Is Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment’ Really a Comedy?

A cautionary tale about business, fidelity, and ethics that is skillfully wrapped under the guise of light entertainment, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment shows that the best stories defy categorization.

The Apartment
Billy Wilder

Critics and fans both tend to cast a dubious, even scornful, eye upon best-of lists. Whether it concerns sports rankings, political figures, restaurant guides, or works of art, the shifting winds of history and the steadfast flames of personal subjectivity are always too wild to ever allow for total unanimity on any one subject. Right, wrong, perplexing, or infuriating, such lists will continue to be compiled and passionate debates will forever ring out from the halls of academia to the living rooms of everyday fans.

In particular, one popular best-of list has raised the eyebrows of more than one film lover and critic over the last several years. The American Film Institute (AFI) comes out annually with lists of both serious (best dramas and comedies) and trivial (best thrills and passions). At number 20 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs sits Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 film, The Apartment. The film’s inclusion on AFI’s greatest films list is rarely questioned but its designation, as one of the great comedies of all time, has always seemed a bit odd.

A gentle and playful humor is clearly present throughout The Apartment, but the overwhelming feeling that pervades and marinates the film’s narrative is that of melancholic longing. While The Apartment is not a sad film by any means, it is a wonderful (and rare) film that manages to blend both the joy and pathos of life into first-rate entertainment. Comedy or drama, The Apartment is a classic because of its ability to transcend the simplified stratification of any one genre.

The Apartment’s central story centers on C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an ambitious young clerk tirelessly striving for achievement and advancement at the large, soulless New York City insurance firm where he works. Baxter is not above cutting corners and collecting favors as he navigates his way up the long and winding corporate ladder. He learns that to succeed in business, one must learn patience and the ability to ignore personal indiscretions. Even a thoroughly decent man, like Baxter, quickly learns that there is very little honesty left in a day’s work.

What complicates C.C. Baxter’s professional journey is that the personal indiscretions that beset and befuddle him are not his own. Baxter may toil in low-level anonymity at the firm, but knowledge has spread to the junior and senior executives that this industrious little employee is in possession of a quiet, cozy, and gracefully convenient mid-town apartment. With the tantalizing prospect of job promotion constantly dangled in front of him, and the equally implicit threat of demotion, Baxter begins to lend out his apartment to several of the company’s executives for their private trysts.

Baxter’s apartment may hold the key to his future job success, but it does not come without significant inconvenience and problems. Baxter swallows hard and is forcefully sanguine about the lack of sleep, sickness, and endless waiting that accompanies his bargain — confident that without sacrifice there can be no gain. The growing popularity of his mid-town retreat increasingly leaves Baxter excluded from his own personal life and the painful irony of this situation begins to emerge.

It is not until Baxter realizes that the company’s elevator girl, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is involved with top boss, J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) that he is spurred into action. For Fran is the only person at the office with whom Baxter has developed a genuine attachment to, and the knowledge that she is just another girl in a long line of Sheldrake’s mistresses proves to be the spark that reawakens his sleeping conscience. Baxter must decide whether it is more important to pursue success in business or in matters of the heart.

Winner of five Academy Awards in 1960, including Best Picture and Best Director, The Apartment is an American cinema classic. Deftly blending social satire with light humor, Billy Wilder manages to weave together a film that is both stinging in its social criticisms and generous in its humanity. A cautionary tale about business, fidelity, and ethics that is skillfully wrapped under the guise of light entertainment, The Apartment is a testament to the fact that the best stories defy categorization.

MGM’s recent release of a Collector’s Edition of The Apartment is a wonderful opportunity for those who have never experienced Wilder’s classic to discover the joy of great writing, directing, and acting. Lemmon and MacLaine are exceptional in their roles and their scenes together crackle with wit and tenderness. The character of C.C. Baxter could have been easily written off as an overly ambitious bachelor whose shallow striving is his only defining trait. Through the strength of the script and the brilliance of Mr. Lemmon’s performance, Baxter’s personality and the complexities therein are revealed, thus giving dimension to a character that too easily could have been one-dimensional.

The MGM Collector’s Edition is certainly an improvement over The Apartment’s original DVD release back in 2001. The standard-issue commentary by film historian Bruce Block is both engaging and stockpiled with fascinating and note-worthy details. Other extras include an interesting behind-the-scenes documentary and a loving tribute to the original, ridiculously talented, and thoroughly unforgettable Jack Lemmon. While the technical quality, packaging, and extras may not meet Criterion-level standards, this DVD release should be met with enthusiasm by both established fans and newbies.

Comedy or drama? It hardly matters for The Apartment is a deserved classic of American cinema and should be mandatory viewing for both casual and serious cinemagoers alike.

RATING 8 / 10