The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

I’ve been on something of a Billy Wilder binge recently, having recently sat down and enjoyed Ace in the Hole, The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity (three excellent Masters of Cinema releases), Oscar-winning Sunset Boulevard and the classic Some Like It Hot. It was just a matter of time before I picked up The Apartment, which is considered to be amongst his best works. When I saw it in my local FOPP for £4 it was an insta-purchase [1].

The story is the perfect basis for a romantic comedy. Jack Lemmon plays “Buddy” Baxter, a lonely man working at an insurance company in New York. However, he has a secret that is allowing him to rise up the corporate ladder much faster than his peers – he is loaning his apartment out to senior members of the company so they can carry out extra-marital affairs. However, when company boss Jeff F. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) hears about it, he decides that rather than reprimand Baxter, he is going to make use of his hospitality himself. As bad luck would have it, the woman he is planning to take there is the woman of Baxter’s dreams: Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). With the next promotion in the bag and his career blooming, Baxter has to make the most difficult choice of his life: is his love life more important than his career?

The 1960 film won the Best Film, Best Director, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction (Set Decoration, Black and White) Oscars, whilst being nominated for a further five. This was in a relatively slow year for films, though there were a couple of highly reputable releases: Psycho (no wins) [2] and Spartacus (four wins). The Apartment was the big winner that year.

Probably the most surprising result on the night was Jack Lemmon missing out to Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) in the Best Actor category, such was the brilliance of his performance. I think there’s a risk when looking back at Lemmon’s career that we now see him as just a comedic actor. That couldn’t be further from the truth and if you want to know why then watch this film. Kevin Spacey dedicated his Best Actor Oscar win in 1999 for American Beauty to Lemmon’s performance in this film, and there are a lot of similarities to both the characters and their characterisations. Baxter is a man used by all those around him, but yet is happy to take his lot in life. There is a dark humour to his actions, knowing they will have negative repercussions on his life but either afraid or unable to say no. There are moments of real hilarity, all centred around Baxter, but by the final third of the film it is way beyond that and as a viewer it was quite distressing seeing how much he was hurting himself.

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There is also a lot to be said for a comedy that is happy to centre a huge period of the plot around a botched suicide attempt by one of the main characters, whilst characterising five of the six leading male characters as adulterers (along with their willing female partners). There is a reason why this Christmas-set romantic comedy isn’t a perennial favourite over the festive season – it’s just too depressing!

So it’s six watched and six enjoyed films in the Billy Wilder back-catalogue. I’ve still got some big guns to go; Sabrina, Stalag 17 and The Seven Year Itch will hopefully be sourced soon at a reasonable price. I doubt I’ll find a bad one any time soon. The Apartment is available to buy now online, though as stated above I doubt you’ll find anything cheaper than the £4 price point in FOPP at the moment.

[1] = FOPP is still an excellent source of films and is still my favoured physical-purchase shop when I need to just have a browse and see what’s available. It’s nice to use my own instincts and memory to recommend a purchase to myself. You know, like the old days when you weren’t force-fed what to buy next by an algorithm.

[2] The letter below is some recomendation, from Hitchcock himself. What a wonderful thing to have been unearthed.

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