It is no coincidence that two of Jack Lemmon’s most enduring comedic performances were in films by Billy Wilder. He plays a hysterical fish-out-of-water alongside Tony Curtis as one half of Some Like It Hot’s gender-swapping double act, but he’s greater still in The Apartment, Wilder’s melancholy Christmastime sex comedy. Released in 1960, Lemmon plays C. C. Baxter, a low level New York office clerk who earns favour at work by lending his apartment to sleazy executives looking to cheat on their wives.
Baxter is a retiring type, in love from afar with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the kind young woman who operates the office building elevator. Of course Fran’s having an affair with Baxter’s boss, Mr. Sheldrake, played by a deliciously slimy Fred MacMurray, who asks Baxter for the keys to his place. Cue a miserable drunken Christmas party where Lemmon’s miserable sop drowns his sorrow in raucous dive bars, where sounds of champagne corks and party poppers only emphasise his sorrow.
Baxter arrives home to find Kubelik, dumped by her lover, has attempted suicide in his apartment. It is a dark turn for what is now considered a Christmas classic, but Billy Wilder’s delicate touch balances proceedings as two lost souls spend a quiet Christmas and New Year in reflection and recuperation. Amongst themes of urban isolation and dehumanising industry, the director finds space for farce and physical comedy. From the chaos of Baxter trying to schedule use of his apartment according to executive seniority, to Lemmon’s performance straining spaghetti with a tennis racquet, there is a reason audiences return.