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The Apartment (1960)

by on 2011/12/29

“Some people take, some people get took, and they know they’re getting took, and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

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I’ve often been surprised and somewhat confused by the disparity between which sex and violence are handled in Hollywood productions. To this day, visceral bloodletting often merits a lower classification than nudity (see This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Likewise, fifty years ago, while TV shows like Baretta, M Squad, Peter Gunn, and The Untouchables were bringing hard-boiled violence to the masses, The Apartment seemed ahead of its time with themes of infidelity.

The story concerns a toothless insurance agent, desperate to advance his position and find love. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) gambles on self-promotion by lending his home for executive trysts. Over a week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, his arrangement takes a toll, disrupting his own life and showing him the price its participants pay.

Sounds pretty straightforward logistically, and yet there’s little more complex than the web of interlocking triangles created by flitting desire, duplicity, and emotion. To the credit of a solid cast — including Shirley MacLaine (The Trouble with Harry), Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity), and Ray Walston (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) — we rarely hate them, even at their blindest, ficklest, and most obtuse. Elements of the holidays, lounge, and beat culture collide in New York, where angst, despair, and suicide are as common as the festive decoration.

For, though it enjoys a reputation as a preeminent comic gem, director Billy Wilder’s Apartment is among the dourest I’ve seen. Marked by occasional slapstick bits, it appeared as a comedy only in the classical mode, as a tale of those overcoming their tragic flaws. Otherwise, it struck me more as “comedic” in the manner of a ransom note, a docu-gritty black and white, landscaped ransom note.

The agonies and innate frustration of the relationships and plot were unpleasantries in the best sense of the word, but other aspects took off too much of the shine. Although I appreciated Lemmon as a conflicted everyman, his latent knee-jerk gimmickry sometimes derailed my immersion: his nasal spray, his bowler hat, and particularly his cooking scene. His hyperactive “singing” was actually painful to hear. Overall, however, I had few complaints. I especially liked his reaction to the Marilyn Monroe in-joke, referencing the recent Some Like It Hot.

Which is just about where I’d put The Apartment: on par with Lemmon and Wilder’s prior work. I wasn’t as indifferent as with Stalag 17, but neither was I as impressed as with Double Indemnity. It ranks amid a small group of efforts whose very effectiveness can’t ensure — and may even preclude — my desire to see them again.

After all, how many holidays can one spend with razor blades, pills, and gas?

* * * *

Rated 14 (Canada) / not rated (United States)

125 minutes

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