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Billy Wilder, the director and co-writer of The Apartment had a distinguished career that combined commercial success with critical acclaim. Well known for their razor-sharp, cynical wit, his films were almost the measure of Hollywood sophistication. That is mixed praise, but there’s no doubt that Wilder consistently demonstrated a peerless sense of timing and narrative construction. Skillful and imaginative as his direction could be, the most reliable strength of his films was the writing. 

The eponymous apartment is occupied by C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an office worker in a large insurance company who accidentally hits on an effective, if occasionally inconvenient means to climb the corporate ladder. He lets out his apartment to higher-ups for brief assignations and is rewarded with promotion. He is content with this arrangement until it involves a young elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine), with whom he is smitten. The situation is made even dicier when Baxter learns that Fran is the plaything of his immediate superior, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).

Wilder and his longtime collaborator I.A.L Diamond assure that the ensuing complications are really built. Every detail moves the story forward, grounded in what has come before to tie things together. For example, the confusing similarity between the keys to the apartment and the executive wash room sets the plot in motion then helps to close it. Or, Baxter returns a small mirror to Sheldrake left behind in the apartment by his “date.” When Fran later pulls it out so Baxter can check how he looks in a new bowler hat, he realizes Fran is Sheldrake’s mistress. Even the running gag of an unfinished game of gin rummy sets up the last scene of the film.

Tight and sharp as the storytelling may be, however, the psychology, plausibility and emotional texture are nowhere nearly as developed. One obvious example: why can’t Baxter’s superiors simply use a hotel? Then there’s Fran’s attempted suicide, which seems out of scale with her predicament and has no follow through in her character. And Baxter’s last minute, inexplicable change of heart fulfills no deeper purpose than the setup for a happy ending. Maclaine and Lemmon lend their own charms to the characters, but it is clearly the actors to whom we are responding.

It would be difficult to care much for Baxter without Lemmon because by any other measure he is a corrupt mediocrity who uses the system to exploit the hypocrisy of others. Wilder’s famed cynicism makes it difficult to determine whether the retrograde sexual attitudes on display are being criticized (the men are despicable) or exploited (aside from Fran, the women are airheads or schemers). The superficial candor is leavened by sentimentality and the closing line (“Just shut up and deal”) gives the distinct impression that all the preceding ugliness has been an excuse for the joke. The result feels less like moral ambiguity than wanting to have it both ways and it doesn’t sit well.