The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)
Have you ever had a genuinely great New Year’s Eve? Exactly. So, if you feel like avoiding the alcohol-induced malaise of another inevitably disappointing soiree and fancy staying in instead, what movie would be appropriate to mark the occasion…?
There are surprisingly few films that feature the New Year. It’s a select bunch, and most aren’t up to much, but there is one masterpiece – Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. If you haven’t seen this film, you need to. It’s non-negotiable. Unless you plan to forgo all commercial cinema and focus entirely on a diet of Bergman and Kiarostami, The Apartment is essential viewing.
The story concerns a thirty-something, CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon), who works as a clerk in an enormous insurance company. Baxter’s place at the bottom of the ladder is highlighted by a famous shot of him sitting among a sea of desks trailing off into the distance. (Cinema legend has it that Wilder used dwarves and miniature desks in the back row to create a forced perspective.) Looking for advancement, and also being easily led, Baxter is manipulated by various executives into loaning them his bachelor apartment for them to carry out their extra-marital dalliances. The other major plot elements are Baxter’s unacknowledged devotion for the elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) and her affair with the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
The Apartment is, unlike say Some Like It Hot (the first Wilder-Lemmon collaboration), not an out-and-out comedy. In fact, it’s often incredibly moving and this is mainly due to the performances. All three key roles have interesting flaws and quirks. Lemmon is majestic, and as for MacLaine, I defy anyone (male/female, gay/straight) not to fall in love with Miss Kubelik.
Billy Wilder wasn’t blessed with the instinctive sense of camera placement of, say, a Mizoguchi or a Spielberg, and his films are sometimes criticised for emphasising the verbal at the expense of the visual. The Apartment is certainly not bursting with cinematic flourishes (the desk image aside), but is this something to get hung up on? His films may lack the immaculate technique of a Sansho Dayu or Close Encounters, but we should value them for their other strengths. Wilder is better at character, dialogue and performance than just about anybody.
N.b. New Year’s is only featured right at the end of this film – deal with it.