Often times a classic of the silver screen will not hold up as well to criticism due to large social changes that have taken place since it’s inception, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” being a case in point.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lowly office drone for an insurance company in “Mad Men” era Manhattan. Having once offered his apartment to a manager, he now finds that he is rarely able to use it himself as they court their mistresses and one-night stands there the majority of the week within its four walls. Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) assumes the worst yet ironically ends up using it for those same purposes to try and win back elevator operator Fran’s (Shirley Maclaine) affections, for which Baxter himself is also competing.
One of the largest failings is borne out of the era itself, when infidelity was more than simply taboo but unable to be shown on screen, Wilder’s previous “Seven Year Itch” adaptation being rewritten to make an extra-marital affair imaginary to meet codes of standards. Here instead of removing the concept entirely, the cast bypasses it by having it done by supporting characters, allowing them to shoulder the responsibility. A large portion of the movie, bordering on 45 minutes then resorts to simply reinforcing that Lemmon’s character cannot alter that which is happening to him and although this may be true, the time alloted paints him as an adversely passive character, one which may not elicit as much sympathy (or conversely contempt) by today’s standards.
Pacing does suffer as a direct result and inevitably the central story does not gain momentum until it is already into the middle and even final acts. Modern editing in both construction and execution would alleviate this greatly instead paints a sexually repressive undertone over what should be simply a romantic comedy of errors. Actions are allowed spiral further than they perhaps should, invoking this sense of shame in the extreme. Although few could argue that these characters should not pay in some way for their actions, it lends itself to a hyperbolized sense of drama when done in such a manner.
Lemmon and MacLaine share an incandescent chemistry, allowing us to become personally involved in their struggles but they still stray into non-relatable territory. For the most part, their separate and combined performances still transform this picture into a true joy to watch but for me at least, this world in which they live seems far too unforgiving for what could be a more straightforward picture.
As such, in spite of stellar performances from both headliners, the movie is all too black and white for its own good, coming down heavy morally on two nuanced characters that have and will already pay for what they’ve done. The way in which they triumph should be of more importance.