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The Apartment (1960) is the film that made me a Classic Hollywood fan. Or rather realise that I was one and I had better just admit it even though nobody around me felt the same.
When I was thirteen, in Bombay, we got a television and a video player. I signed up to the local video store, a sleek tiny place of golden downlights and wall to wall black shelves stacked with mysterious names on spines and no cover images, sectioned into genres. I started at one end and was determined to work my way through the whole store. Pre-internet, no lists to guide me, no white wanker men forcing their elitist bullshit on me. All I had was my granny who was a Classic Hollywood fangirl back in the day when it wasn’t classic, it was just Hollywood. I don’t think we even watched films together, she merely told me who she liked and why she liked them, and somehow I found them on the shelves. I must have gone purely by the movie titles that appealed to me and then recognised the names onscreen. That’s how the first Classic Hollywood film I watched was either It Happened One Night (1934) or Arsenic And Old Lace (1944).
In my twenties in Sydney, I was wandering through some department store with my friend Erin, feeling vaguely dissatisfied. We were on our way somewhere, we weren’t even browsing, taking a shortcut through. And there in one of those rickety cardboard displays was a DVD of The Apartment and next to it, 12 Angry Men (1957). I remember squealing at the latter, grabbing it up cos I remembered loving it and loving Henry Fonda. (Still my second favourite actor of all time.) And Erin – no stranger to Classic Hollywood herself, she tended towards the Audrey Hepburn aesthetic – gave me an odd look and said something like “Since when are you interested in old movies?” It was then that I realised I had this whole wealth of classic film knowledge that I hadn’t tapped into for ages, that even my closest friends didn’t know about me.
Luckily, my beloved local video store, Mondo Movies, had an excellent collection of Golden Age films. So I reacquainted myself with the familiar names and then branched out into the other names I didn’t know, determined to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. (Still filling.) Dear old Mondo Movies – I miss it every time I pass where it used to be – had a display case next to the register where a changing selection of movies were featured. And there one day on the top row was The Apartment. I remember peering up at the cover image, a little startled that I didn’t know it, curious that it starred Jack Lemmon whom I loved already from his later films with Walter Matthau, particularly Grumpy Old Men (1993). I remember thinking, “Oh I better give this a go, I might like it.”
The first viewing was enjoyable. I didn’t fall in love with it immediately, it didn’t blow me away. But it stuck with me, it took up a quiet sort of residence in my brain, and I rented it out a few more times. And then on one of those repeat viewings, something clicked. Suddenly I realised what an absolutely flawless script it was. That’s why it had stayed with me, that’s why I kept coming back to it. Not long after, I went back to the department store and bought the DVD, along with 12 Angry Men, and then bought every other Classic Hollywood film I could find, online and off.
The Apartment started my Classic Hollywood collection. Like so many others, it was my introduction to Billy Wilder. It’s never out of my top four faves on Letterboxd, and I always beam when any other Letterboxd user has it too. It got me into the early films of my fellow February Aquarian Jack Lemmon who will always be in my top five favourite actors, and indirectly sent me through the rest of his career. It fired up my passion for flawless comedy and even the flawed kind. It’s the film I play when a friend says to me, “I want to try one of those old movies you like. Can we watch one together?” And then I watch their face when the dark stuff happens and they’re shocked and horrified that what they thought would be a fluffy old-fashioned bit of nothing is much deeper and more interesting. (Yes, I am evil.) It sent me to the films of also fellow Aquarian Ernst Lubitsch, following Wilder’s heroes. And eventually, it got me to watch Grand Hotel (1932). There are only so many times you can watch that build-up – Jackie perking up to the roll call of film stars, the fanfare announcement of “Grand! Hotel!”, and then his disappointed sag – before you go “Okay, I have to find and watch this, goddamnit.” And then it’s really something to actually watch Garbo say her most infamous line and realise this is the movie it came from.
The Apartment, as others have noted, is also the perfect New Years Eve movie. I was super proud that it was my last film logged on Letterboxd for 2020, calculated to precisely when their New Zealand servers would click over. I’m determined now to make it a tradition.
Most of The Apartment takes place during that weird hollow time between Christmas and New Year, covering the debauchery of office Christmas parties as well as the giddy celebration at the end of the year. The genesis came from Billy Wilder watching Noël Coward and David Lean’s 1945 film, Brief Encounter, which is personally my favourite and only perfect film about adultery, and also manages to function as the most exquisite allegory for forbidden queer love. The main couple in that try to use a colleague’s apartment to consummate their relationship. As Wilder tells it, his imagination seized on the comic potential of that put-upon colleague. A few decades later, he turned out the Oscar-winning script for The Apartment with his long-time writing partner, IAL Diamond.
The premise is this: CC Baxter, a gullible accountant in a big corporation, shares the key to his apartment among his office managers who are all engaged in adulterous affairs. He hopes this will get him higher up the corporate ladder which it does, and also gives him the confidence to ask out the elevator girl, Fran Kubelik. And so begins our story.
Like Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922), this is a script I hope is taught and analysed in screenwriting classes. (My tutor screened The Princess Bride instead so I forgive the omission.) It’s the most seamless series of cause and effect right on down the line. The few coincidences are hideously plausible. Every action and reaction rings true, frequently painfully so. There is the Lubitsch touchwith the mirror, and a beautifully clever motif of two keys as symbols – one of masculine corporate success (like the ridiculous bowler hat), and the other of moral evolution.
The dialogue is replete with wordplay, repetitions that become self-referential, subversions, and so much piercing subtext that only we the audience and the speaking character grasp to full emotional effect. The office people have their own distinctive verbal tics and patterns — one’s voice rises to a high-pitched squeak at the end of every sentence; another is all Fifties corporate jargon. You may or may not find it very Mad Men.
The characterisation appals me every time, how all these corporate people are so amoral and pathetic for it, how our protagonist is the most pathetic of them all. CC Baxter is at times an ingratiating morally bankrupt weasel, an opportunistic glib liar who wilfully misleads people into thinking the worst of him. He really is a masochist, personifying the weak flipside of mid-century capitalism and toxic masculinity. If it was any actor other than Jack Lemmon – or poor Robert Walker if he had lived that long – then Baxter would be nowhere as endearing as he is. Jackie makes you want Baxter to be better and totally understand when he’s not. His longing, his sweetness, and his eventual disillusionment are all so human and always watchable.
Playing opposite him is the unearthly luminescent Shirley MacLaine in a super recognisable role as the sad victimised modern girl who falls in love too easily with the wrong person. I’ve seen Shirley in much more fiery roles, possibly from the same era and certainly later, where she’s scathing and witty and practically eviscerating men with her words. But here she plays Fran Kubelik with a sadness and a latent defiance, in a way that reminds you that emotional intelligence is so very different to wit and intellect.
Hollywood lore has it that the film was partly inspired by a friend of Wilder who broke up with a girlfriend and came home to find she had taken her own life in his bed. Which brings a deep resonance to the script’s immense sympathy for this sad girl who tries to cover her pain with cynicism. It’s also marvellously clear-eyed about the other women who are used and abused in tawdry office affairs, discarded in the casual misogyny of heterosexuality before the contraceptive pill came along to empower women with actual sexual agency. It’s not just the naive sad girls who are victimised, it’s also the discarded older women who pass that hurt and trauma on to other girls, and then sympathise with them too. I really love Edie Adams’ performance as Miss Olsen, it’s like she’s Fran in a different future, and she gets one of the most scathing lines in the film.
In a supporting role, Jack Kruschen turns in a warm delightful clever performance as Dr Dreyfuss that would pretty much typecast him for the rest of his career. Wilder, of Polish Jewish heritage, has no qualms about populating this New York apartment building with people who talk in thick Yiddish accents and use so many recognisable phrases, syntax, and speech rhythms in what feels like true diasporic representation. There’s no concealing or tempering of culture here to soothe gentile and possibly anti-Semitic audiences. I always wonder if the characterisation and dialogue verge on caricature but still I love all Dr Dreyfuss’ Yiddish phrases and how crucial they become to the heart of the film, to Baxter’s evolution as a human being. “Be a mensch – you know what that means?”
The comedy is dark and poignant, deeply ironic and witty, with only a few touches of physical stuff. I’m always reminded of that adage “Comedy is music” when I watch the rhythmic nodding Jackie does in time with the clacking of his numbers machine in the very first scene. And then there’s that wonderful bit with the nasal spray bottle that Jack came up with on his own, substituting milk for the nasal spray so it would show up better onscreen. Watch what he does with any drink in hand.
In terms of production design, I love how the film depicts the grimy ordinariness of single apartment living in the city which remains essentially unchanged since then. It was only a few years ago when I got to see this on the big screen that I realised with a shock just how shabby Baxter’s apartment with the tacky lamps and wallpaper peeling in the corridor is compared to the modernity of Sheldrake’s office and the conventional luxury of a suburban house with staircase. The little details of that small city life accumulate with Baxter eating his foil dinner in front of the television, plugging in the electric blanket – it’s such a recognisable life which you don’t always get in movies and particularly that era of Hollywood.
The mundane details are there in the costume design, too. No obvious haute couture creations though there are a few dresses that are beautifully cut with delicious necklines. Instead it’s all very subdued and not nearly as glam as possible. I love that Fran’s textured warm coat actually belonged to Audrey Young, Wilder’s wife. It fits so perfectly with the cosy real aesthetic of the film.
Likewise, the cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is unflashy, never drawing attention to itself, though there are forced perspective tricks to gain the effect of an oppressively long crowded office, and some nicely discreet bits where the camera swings away from the distressing stuff and then moves back. I particularly love the gleam of light on Fran’s bare calves at a certain crucial point, apparently inspired by a painting in the same room. The editing gets deliciously fast here and there, cutting off the ends of sentences and making the dialogue so much snappier.
Supposedly it was so cold in Central Park when they shot the park bench scene that Jackie had to be sprayed with antifreeze to keep frost from forming on him or to keep him from getting ill, depending on which version you believe. Wilder filmed the Christmas party scenes at an actual Christmas party which accounts for the extraordinary amount of public snogging and risqué dancing that faintly shock me every time from a film of that late Hays Code era. Sometimes I’ll ignore the primary action and just watch all the people carousing in the background, it’s such fascinating chaos and they’re all perfectly unselfconscious.
There are so many people of colour in the office scenes, all smartly dressed and cool and eternally busy, and also in the party scenes. Of course none get a line, and there is still the stereotypical Black janitor, a Black shoeshine guy who actually does get a line, and an Asian waiter. But the abundance of professional people of colour always impresses me, it’s not something I see in a lot of these films.
Such a sordid story is softened by the formalist framing and textured black and white because god knows it would be much sleazier if it was filmed in garish or even muted late Fifties colour. Basically, it would be Mad Men, right? Instead, the black and white makes it comfortable and cosy, a reassurance that no matter how grim the plot gets, it’ll turn out all right in the end. Or perhaps that’s just me. Perhaps for other people, the black and white makes it more stark and grim. Incidentally, until The Artist (2011) – don’t get Andrew started on that – The Apartment was the last black and white film to win Best Picture.
The use of music is fascinating, how different genres are employed to illustrate and contrast the actual plot. My favourite bit is when the obnoxious samba is cut off abruptly to the longest period of tense awful silence punctuated by footsteps and the briefest snatches of dialogue. It’s still one of the most effective uses of zero score I’ve ever seen in a film, to really bring home the darkness of this most dramatic and distressing sequence in what’s ostensibly a comedy. (When I saw this bit in the cinema, a guy behind me laughed loud every time a slap was delivered to revive consciousness. I wanted to turn around and scream at him, the absolute monster.)
In this marvellous piece about the Adolph Deutsch score is something I never knew until now: that John Williams, actual Star Wars and everything else John Williams played on and orchestrated bits of the score, what?! Another factoid that always amuses me is that Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s much-maligned sequel to The Phantom Of The Opera, features a title melody which is pretty much identical to the theme to The Apartment. Too fucken funny.
Incidentally, there exists a proper Burt Bacharach musical version of this story called Promises Promises, not to be confused with the 1963 Jayne Mansfield film. And also a 2000 remake called Loser, directed by Amy Heckerling, starring Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari, and Greg Kinnear. I really like that version, it captures the sweetness of our central couple so well, and of course Greg Kinnear makes a charming arsehole. I got about halfway through before going “Wait a minute, wait a minute, I know this, why do I know this?”
Here’s a bit of Classic Hollywood geekery: Jack Lemmon won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Mister Roberts (1955) which starred Henry Fonda. Jack Klugman, who plays Fran’s brother-in-law in The Apartment, played one of the jurors in 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda. In 1997, Jack Lemmon played Henry Fonda’s role in a television adaptation of 12 Angry Men. And Jack Klugman played Oscar in the television series of The Odd Couple which was originated on the big screen with Walter Matthau playing Oscar and Jack Lemmon playing Felix. How brilliant is that?! Okay, I’ll stop now.
Back to the original: look for David White whom you might recognise as Darrin’s boss from the Bewitched tv series. There’s also a hilarious Marilyn Monroe impersonation which some say was Wilder’s dig at her after their struggles making Some Like It Hot the previous year. But I’ve also read that Marilyn really did want to play that bit part in The Apartment but couldn’t for some reason and so Joyce Jameson stepped in with her impersonation. Personally, I prefer to remember that Wilder directed Marilyn to brilliant satirical effect in The Seven Year Itch (1955) where she plays the ridiculous male fantasy version of herself and also the quietly clever unaffected reality of an attractive woman. Which Wilder co-adapted from the original play cos he is awesome.
The last few minutes of The Apartment are so deliciously crowded with assumptions made and overturned, but my favourite aspect is the characterisation of our romcom heroine. There’s Shirley MacLaine lit to perfection, festooned with silly streamers and a crown, her eyes startlingly clear, and her mouth twisting with a muted cynicism as she delivers series of perfectly Wilder-Diamond lines of wordplay and self-reference, beginning with the most apt: “Ring out the old year, ring in the new, ring-a-ding-ding.”
And then there is the moment of realisation played without dialogue against the drunken singing of Auld Lang Syne, followed by a super dramatic much-imitated run through New York streets as the music swells because, as Billy Crystal would say a few decades later in another classic romcom, “When you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
And still Wilder and Diamond undercut the wildly romantic moment with their final line. Which, as this second pandemic year winds up, oddly strikes me as the best sweetly flippant yet pragmatic reply to the eternal dread of the particular night and its unspoken question: What fresh hell will a new year bring?
Shut up and deal.
Because we will. In silence or not, with tenderness or rage, with a partner or gloriously self-sufficient, whatever the new year brings, we’ll deal.
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
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