United States, 1960
NR (Mature Themes)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, Willard Waterman, David White
Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
What is it they say about real estate? Location, location, location. That's certainly the case with the flat of C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) in Billy Wilder's The Apartment. Viewed by many as one of the best comedies to come out of the 1960s (it was the last black-and-white film until Schindler's List to win the Best Picture Oscar), The Apartment works equally well as a source of humor, drama, and romance. With tremendous performances by the two leads (Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine), this is yet another "must see" title to be found on Wilder's resume.
The film opens with a dose of satiric social commentary. There are many ways to get ahead in the business world. The preferred way, which is often a myth, is to put in long hours and work hard. Baxter, however, has found an alternative - all he has to do is provide "favors" to the executives in the Manhattan insurance company where he works. Three of them - Mr.Dobsich (Ray Walston), Mr.Vanderhoff (Willard Waterman), and Mr. Eichelberger (David White) - are married and looking for a convenient location where they can bring dates for after-work assignations. Baxter's apartment is perfect, and they reach an agreement with him. In return for favorable performance reviews, they get the apartment for a few hours a week. When the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), learns of the agreement, he wants in. Like the others, he has a mistress, and he's in a position to really help Baxter's career. Soon after lending his key to Mr. Sheldrake, Baxter gets his own office, and has moved into the fast lane. But there's a complication: Sheldrake's girlfriend is elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a woman Baxter would like nothing better than to get to know. She's being used by Sheldrake, and Baxter knows it.
The first act of The Apartment takes pains to skewer business practices with a laughter-tipped harpoon. The film's dim view of corporate ethics is probably more accurate than any of us would like to consider. Getting ahead in business is a matter of trading favors and closeting one's conscience. That could be a grim message to deliver, but Wilder knows how to present it in a lighthearted fashion. There are some classic moments of broad comedy, such as a sequence in which Baxter is forced to re-schedule a bunch of assignations so he can have the apartment for a night to sleep off a cold. Then there's Baxter's next-door neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), who sees all the comings-and-goings and assumes that the conventional looking Baxter is a Don Juan.
At its heart, however, The Apartment is a romance, and it gets down to setting up the relationship between Baxter and Fran during the second act. At the beginning, there's a tentative chemistry between them. They smile at each other on the elevators and exchange pleasantries. There's a strong element of irony in how Baxter gets stood up on his first date. He thinks he's going to a Broadway show with Fran, but she's actually Mr. Sheldrake's "date" at his apartment. Thus begins one of the oddest triangles in cinematic history.
Sheldrake's toying with Fran's emotions leads her to attempt suicide while in Baxter's apartment. He finds her in time, employs the services of Dr. Dreyfuss to pump her stomach, then nurses her over the next two days (one of which is Christmas). This is an eye-opener of an experience for both of them as they begin to realize things about themselves, each other, and what their so-called "dreams" are costing them. Both are trying to use Sheldrake to get ahead (Baxter by climbing the corporate ladder; Fran by sleeping with him), but the reality is that they are the ones being used. Sheldrake only needs to keep Baxter happy for as long as he wants use of the apartment, and he's stringing Fran along until he tires of her. She's the latest in a long line of office conquests for him - she isn't the first, and won't be the last.
The cast for The Apartment looks more star-studded today than it was at the time of its opening. The biggest "name" among the lead trio was Fred MacMurray (who replaced the original choice for Sheldrake, Paul Douglas, after he died before filming started), a significant star at the time the movie was made. (Although arguably his biggest success, the TV series My Three Sons, was still a few months away.) MacMurray has the necessary qualities to play Sheldrake. He's appealing and charismatic (in a straitlaced sort of way), so it's easy to understand how Baxter and Fran fall under his spell. Even though he's a self-serving cad, it's hard to dislike Sheldrake, in large part because of the way in which MacMurray crafts his portrayal.
In 1960, Jack Lemmon was a B-list actor poised to move up to the A-list. In The Apartment, he plays the kind of character he would be remembered for: a timid, self-deprecating everyman. Regardless of whether he was in a comedy or a drama (and he moved easily from one to the other), it was never hard to identify with Lemmon, and that quality stands out in The Apartment. The Apartment earned Lemmon his second Oscar nomination (the previous one also achieved while working for Wilder, in Some Like It Hot). His best remembered roles, however, including those opposite Walter Matthau, were a few years in the future.
The least experienced of the three main actors was Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine had come to the movie world's attention two years earlier as the female lead in Some Come Running, and she had not yet gained the "brassy" reputation that would shape her later career. In The Apartment, she's appealing and unaffected, playing Fran as a woman with a strong will but also a deep core of vulnerability. For those used to MacLaine's work in the 1980s and beyond, the performance is a revelation in understatement. MacLaine never overacts, something that has often not been true in her recent work.
The Apartment works primarily because of the interaction between Lemmon and MacLaine. In the best tradition of low-key romances, there's plenty of chemistry, but it's not necessarily sexual. Their relationship is based not on physical attraction but on a kinship of souls. Consider, after all, that the defining element to generate something deeper from their friendly banter and lighthearted flirting is a suicide attempt. They reveal a lot to one another during those 48 hours in Baxter's apartment, some of which they don't realize until events have separated them.
The Apartment came at the end of Wilder's most fruitful period as a director. The film was widely recognized by the Academy, with ten nominations (five wins). It was Wilder's final nomination (and victory) for Best Director. He would receive only one more nomination, as a screenwriter for 1966's The Fortune Cookie. There are those who believe The Apartment represents Wilder at his most complete - seamlessly weaving the lighthearted and the serious without encountering a snarl or tangle. My personal preference is Sunset Blvd, but I'll acknowledge that The Apartment is in the upper echelon not only of Wilder's personal canon, but of all the films made during this era.