Criticised upon release for its smutty depiction of infidelity, The Apartment is a timeless romance that is equal parts sweet and sentimental.
Hot off the heels of Some Like It Hot, director Billy Wilder and his cowriter I.A.L Diamond were eager to jump right back in, and work with comedian Jack Lemmon on another film right away. Ideas for The Apartment quickly came together, and the film proved to an equally popular and risqué follow-up to the much-loved Marilyn Monroe romp.
In The Apartment, Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a loveable and luckless in love dweeb who can’t seem to catch a break with the ladies. Bullied by sleazy execs in his office into handing over the key to his apartment so that they can make use of his bed for extra-marital fun and games with their mistresses after work, Baxter finds himself working his way up the corporate ladder through a series of undeserved promotions. It’s only when he discovers that the girl he likes – elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) – is being strung along by his boss Jeff Shelldrake (Fred MacMurray) that Baxter decides to go from meek pushover to honest gent, and win her heart.
Although Wilder was a director who typically preferred a strict adherence to the script, The Apartment proved to be a more freeform filmmaking experience where he and the actors took a much more liberal approach to the creative process. Lemmon and MacLaine were famously handed just a 29-page script when shooting began, with much of the story still up in the air at the time.
Over the course of shooting, Wilder and Diamond kept a close eye on the burgeoning friendship between their two lead actors; having never worked together before, MacLaine and Lemmon grew closer over time, and a clearer picture of where the narrative would steer the characters came into view. Through this process of discovery, the two pairs (writers and actors) were able to formulate a narrative that drew heavily from MacLaine and Lemmon’s off-screen chemistry, right down to the minutest of details.
This process also included improvising lines; many of Fran Kubelik’s lines are reworked versions of something that MacLaine said on set. Her oft quoted “Why do people have to love people anyway?” the most notable example of this. Lemmon was also given free reign to improvise in a number of scenes, such as the moment he accidently squirts a bottle of nose drops across his bosses desk.
By the end of the process, Wilder and Diamond had composed an onscreen pairing that was authentic and fleshed-out; humorous and heartfelt, the dynamic between C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik helped lay the groundwork for what we now recognise as the archetypical rom-com couple.
Though the camerawork isn’t flashy or experimental, Wilder does employ some clever trickery to further develop his satirical commentary on white-collar pencil pusher. In one scene, Baxter’s office stretches on for miles upon miles, with hundreds of desks receding into the distance. Wilder employed forced perspective by using increasingly smaller desks and people (sometimes children and midgets) to cleverly create the illusion of an unending office space.
The real question when discussing The Apartment is whether the out-dated gender roles that form the backbone of the narrative feel off-putting or alien to a modern audience. Interestingly, whilst characters like Shelldrake treat women as nothing more than disposable objects, the film aims to satirise their actions rather than celebrate them. The quintet of colleagues that bully Baxter for use of his apartment are depicted as bumbling, pushy morons who bicker, fight and intimidate one another.
Despite receiving widespread criticism at the time for its smutty jokes on infidelity and adultery (one review dubbed it “a dirty fairly tale”), the film has gone on to attain critical acclaim with the Academy – including a Best Picture win – and is regarded as a timeless romantic drama and comedy.
The Apartment screens at Windsor Cinema 12 & 16 Dec
Images courtesy of Chapel Distribution & MGM Home Entertainment