Reviews of Classic Movies: 'The Apartment'
If you pay attention to news headlines, you’ll know that times are tough for young professionals. It’s hard to find a good-paying job, and there are far too many stories of unpaid internships that take advantage of young graduates. The unasked questions of some employers seem to be, “How much are you willing to take to get this job? Long hours? Little or no pay? Zero job security?”
It’s that kind of "wild west" job situation that makes Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment just as relevant today as it was when it was first released. Wilder’s film introduces us to C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a lonely young man working as an office drone for a New York insurance company. But Baxter has a special arrangement that he believes will help him shoot to the top: he lets his superiors borrow his apartment to host their extramarital affairs.
As a result, even after a hard day’s work, Baxter sometimes finds himself wandering back and forth outside his apartment in the cold, as one of his bosses entertains a new fling. Baxter convinces himself that his permissive attitude will help him advance at the firm, and for a while, it does: he soon finds himself enjoying an office with a view and his name on the door.
But the arrangement eventually comes back to haunt him when it turns out that the one girl Baxter’s interested in, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), is being courted by Baxter’s boss, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). For Baxter, that means standing by while Sheldrake uses his apartment to toy with Fran, all while Baxter’s future at the firm hangs in the balance.
What’s worse is that Baxter finds out that Sheldrake has promised Fran he’ll leave his wife for her, something Sheldrake has falsely promised to many girls over the years. Baxter then has to figure out how to end the seedy arrangement with his bosses, and save Fran from being the latest (inadvertent) casualty of Baxter’s attempt at promotion.
On the most basic level, The Apartment is a relationship comedy. It presents Baxter’s story in a funny light, even though it’s tinged with sadness and greed. Some of the funniest moments come from Baxter’s next-door neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss, who is led to believe that Baxter is the prolific lover bringing home different women each night. But even the weary doctor has an important part to play in the story, once Sheldrake’s deceit takes its toll on Baxter and Fran.
Just as Dreyfuss’s character goes from providing comic relief to taking on a more serious role, so too does the rest of the film. In its third act, the film shifts from comic misunderstandings to an emotional climax, as the possibility of suicide threatens both Fran and Baxter. It’s that subtle shift, the acknowledgement of the real impact of the characters’ actions, which makes The Apartment a surprisingly powerful film.
If you view the movie through the lens of the current discussion over internships and employment, The Apartment takes on even greater meaning. We see Baxter try to stand up to his bosses, and strip away the luxury they’re enjoying, at great risk to his own success. It might make you wonder whether you’d be brave enough to do the same thing. The film offers a lesson in the value of admitting to yourself that a job (or a chance at a job) is asking too much of you. Sometimes, you just have to say, “No.”
Luckily, the film isn’t cartoonish or dismissive about this last point: The Apartment is shot in widescreen black and white, a format that helps the film strike a balance between its jokes and its important advice. The photography also puts more pressure on Lemmon and MacLaine’s performances to bring the frame to life, a task the actors easily tackle. As Baxter and Fran, they rank with Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund as one of the most memorable couples to close out a movie.
Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t hold up in The Apartment is the attitude over the (then) scandalous nature of Baxter’s arrangement with his bosses. And while I’m sure you could remake The Apartment and swap out the extramarital sex with something more shocking by 2013 standards, it’s hardly necessary. The Apartment may be a glimpse of times past, but its message is handled with such style and heart that we can only hope more people look to it for encouragement in our uncertain present.
The Apartment gets three and a half stars out of four.
Have you seen The Apartment? If so, what did you think? Did you enjoy it just for the funny scenes between Lemmon, MacLaine and their co-stars? Or did you take away a more poignant lesson? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!