Posted on 8/22/13 06:17 AM
Back in 1960 when "The Apartment" was originally released it was sold as a light-hearted romantic comedy. Coming only one year after the success of Billy Wilder's "Some like it hot", audiences expected another joyful and careless romp with Jack Lemmon as the star but looking at it now that's not necessarily what they got. That's not to say the film was a flop as it grossed 25 Million dollars (equalling the intake of "Some like and Hot") and was nominated for ten Oscars, winning five. But this could be the reason that this is a film that has often been seen as not 'aging well', even if it has endured among critics. I mean, how many 'comedies' do you know where the two central protagonists have attempted suicide?
Another reason "The Apartment" is a forgotten gem maybe is the fact the film can be seen as a critique on capitalist America and a harsh satire on office politics. Jack Lemmon plays the office drudge C.C Baxter for a National insurance company in a high-rise building in New York. He finds the only way to make it up the corporate ladder is allow the use of his apartment to his four squirming managing directors for their various women on the side. Lemmon has always arguably been the best on screen lovable loser and it's here we see his best example of it. As Baxter, never before ( or since for that matter) has Lemmon so been brilliantly pathetic, pitied and somehow charming at the same time. I don't whether to laugh or cry as Baxter strains spaghetti with a tennis racket, for example. Baxter is continuously humiliated by his superiors: they constantly and patronisingly refer to him as 'buddy boy' while acting like they are doing him a favour, the promotion they grant him ( 2nd administrative assistant) could not sound more inconsequential, and they use his apartment as frivolously as they use him.
Lemmon's performance is equalled only by Shirley McLaine as the elevator girl Miss Kubelik. Much like Baxter, Kubelik is a character who is used and abused by Baxter's main boss Sheldrake, expertly portrayed by a not so sincere Fred MacMurray. McLaine is like a depressed Holly Go lightly, despite all her faults and suicidal tendencies she is still quite lovable. She has an arresting screen presence as every wry smirk she gives makes more of an instant crush for any sane male heterosexual viewer. Kubelik's situation mirrors that of Baxters. She too is a sad sack, She can't spell well enough to become a typist so she stuck in the elevators, she allows herself to used once more by Sheldrake knowing he will never leave his wife for despite his proclamations. It's a deft performance that's mature and grounds the film. She's the ying to the eccentric Baxter's yang. Kubelik isn't some na´ve young bimbo as she's too self-aware to believe Sheldrake will run away with her. Like Baxter she voluntarily allows herself to be humiliated by others. She holds onto a broken pocket mirror because she "likes it that way", it gives us an indication of her lack of self-worth.
The film is also a cynical look at the world of corporate America. Many of the higher ups frequently abuse their position in order to have extramarital liaisons, and the only way to move up in this world is allow yourself to be abused and step on your fellow co-workers. It also looks at what the job means for the individual with many shots are reminiscent of 1928's 'The Crowd', with the solitary man lost in sea of desks and people. The tone walks a tightrope between farce and sadness. We can't help but see the absurdity in how Baxter's treated and smirk at the keenly observed satire of the bureaucracy of office life. However Baxter is such a lonely figure that it's difficult to know whether to laugh at or pity him. In some scenes the humor is so black, its hard to know how to react. After Kubelik's failed overdose of sleeping pills, when Baxter sees his razor in the house he feels it's better that his removes the blade in fear of what might happen. It's a bleak image yet somehow still darkly comedic and heartfelt. The film still ends on an optimistic note of hope as both Kubleik and Baxter realise they can no longer be treated the way they are as Baxter quits his job defiantly and Kubleik leaves Sheldrake in a bar on new years eve and runs off to The apartment to meet Baxter. A lesser director would leave us with a warm embrace and kiss, but the film smartly never gives us this. Instead we are given a excellently executed final image with Baxter confessing his love to Kubelik over a game of Gin, McLaine just responds with an aptly timed and infamous final line;"shut up and deal"
A brilliant romantic comedy and poignant satire with two pitch-perfect central performances, The Apartment stands up tall amongst Wilder's other classics.