Written by Liam Hall
By the 1960s, German Director Billy Wilder had already one of the brightest careers in Hollywood. Thanks in no small part to hit films like Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch and the iconic Some Like It Hot, staring the charismatic Marilyn Monroe. It was the film following Some Like It Hot however, that earned Wilder his first and only best picture Oscar, that being The Apartment. Despite this, the comedy curiously remains an overlooked work in the director’s filmography, although it is hard to see why.
The Apartment’s premise is an unusual one for sure, with the film centring around the eponymous apartment of Jack Lemmon’s Calvin Clifford (C. C.) “Bud” Baxter. A man who, as well as apparently collecting names, loans out his apartment to his colleagues almost nightly so they can spend time with women who are not their wives. A unique concept for the time that if it hadn’t been released in 1960 you probably would’ve assumed it was one of the most recent ‘old people like to have fun’ comedies starring Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman in a competition for who can look deader behind the eyes. In truth, rather surprisingly, The Apartment has some similarities with these kinds of films. They both have characters stuck in mundanity until something happens that inspires a change in their personality.
The difference though is in how The Apartment is handled in comparison to those other films. More often than not, the film is labelled as a comedy and it is very easy to see why. It is quite simply a funny film. But being funny doesn’t necessarily make it a comedy; because The Apartment is more of a drama with comic elements. It flirts with the views of sexual relationships in society as well as misogyny and at some points almost tragically the thought of suicide. It doesn’t make a point of making it explicit. Instead it gently hovers beneath the surface, with the tone being unusually uplifting and sympathetic in an old Hollywood kind of way.
The humour of the film works so well because it doesn’t rely on one-liners, although the film definitely has some, it relies on relatability and dynamics. The characters are likeable yet flawed. Calvin, for example, has the backbone of a snake as he consistently fails to stand up to his boss and colleagues who constantly use him, and his apartment, against his best wishes. He’s frustrating to watch but at the same time is an endearing underdog who slowly grows in confidence the more he falls in love with the lift operator: Fran. The dynamic between them is so important in terms of basic comedy and character relations; Calvin’s excitable mask of a happy go lucky nature is a stark contrast to Fran’s worn-down emotions and at points suicidal despair. They are two sides of the same coin, on the outside they seem completely different, but in the end they are both the same.
The Film is of course not without faults, though. I mentioned earlier about how the film deals with misogyny and this is true to a certain degree, especially in the case of the portrayal of the boss. Some elements though have not aged well. At certain points the film‘s social climate reeks of what I can only imagine a drink with Nigel Farage would feel like. It’s a sneering, ugly, ascotian-conservative attitude that is out of place in todays culture. Unfortunately the film, perhaps due to the times social atmosphere, never does enough to condemn this feeling.
Despite this, The Apartment deserves to be revered as one of the great comedies of Hollywood and one of Billy Wilder’s finest films.
If you would like to see more Billy Wilder films, The Poly are showing the aforementioned Double Indemnity on the 22nd of March at 19:30.