Sandwiched between the zingy farce of Some Like It Hot and the more brittle One, Two, Three, this seductive, bittersweet 1960 classic was Billy Wilder's last great film. Oscar-gobbling aside, this is the one in which Wilder's bilious skewering of corporate American amorality sat most comfortably with his romantic side anchored by winning empathy for the loveable schmucks left in the cold.
That's partly because, despite the acutely unsentimental portrait of loneliness in the so-called goodwill season, Wilder and MacLaine present CC Baxter and Fran Kubelik with great warmth. Never more endearing, Jack Lemmon crystallised his trademark snivelling schtick as the "nebbish" who couldn't be a "mensch" for love or money. As for Shirley MacLaine, she fleshes out Kubelik with all the barbed intelligence of someone who's been screwed over once too often and the likeable vulnerability of someone not yet broken. MacLaine labelled Wilder's set a "boys' club", but as Kubelik she's a walking riposte to the gruesome male mating shams.
Wilder's unflinching eye makes this seminal as a satire on sexual politics and executive American vulgarity. If its portrait of innocents adrift in a soulless US city harks back to King Vidor's The Crowd, it also anticipates In the Company Of Men, the wretched Jerry Maguire (nobody's perfect) and any number of celluloid New York stories. It's almost as if Wilder, writing with IAL Diamond, saw through the swinging '60s before the decade kicked in.
Their crystal-keen dialogue, coupled with Adolph Deutsch's busy score, fairly hustles you through The Apartment. But its layers of satire and genuine tenderness resonate beyond the well-oiled plot, so that even the finale's hopeless romanticism doesn't feel corny. Like the rest of the film, it works a treat.