The Apartment (1960)
Written by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond
Directed by Billy Wilder
As we come to the end of this Billy Wilder retrospective, we get to what might be the most excellent comedy of his later years. It’s so interesting how we began with the dark & bleak Double Indemnity and come to this comedy-drama. That isn’t to say that The Apartment lacks maturity. It’s a finely developed and sensitive picture about adults and the complexity of relationships & sex. The two films have more in common than what you might think at first glance as they are both about the darker side of adult relationships, one more outlandish than the other.
C.C. Baxter is an insurance clerk who is hungry to move up the corporate executive ladder. He does this by allowing senior coworkers to use his Upper West Side apartment as a spot to take their mistresses. This system often leaves Baxter without a place to sleep in the evening and has convinced his neighbors that Baxter is some sex-crazed lothario. Baxter is also enamored with Fran, an elevator operator known for blowing off all the men in the office who attempt to woo her. Baxter doesn’t realize he’s in the midst of a love triangle with his boss, Mr. Sheldrake. Things become more complicated when Baxter learns about the relationship in a shocking & life-changing way.
The Apartment is a masterpiece. Every element of the film just hits on all cylinders. The cinematography, particularly in the office environment is fantastic, emphasizing the vast repetitiveness of the landscape. Wilder takes the type of film that has now become flat and bland-looking and reminds us that romantic comedies can look amazing. The script is beautifully written and, while over two hours long, doesn’t waste a scene or moment. Every part of the story is essential in developing the characters and establish relationships.
The Apartment is not a riotous laugh romp, but it is funny in a very humanistic way. The observations on humanity feel both of the time and timeless. If you are a viewer of Mad Men, then you find a familiar setting with characters treating women in an upsettingly objectified way. The film’s point of view is that these men are shallow and hedonistic, making Fran a real person that Baxter must confront and process.
The script allows a lot of space for Fran to speak. We hear her life story, a young woman attempting to make something of her life but continually find herself stuck in a system where she has to give herself to uncaring men to keep even the most humble of positions. It becomes harder and harder for Baxter to justify letting his home be used for these purposes. The screenplay is so richly human that it makes me feel a little sad about the cynical films being put out as romantic comedies in contemporary cinemas,
Eventually, Baxter and Fran come to realize how much they are both being used by a system of people that don’t really care about them. This was a time before the language of allyship, but Baxter becomes an ally in the film’s finale, realizing that this career is not worth sacrificing humanity and enabling Fran’s mistreatment. In many ways, this is the anti-The Seven Year Itch. While that film poked fun at the lecherous intents of married men in New York City, The Apartment says these women aren’t nameless archetypes but real people.
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