Billy Wilder’s brilliant romantic comedy The Apartment is being given a welcome re-release after receiving a restorative digital clean up. Looking as lush as when it was originally released in 1960, the film is a must-see for anyone who loves the hit TV series Mad Men, which clearly owes a huge debt to Wilder’s bittersweet satire on sexual politics and backroom corporate shenanigans.
Lemmon plays CC Baxter, a Wilder archetype who in this instance is a put-upon junior clerk at a large insurance company, earning promotion not through excellence in his work but via gaining favour with his seniors by loaning out his Manhattan apartment for their philandering. Complications arise when he falls for lift operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), who is knowingly having an affair with a married man, Baxter’s lecherous boss Mr Sheldrake, a superb turn by MacMurray. Sheldrake may be less sympathetic than Don Draper but he’s just as manipulative, lulling Kubelik into continuing their affair with promises that he will leave his wife, despite having no intention to do so, the consequences of which prove drastic for both Kubelik and Baxter.
While The Apartment is not as farcically funny as Some Like It Hot – Wilder’s first collaboration with Lemmon, made a year previously – it still delivers a generous amount of laughs, with a script that zings with classy one-liners, most of them delivered with pinpoint accuracy by Lemmon. It also has a genuine heart, as both Kubelik and Baxter struggle to come to terms with their emotions and actions. Even when the comedy is at its most preposterous, the story remains entirely believable and true to its characters.
The elfin MacLaine is simply adorable as Ms Kubelik, giving her just the right mix of vulnerability and moxy, while Lemmon has perhaps never been better in the role he’s now known for, giving the weaselly Baxter just enough wit and charm to keep you firmly on his side throughout. That neither won an Oscar for their wonderful performances, despite the film hauling five Academy gongs overall, is a crying shame.
Simply put, The Apartment is one of Wilder’s, Lemmon’s and the comedy genre’s best. In a season dominated by overblown blockbusters, this newly restored print comes with the highest recommendation and to see it on the big screen again is a real treat.