Revisiting: The Apartment
Comic charm and caustic humour ensure Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning film is as appealing as ever
When it was first released back in 1960, The Apartment was a commercial and critical success, securing 10 Oscar nominations and five wins, among them Best Director and Screenplay for its director Billy Wilder and his co-writer IAL Diamond. Four decades on, the film shines as brightly as ever thanks to its considerable comic charm and caustic humour. Indeed, it is, arguably, the wicked sardonic tone of the film, that’s a defining characteristic of many of Wilder’s films, more than anything else that guarantees The Apartment’s continuing appeal today.
Wilder and Diamond apparently based their story about a Manhattan insurance clerk, CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon), who sublets his bachelor pad to several of his philandering bosses, in part on a Hollywood scandal in which the agent Jennings Lang was shot by producer Walter Wanger for having an affair with Wanger’s wife, the actress Joan Bennett. The themes of infidelity and adultery made the film controversial at the time it was made, and it’s quite possible that Wilder and Diamond’s gleeful, breezy approach to the material (so deliciously ironic) enraged further those who saw the film as ‘a dirty fairytale’.
Wicked humour aside, there’s plenty else to continue to admire about The Apartment. While Wilder prioritised the writing over everything else as a general rule of filmmaking, he also knew the script was nothing without great performances to deliver it. The Apartment has three superb lead performances, from impish Lemmon, elfin Shirley MacLaine as the lovelorn elevator girl Miss Kubelik, and Fred MacMurray as Baxter's callous boss JD Sheldrake, with whom Kubelik is having an affir. There are also a whole host of excellent turns from the supporting cast, from the second tier middle-management cads in the office all the way down to Joyce Jameson as ‘the blonde in the bar’, with whom Lemmon performs the best drunken smooch ever committed to celluloid.
Repeated viewings of The Apartment reveal more and more beautifully played ‘minor scenes’ like that one. Those new discoveries along with the widely celebrated delights – Lemmon straining spaghetti with a tennis racket, for just one example – ensure this really is a film of ever increasing returns.
On selected release from Fri 15 June.