A Fine Romance Friday: The Apartment

Next up in our 60s set/60s produced romance series is Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). A delightful, and surprisingly dark and risque romance, featuring Jack Lemon in one of cinema’s great beta hero roles and a luminous Shirley MacLaine as the object of his adoration. This one comes with a content warning for its representation of mental illness and suicide.

The basic–and quite adult–set-up is that Lemon is a much put-up peon at a drug company. A group of managers there including the odious Fred MacMurray, promise him promotion and upward mobility…if he lets them use his apartment for their affairs. He’s unhappy with the situation, but can’t see a way out of it. All the while, he’s nursing a crush on the woman who runs the office building’s elevators (MacLaine), who is also being pursued by MacMurray. She eventually falls for MacMurray’s lies and when the affair end badly, she attempts suicide at the apartment, unaware that it’s Lemon’s. Lemon revives her and then cares for her as she recovers. But when she’s back on her feet, will she remember that MacMurray is an ass? And will Lemon ever work up the gumption to quit his job?

My advice is to watch The Apartment immediately after Pillow Talk (1959), a film only one year older but which feels like it’s from a different generation. To watch The Apartment is to watch modern life come to mainstream American movies. You can practically see the studio system crumble on screen. From the way the black and white cinematography looks, to the banter, to the treatment of mental illness and suicide (though these are imperfect from a modern point of view), to the characterization of MacLaine, to the frank engagement with extra and pre-marital sex, and most of all, Lemon as the atypical romantic hero.

It’s a movie that has some darkness, but it’s a wholly different glimpse into mid-century life and courtship rituals. Watch it and play gin rummy tonight.

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