Billy Wilder's comedy classic may favour the fast gag over the long game, but it's still well worth revisiting.
Billy Wilder’s mean streak came to a head in 1951 with the release of the bluntly masochistic Ace in the Hole. The apotheosis of his theatre of cruelty, masked under the same translucent veneer of satire that had already produced two masterpieces in Sunset Blvd. and Double Indemnity, the film was a critical and commercial disaster at the time.
It marked his debutante outing as producer-director, but offered perhaps too poisonous a dose of his particular brand of cynicism, until then tempered and shaped by his partnership with writer-producer Charles Brackett.
It’s an important film in unlocking Wilder’s worldview, representing the most concentrated (and thus problematic) tincture of misanthropy that would nevertheless echo throughout the remainder of his career. Does The Apartment leave one wondering whether Wilder dislikes or distrusts women? Does Irma La Douce come across as a thinly veiled manifesto of misogyny?
Ace in the Hole may just answer those questions for you (just watch any scene between Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling), its unwavering pessimism directed at humanity’s inherent proclivity towards self-interest above all else, running deeper and darker than anything he’d go on to produce in the wake of its failure.
The degree to which the film’s reception affected Wilder may well be found in the decided softening of the films that would follow, finding a new foil to the default setting of his temperament in IAL Diamond, a fellow émigré whose collaboration would lead to a string of commercial hits that would peak with the doubling of his Oscar cache when The Apartment took home three in 1961.
In many respects, The Apartment is something of an odd-man-out in his collaborations with Diamond. It may share the kind of ramshackle structural problems that would plague most of the pair’s work, a shaggy disinterest in narrative shape that seems more pleased with the zinging exchanges within any given scene than retaining a firm handle on the momentum that delivers one scene to the next, but also saw the Billy of old showing his hand in a way he hadn’t for the past decade.
Perhaps it was the Oscar success that has led to The Apartment’s canonisation alongside his bona fide masterpieces, but this re-issue at BFI Southbank offers an opportunity to reassess the extent to which the film can even be considered a comedy, let alone a real success.
If there’s a single shot in the film that presciently sums up the contradictions in its pervading mood and standing in film history, it comes at the end of the first act, with Jack Lemmon pacing forlornly outside a theatre in the cold, stood-up by his date under a sign that reads 'one of the best musical-comedies of our time'.
The Apartment may not have any musical numbers, but its overwhelming air of melancholy and sneering, alternating positions of pity and distaste towards its characters, stains even its easiest laughs with a bitterness that’s tough to shake.
It’s hard to argue Wilder and Diamond’s position amongst the greatest writers of comedy dialogue in cinema, rightfully considered alongside the likes of Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, Charles Lederer and Wilder’s idol, Ernst Lubitsch. The Apartment isn’t the film to contest that point of view, containing as it does a plenitude of crackling exchanges. But it does put forward a strong case for a different argument, an argument that goes beyond the dialogue. Wilder was a far greater producer than director, an ideas man who could pitch the hell out of a story but had little patience to truly invest them with any real depth.
All of Wilder’s films with Diamond can be swiftly précised, but few show much sense of narrative or character progression beyond their initial set-ups (where does Some Like it Hot actually go?), often relying on the skill and charm of his collaborators behind and in front of the lens to fill in the gaps.
What do we really know about The Apartment’s CC Baxter beyond the opening voiceover? What do we learn about him as the film progresses? We’re left with comedy-business from Lemmon (his snivelling cold; his key mismanagement) in place of character, and Fred MacMurray leading a coterie of manipulative, self-serving misogynists, little more than an emblem of corporate malaise.
Tonally, The Apartment smacks of compromise (Like The Lost Weekend, most notably in the final scenes), as though Wilder were afraid of once again truly confronting the darker side of his convictions towards human relations and power plays that led to Ace in the Hole’s box office failure. In place of which, there’s a barely masked contempt in half-heartedly attempting to frame this essentially sad tale of two lonely souls afraid to connect outside the amoral strictures of their work environment in the same light, frivolous way that made Some Like it Hot such a success.
The fallout from a suicide attempt played for laughs serves to demonstrate that Wilder lacks the deft balance of tone that characterised Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, another workplace set melan-comedy that contains a similar moment.
Shirley MacLaine may give a wonderful performance, but her and Lemmon’s constant capitulation to those that surround them make them a tough act to sympathise with, leaving only Jack Kruschen’s neighbouring doctor to provide fleeting glimpses of real humanity. When he tells Lemmon that he needs to be a 'mensch', "You know what that means? A mensch? A human being!", one gets the impression that whilst Wilder may know what one is, he doesn’t seem to like them very much.
An opportunity to re-assess Wilder's comedy classic on the big screen.
Slick and cynical, but favouring the fast gag over the long game. Are we being hoodwinked by Wilder?
Wilder has made some truly great movies, but this one is not the masterpiece we thought it was.