The 1960 masterpiece The Apartment, directed by Billy Wilder, has been fully digitally restored and will soon be back on the big screen once more. A clear inspiration for HBO’s Mad Men, The Apartment has even been namechecked by the show with Joan realising that her dalliance with men mirrors that of Shirley MacLaine’s Fran. Roger Sterling, Joan’s boss and then lover, undercut her melancholy thoughts with the quip that the film wasn’t really true to life – an elevator girl would never have been white.
Starring Jack Lemmon as aspiring insurance executive C.C. Baxter or ‘Buddy’, The Apartment revolves around Baxter’s residence in New York which is frequently used and abused by his office superiors for extra marital liaisons. The bachelor often finds himself working late or walking the streets as his bosses dangle the carrot of employment advancement in exchange for the key to the titular apartment.
Baxter happily puts up with the inconvenience and enjoys his advancement up the corporate ranks. However, the pitch perfect comedy of the film is underlined by the ethical corruption Baxter overlooks but then begins to face once his boss Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is shown to be having an affair with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), the subject of Baxter’s own affections. MacLaine’s Fran knowingly allows herself to be lead up the garden path by the cheating Sheldrake. Fran holds out hope that she won’t be like all the other girls yet knowing that she is no different.
Set in 1958, The Apartment is very open about the sexual aspect of its plot, though the word ‘sex’ is not necessarily used. The film’s whippet fast script is a gold mine of social sexual satire and much of the dialogue is laugh out loud funny and straightalking about the open acceptance of the pursuit of sex. There are no naïve virgins or damsels in distress. The comedy found in the film is exemplified by Lemmon’s effortless performance. Either by the subtlest of head bobs which both keep time with his character’s calculator and the film’s soundtrack, Lemmon makes Baxter both sympathetic and comedic.
Double meanings and moments of real emotional pain can be played out in an every day game of Gin Rummy, so skilled and nuanced is The Apartment. With sleek and crisp art direction by Alexander Trauner and Wilder’s direction, Oscar winner The Apartment is as relevant and enjoyable a film as it was in 1960, but then some things never really change.