst of a New Year's Eve party and runs to Baxter, the embrace never comes. Instead, Baxter declares his love over an interrupted game of gin rummy. As a last line "Shut up and deal" might lose by a nose to "Well, nobody's perfect" but in place of another corny lip-lock it's right on the money: perfectly-tuned, bittersweet urban comedy-wise.
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Delightful comedy romance with a clutch of note-perfect performances.
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