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“The Apartment” captures the romantic melancholy of the holiday season

Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic concludes the UW Cinematheque fall calendar, screening in a new 4K restoration on December 17.

Header Image: In business attire, CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) carries his belongings through an enormous open floor plan heading to his new executive office at Consolidated Life Insurance.

Blending scathing social satire with tragicomic romance, The Apartment (1960) stands as one of writer-director Billy Wilder’s most successful and enduring films. Featuring irresistibly charming performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, its expertly crafted comedy skewers corporate culture and toxic masculinity. To close out the fall semester for the holidays, UW Cinematheque will be screening The Apartment in a recent 4K restoration on Friday, December 17.

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Fleeing Germany in 1933, Wilder worked as a screenwriter before becoming one of Hollywood’s then-few auteurs. With a flair for immaculately scripted dialogue and a detached outsider’s view, Wilder established himself as a master of probing America’s moral failures. Double Indemnity (1944), co-written with Raymond Chandler, is considered a superlative example of film noir, while The Lost Weekend (1945) is a shockingly bleak look at alcoholism.

In the postwar era of optimism and conformity, Wilder made increasingly darker films like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ace In The Hole (1951), centered around greedy anti-heroes trapped in a corrupt, decaying American Dream. While today they’re considered some of the best films of the era, Wilder was more commercially successful making censor-defying sex comedies like The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). Wilder and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond clearly enjoyed defying the Production Code as much as possible; and, after the success of Some Like It Hot, they decided it was the right time to make their pet project: The Apartment.

In this film, Lemmon plays CC Baxter, a lowly clerk at the massive office building of Consolidated Life Insurance. Baxter’s neighbors think he’s a hard-drinking playboy from the goings-on in his apartment, but he’s not the one enjoying the incessant cha-cha music and martinis. Instead, he’s letting executives use his apartment to meet their mistresses in the hopes that they will return the favor by helping his career. Baxter is eventually promoted by Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who wants access to the apartment to rekindle his fling with Baxter’s work crush, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine).

During a booze-soaked office party on Christmas Eve, Baxter discovers Fran and Sheldrake’s affair and proceeds to get extremely drunk at a seedy bar. Later that night, Fran realizes Sheldrake is never going to leave his wife and attempts suicide in Baxter’s apartment. Baxter and his neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) save Fran’s life, and the lovelorn pair spend the holiday recuperating and playing cards. Returning to work for the callous Sheldrake, Baxter has to choose between his career and being, as Dreyfuss puts it, “a mensch—a human being.”

The Apartment manages to be sweetly romantic while still brimming with Wilder’s signature cynicism. It’s a testament to Wilder and Diamond’s storytelling genius that maintains such tonal balance between pathos and misanthropy. It’s a film where a tender moment can be punctuated by a suicide joke without ruining the mood. Lemmon’s career-best performance also helps keep the film from getting too dark, as he controls the screen with a manic nervousness that’s both funny and sympathetic. Desperate to please, Baxter is a spineless flunky, but he’s still empathetic in his heartbreak and loneliness. MacMurray, playing against his wholesome Disney Dad image, is perfectly cast as the manipulative, womanizing Sheldrake.

While not exactly a holiday movie, The Apartment captures the loneliness of the holiday season. As Roger Ebert describes it in his review, “There is a melancholy gulf over the holidays between those who have someplace to go, and those who do not. The Apartment is so affecting partly because of that… On Christmas Eve, more than any other night of the year, the lonely person feels robbed of something that was there in childhood and isn’t there anymore.” Trapped in a heartless capitalist system, Fran and Baxter are two broken people who think they don’t deserve love. They’re brought together over the holidays, but Wilder, always opposed to sentimentality, doesn’t cheapen The Apartment with a formulaic happy ending. Instead, he tries to top his famous last line in Some Like It Hot with a pointed laugh (spoilers, of course).

While The Apartment‘s then-shocking depiction of adultery seems quaint today, its portrayal of dehumanizing corporate culture and toxic masculinity in the workplace still rings true. Functioning as both a scathing satire of Organization Man work culture and as a sweetly melancholy romantic comedy, the film remains Wilder’s high-water mark.

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