The Apartment (1960). Film review of the bittersweet romcom starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, directed by Billy Wilder

The Apartment 1960 film
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Romance

Image of 5 stars for an excellent film genius a classic movie

Film review by Jason Day of The Apartment the 1960, bittersweet romance about an ambitious insurance company clerk and the elevator girl he loves from a distance. Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray and written and directed by Billy Wilder.

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Synopsis

CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lonely but ambitious man who attempts to rise in his big, New York company by letting his executives use his apartment for extramarital liaisons. All goes well until he starts to pursue a romance of his own with a company elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine) who is on the rebound from a relationship with his boss (Fred MacMurray).

Review, by @Reelreviewer

The Apartment film poster

You see, I have this little problem with my apartment…

CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) opens the film.

***Spoiler alert***

Two decades before the term ‘toxic masculinity’ was espoused, iconoclastic filmmaker Billy Wilder was plumbing its depths with bittersweet humour in The Apartment, for some his greatest movie and the one for which he secured his second Best Director Oscar.

In The Apartment, the line between toxic and palatable man is opaque. Baxter is, at the start of the movie, a spineless but highly opportunistic sort who allows himself to be easily manipulated by an array of horrible bosses. I realise this is a plot point to move the story along to his eventual refusal of his self-created ‘hooker home’ scheme. But when he clears out at 11pm when one of them has a ‘sex emergency’, sleeping on a never ending park bench rather than just say no, his servility stretched my credulity. And who answers the phone at 10:30pm anyway?!

Buddy is the cruelest and most inaccurate moniker for this man; he’s every office fella’s pal only when they get that extramarital itch. So it takes a character actor of Lemmon’s intuitive talent, the ability to dig deep and bring out the best in those who, on the surface, are repellent. The sort of people who engage you in personal conversations at bus stops or supermarket checkout queues. Seemingly nice, chatty people you rapidly realise you have to get away from.

This is the sort of role Lemmon excelled at (also, see him in Glengarry Glen Ross, 1991 as the formerly ace estate agent now desperate to close one more deal) and you see much evidence of the great cinema actor he was. It’s not just the way his tongue effortlessly forms and trips around Baxter’s pathetic, machine-gun delivery chat-up lines, but its how he conveys sheer panic when he discovers the love of his life has attempted suicide in his ubiquitous apartment, now a scene of near-death rather than people getting “at it”, as his doctor neighbour describes the noisy lovemaking.

This scene and the film’s downbeat tone made The Apartment quite controversial back in the day. Even though movies were starting to push the boundaries of censorship restrictions and what was acceptable on the silver screen (1960 was the year of Psycho; controversial for being a slasher movie…and showing a flushing toilet!), what happens here is stark and frank.

We hear MacLaine having her stomach pumped and the doctor’s medical attention is incredibly brutal even if the outcome is positive. No wonder, when she is ‘with it’, some of her first words are: “My head feels like a big wad of chewing gum.”

But this is Wilder’s cinema, bittersweet being the watchword. Even in his romances, the bitters have an extra sharp pang and you need to drink right down to the dregs for just a slightly sweeter, fleeting aftertaste.

MacLaine handles most of the drama side of things superbly. Depression and disappointment seeps out of every pore; even her voice, stripped of any kind of bonhomie, tells you she is a woman used to being let down by people and life.

Extra credit goes to noted French production designer Alexandre Trauner, who gives us the elongated, impersonal, LED-lit offices. Baxter’s promotion heralds a move into his own ‘office’, smartly created by Trauner to look only slightly bigger than the small area he inhabited before. This is one of many movies he worked on for Wilder, up to and including his penultimate film, Fedora (1978).

If you haven’t seen The Apartment (shame on you!), catch it now. You can pick it up to rent for just a few quid on platforms like Google Play. But that’s enough from me.

Now, “Shut up and deal.”

Cast & credits

Director: Billy Wilder. The Mirisch Corporation/United Artists. 2hr 5mins/125 mins. (PG).

Producer: Billy Wilder.
Writers: I.A.L. Diamond, Billy Wilder.
Camera: Joseph LaShelle.
Music: Adolph Deutsch.
Sets: Alexandre Trauner.

Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, David Lewis, Hope Holiday, Joan Shawlee, Naomi Stevens, Johnny Seven, Joyce Jameson, Edie Adams.

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