The romantic comedy is an often ignored genre. While audiences love them, few people take them seriously. They are seen as little more than silly fun, pointless drivel, or chick flicks. Still, the best of them are timeless. They are quoted endlessly and used as soundbites every Valentine’s Day. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is a great romantic comedy that goes beyond the confines of the genre to become something greater.
It is not often that romantic comedies are genuinely moving. They are manipulative, go for the easy laughs, and prey on emotions. They can be tearjerkers that make the audience smile, but they do so using scenarios that will garner a reaction from pretty much everyone. Even the most jaded person will get a little watery eyed when the hooker with a heart of gold wins the love of the rich playboy.
The Apartment does not resort to toying with the audience’s heartstrings in order to get them engaged in its plot. C.C Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works at an insurance company. He is single and lives in an apartment in the Upper West Side of New York City. In order to move up in the corporate world, Baxter rents his apartment out to four members of the management team. Things seem to be going well until Baxter begins to work more closely with personnel manager J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
Billy Wilder’s direction is beautiful. Many times, a movies direction will enhance the plot or put its audience in the moment. Wilder’s camera work tells a story of its own. The framing of the shots draws the audience into Baxter’s world. Unlike other movies the directing does not just show what is going on it tells. For example early in the film Baxter workplace is shown. Rows upon rows of desks are shown lined up in what appears to be a giant warehouse. It is cold and impersonal and lets the audience know exactly what Baxter’s work life is like. It also explains why he has basically turned his apartment into a brothel.
Wilder also does a great job of showcasing his cast. Shirley MacLaine looks equal parts beautiful, depressed, and in love. McMurray somehow of My Three Sons fame somehow manages to look menacing while Baxter is painfully thoughtful. Wilder’s camera manages to capture each emotional nuance of every character.
The camerawork is bolstered by the well written script. The movie does not settle for cheap laughs. The Apartment may be the wittiest romantic comedy ever. The jokes are very dark and seem out of place for a movie made in 1960. Yet, the every joke lands with an odd mix of laughter and sadness. Wilder’s movie would not seem out of place if it were released in theaters today.
(The Arrow Films restoration is absolutely beautiful. The black and white film looks more like it was shot in the 21 century instead of one that was made almost 60 years ago.)
The story is tight, never focusing too long on minutia or speeding past important moments. Everything is given the right amount of time to develop making each action and word seem important. This is abundantly clear in the third act of the film. The often sad closing moments of The Apartment is the culmination of everything that has happened earlier in the film. There has been no wasted motion leading up to the finale and the already well written characters become fully rounded.
The Apartment is one of the most well acted romantic comedies of all time. Lemmon puts out one of the best performances of his distinguished career, while MacMurray is incredibly convincing as the manipulative boss who has no problems taking advantage of anyone. MacLaine is not just a love interest or damsel in distress and has some of the strongest lines of the film. The four managers that take advantage of Baxter’s desire to move up the ranks are arguably the highlight of the movie. They have small parts, but standout in those moments.
Mentioning a movie genre will conjure up images of the worst tropes of the category. This is particularly true of romantic comedies. These films tend to be discounted immediately. The Apartment is more than a typical rom com and is a must see movie for all movie fans.