The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

The Apartment
Ah, for the days when “RomCom” didn’t mean “crass” and “stupid”. This 1960 offering is a gem, with wit, brains and heart, and with a sexual politics more advanced in many regards than many much more recent Hollywood films. How many films these days would have a heroine who not only knowingly sleeps with the wrong guy, but with a married wrong guy?

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lowly clerk in an insurance company, industrious and downtrodden, with a great Manhattan apartment in a nice area he can no longer really afford. His situation is pretty desperate and his worklife is complicated by the fact that he has found himself renting out the apartment to several managers in his work who use it to conduct illicit liaisons. He gets a little money for this and the promise of recommendation for promotion but the downsides are that he frequently has to vacate his own apartment at late hours and bad weather, regardless of his own wishes or health, and that he is somewhat morally compromised by assisting serial adulterers.

This state of affairs, so to speak, comes to a head when the company chief, Sheldrake (Fred Macmurray), finds out and insists that Baxter immediately stops before any adverse publicity affects the company. Stop completely, except for Sheldrake himself. Baxter gets his promotion but at the expense of being utterly in hoc to Sheldrake and now with a set of prior “buddies” who are holding a grudge for losing their privileged access to the apartment. Worse, and as yet unknown to Baxter, is that Sheldrake wants the apartment for one particular affair, with cute lift operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine), with whom he’s shyly in love, as yet undeclared. “Miss Kubelik” has broken off from Sheldrake, having learned that he’s married but Sheldrake is determined to win her back promising, not evidently sincerely, that he’s going to leave his wife.

There is a level of detail about the characters, about their situations, and about their reactions that elevates what could easily have itself been crass and simplistic. The performances are also wonderful, Maclaine in particular being a revelation to me. She is smart and sexy, vulnerable but strong-willed.

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