The term romantic comedy has become somewhat of a dirty phrase. Conjuring up images of tacky slapstick and phoned in performances from household names. The Apartment is proof, however, that the genre has potential assuming there’s a creative spark behind the lens, in this case the iconic Billy Wilder who both writes and directs. While the film is undoubtedly heart-warming and has more nuanced comedy than every Cameron Diaz or Reese Witherspoon rom-com put together, it’s The Apartment’s slightly darker edge that truly makes it stand out as arguably the best film the genre has ever produced.
Though released over five decades ago The Apartment has stood the test of time so remarkably well because of how relatable its main themes are. The film primarily examines the way in which people take advantage of others and how those being used allow this to happen, creating an almost unbreakable cycle. This is most evident as the film’s protagonist, C.C. “Bud” Baxter, allows his bosses to use his apartment as a venue for parties and extramarital affairs, frequently stopping him from getting a good night’s rest. Bud is torn between wanting to reclaim his own living space and the lure of a promised promotion. Though when it comes down to it, he simply doesn’t have the nerve to stand up to those taking him for a ride.
Jack Lemmon is simply perfect as the adorable but weak willed lead. Bud quickly finds a way into your heart because of how unassuming and childishly naïve he can be. His goals are humble and relatable, simply wanting to find professional and romantic success and, of course, a peaceful night of sleep. Though his ultimate character arc is conventional and a little too convenient you’ll quickly find yourself rooting for his happiness, which is essential for a film such as this. After all, the romantic comedy genre relies on the audience caring if the guy gets the girl or vice versa.
The girl in question is Fran Lubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who works as an elevator girl in Bud’s soulless New York office. The wrinkle is that Fran is having an affair with one of the companies top executives, and their meeting place just so happening to be Bud’s own apartment. It’s a set up rifle for comedy, but also a fair amount of heartbreak as Bud falls for the intriguing young woman. Throw in the fact that Bud’s neighbour, the wonderful Jack Kruschen, is getting fed up with he frequent racket coming from the apartment next door and you’ve the makings of a genre classic.
Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is the object of Fran’s affections, a married man whose constant promises that he will divorce his wife has left her beaten down and aching. Sheldrake is maybe a little bit too cold and callous, but some of this can be attributed more to the era in which The Apartment was created. Nevertheless he gives the film an antagonist for Bud to overcome and the audience to hate. Though the film’s main cast is small the characters are so well-developed and rich in personality that by the end you genuinely feel a connection with each one.
The narrative is primarily told across two locations, the insurance corporation building where Bud works and his own cramped apartment. Director Billy Wilder rarely uses other sets in order to make a point about the mundanity of ordinary life. We spend so much time either at work or at home that often these two places start to feel like prison cells. The claustrophobic lay out of the titular apartment only reinforces this point. Though it may seem rather hellish visually, Bud’s workspace is strangely eye catching. The rows upon rows of identical desks each inhabited by a nameless, almost faceless, worker all performing the same menial tasks day in day out has become an iconic image for good reason.
The Apartment also looks at the darker side of love. There’s often a selfishness that comes with the emotion, people use infatuation as an excuse for cruel behaviour all too frequently and that’s certainly displayed here. Fran’s longing for Mr. Sheldrake is as sympathetic as it is painfully relatable for anyone who has found themselves stuck with an uncommitted partner, constantly strung along. Wilder isn’t afraid to criticise the actions of the entire cast, even Bud himself, reminding the audience that love is as dangerous as it’s wonderful.
Quality-wise there hasn’t been anything like The Apartment since its release fifty six years ago. Wilder didn’t shoot for the stars with this feature, instead he simply crafted a nearly immaculate two hour slice of heart-warming gold. Romantic comedies can often be a vapid and easily forgettable affair, but charming characters and a remarkably insightful screenplay make The Apartment a touching, funny, and surprisingly reflective experience.