"A wonderful examination of the corporate world.”
That is how Marylin Monroe is said to have viewed Billy Wilder's multi-Oscar winner, and it is a good a description as any for his darkly comedic morality tale about a humble clerk (Jack Lemmon) who realises there is more to life than climbing the career ladder.
According to Shirley MacLaine – the source of that pithy MM critique – it was “one of the first pictures where we mixed comedy and drama together”, the blend causing confusion at the movie’s first screening.
Now, of course, that is its chief appeal,Wilder expertly deriving humour from a story featuring serial adultery, attempted suicide and a casual, callous sexism that frequently borders on the downright misogynistic.
Lemmon is CC Baxter, a lowly drone at New York insurance giant Consolidated Life who has hit upon a novel wheeze: loaning out his West Side apartment to randy execs seeking a bit of slap and tickle behind their better halves’ backs.
It’s a ruse that leaves him, quite literally, out in the cold, cowering in doorways or shivering in Central Park as he waits for that night’s houseguest to quit the premises.
In their wake they leave a whiff of perfume, some drained liquor bottles andmore than one neighbour kvetching about the noise.
But they also leave something else: a dangling carrot of advancement that ensures “Buddy Boy” Baxter will go on playing ball, toeing the line and enabling their sordid extramarital trysts.
That illusory carrot becomes a corner office once JD Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) gets wind of this arrangement and installs himself at the front of the queue for CC’s much sought-after door key.
The problem is that Sheldrake’s latest squeeze is Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), the perky elevator girl CC’s been carrying a torch for. (He is, she notices, “the only one around here who ever takes his hat off.”)
Matters come to a head when Fran tires of being strung along by married man MacMurray and decides to overdose on Seconal in Baxter’s bed. As the business speak-loving CC might say, that’s quite a scandal to brush under the carpet, infidelity-wise.
According to Wilder, it was a supporting character in David Lean’s Brief Encounter who inspired The Apartment: namely, the helpful chum who permits Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson to use his flat for one of their afternoon liaisons. (“What about that friend who has to climb back into that warm bed?” said the director.)
Yet the magpie auteur drew inspiration from other things as well, incorporating MacLaine’s Rat Pack-stoked interest in gin rummy in Izzy Diamond’s script and having Ray Walston wear his own expensive raincoat in his role as the philandering Joe Dobisch.
It’s impossible also not to viewthe dumb Monroe clone Walston plans to seduce as a stand-in for the real one, with whom Wilder had such a testy relationship during the making of Some Like It Hot.
The Christmas party meanwhile was filmed on the day before Christmas Eve, in order to take advantage of some actual Yuletide conviviality. (“I wish it were always this easy,” the director commented at the time. “Today I can just shout ‘action’ and stand back.”)
The famously miserly MacMurray – a last-minute replacement for actor Paul Douglas, who died shortly before filming began – brought his own quirks to the table, refusing to flip a black shoeshine boy (take that, Political Correctness!) anything more sizeable than a dime. (Wilder got his own back by insisting the Double Indemnity lead use a real $100 bill from his own pocket asthe ‘gift’ his character gives to Fran.)
As fine as he was as the urbane face of heartless capitalism, though, it was the little-known Jack Kruschen who ended up with a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as CC’s brusque doctor neighbour, a part originally tapped for Groucho Marx to portray before Wilder decided it needed someone more substantial.
Wilder walked away from the 1961 Oscars with three golden baldies (for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay) and a word of advice from the veteran playwright Moss Hart: “This is the moment to stop.”
"How right he was,” Wilder would rue 15 years later, having seen the likes of Kiss Me, Stupid, Avanti! and The Front Page crash and burn. “If only I had listened to him.”
If The Apartment signifies a last hurrah, though, it’s one hell of a grace note.
Not only that, but it has also proved eerily prescient –particularly in the way it shows work life bleeding into “free” time, an inescapable reality now for anyone with a day job.
The Apartment is a film with many friends – not least France’s Michel Hazanavicius, who rather shamelessly recycled its climactic gag at the end of The Artist.
Brad Bird is also a fan, the famous shot of Consolidated Life’s vast office – achieved with the aid of forcedperspective, miniature desks and $2.5m of equipmentborrowed off IBM – earning an animated homage in The Incredibles.
Yet it could surely use some more, somethingthat this welcome Blu-ray reissue will doubtless facilitate. It’s well worth a purchase, collection-wise.