The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara

C. C. Baxter is not master of his own domain. His bachelor pad is used as a romantic getaway for extramarital affairs by his company bosses. When he gets home after long hours, he often finds his guests are still there and waits outside until they’re gone. By this inconvenience he hopes to rise in the office ranks, but truth be told, it seems more likely he’s being strung along by superiors taking advantage of his kind nature.

‘Stringing along’ is the name of the game. When Baxter finds love of his own, perky elevator girl Fran Kubelik, she is already in the mitts of… you guessed it, one of the executives. The forceful type, cooing Fran with promises of divorcing his wife for her, if only she sleeps with him again in Baxter’s apartment. That’s an intolerable situation, right there. But Baxter turns out to be more than usually meek and pliable.

He’s a man out of his league in the game of love; a do-gooder surrounded by wealthy sharks and world-wise dames. Hopelessness pours from the scenes of The Apartment, such as the one where Baxter tries to cheer Fran up by a game of gin, oblivious to her mental anguish. His repertoire is so limited as he smilingly waives his own feelings and interests. The film takes such a long time to mature Baxter into standing up for himself, you start to wonder if it will ever happen.

It seems a poor complaint for a film from 1960, but at times it really is quite slow. I don’t see that necessarily as a sign of the times: I know plenty of films from the period that are carefully paced, and anything but boring. The Apartment has a few lulls in the middle, however. One particular scene shows a doctor coaxing Fran back to consciousness. It’s literally minutes of walking her around and slapping her across the cheek. It’s these instances that could’ve used a good trim to keep the movie going.

The Apartment is highly regarded in some circles. Its qualities are easy to see: especially Jack Lemmon as Baxter puts down an amazing performance. Though not directly a comedy, there are tons of funny moments and quips in the film and Lemmon pulls them off with great timing and expression. His body language stands in contrast to the stiff man he’s supposed to be playing, caught in life’s straitjacket. It’s almost inconceivable that this charming devil is still single and that everyone sees him as a wet rag.

The Apartment shows a corporate culture that is still woefully familiar today. Employees struggling to gain the favor of their bosses, but forever at their beck and call. Casual misogyny on the work floor. But even back then, Wilder, in his directorial position, made a statement against it – by putting it in broad daylight. How many people at the time will have seen this film and thought: this is exactly how it is at work? Let’s show the manager this tomorrow. As a film, The Apartment is charming, a little slow, but wonderfully acted. As an exposure and condemnation of office politics, it’s still a striking portrait.

Roderick Leeuwenhart