Billy Wilder | 125 mins | download | PG
An article I once read (but have long since misplaced, unfortunately) asserted that Billy Wilder once said (and I paraphrase heavily here, I’m sure) that, contrary to expectations, when he was feeling happy he’d make a serious picture, and when feeling down he’d make a comedy. Goodness only knows what kind of mood he was in when he chose to make The Apartment, then, because it flits between the two with gay abandon.
It begins almost as a farce, with Jack Lemmon playing up the near-misses inherent in lending your apartment to adulterous men; and though this comedic vein never goes away, the film also develops a dark side. Alongside the affairs and underhand dealings — in which our hero is closely involved — there’s an attempted overdose, discussion of other suicide methods, and respectable men getting divorced. It all seems quite shocking for a film made under the Hays Code, though that was on its last legs (Wilder’s own Some Like It Hot had been released without code approval the year before and still been a huge hit), and Mad Men and its ilk suggest such goings-on by businessmen may not have been so surprising to contemporary viewers either.
On the technical side, Wilder employs long scenes and long takes, but Lemmon never stops bustling through them, always doing something, keeping the film active and moving even when Wilder declines to follow. It’s the latter that makes the former so effective, rendering Lemmon’s character the odd one in an otherwise static world, the one still turning to humour in the face of all life’s bleakness.
Real life always serves up humour alongside tragedy, yet despite that it takes skilled filmmakers to do the same without one lessening the other. Wilder and Lemmon are, of course, among them, and one can imagine few finer examples of such a blend than The Apartment.