C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works on the lower rungs of an insurance company in New York City. He’s ambitious, but miserable–miserable because he has agreed to loan his apartment to various executives in the company to conduct extramarital affairs, forcing him to spend his nights waiting for the temporary “tenants” to vacate his premises. One day, the personnel director, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), prevails upon Baxter to use his apartment to “entertain” his own conquest. Baxter agrees and in return is given a promotion and a key to the executive washroom.
Little does Baxter realize, however, that Sheldrake’s “piece on the side” is Miss Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the comely elevator operator on whom he has a crush. When Baxter later discovers this at the office Christmas party, he is crushed–as is Fran, when she learns from Sheldrake’s spiteful secretary (Edie Adams) that she is the latest in a long line of Sheldrake’s office flings. Baxter picks up a girl in a bar and takes her back to his apartment, where he finds a distraught Fran has overdosed on sleeping pills.
Baxter nurses Fran back to health with the help of his judgmental neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), who believes that Baxter is little more than a wastrel (having witnessed the parade of women entering and leaving Baxter’s apartment over time). In their time together, Baxter falls even more in love with Fran, though she is still hung up on Sheldrake. When Sheldrake’s wife discovers the truth about her husband and kicks him out, Sheldrake reignites his relationship with Fran, leading her to believe that they will someday be together legitimately. For his part, Baxter has finally had enough of the ills of blind ambition, and refuses to be a “bought” man anymore, leading Fran to realize that maybe she has put her faith in the wrong man after all.
The Apartment (1960), director Billy Wilder’s follow-up to his smash hit comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), is a departure from the screwball zaniness of that previous film. While the movie definitely has its moments of laugh-out-loud brilliance, it’s hard to classify The Apartment as an outright comedy; the dramatic elements, marked by an inescapable sense of pathos, belie that kind of catch-all categorization. In making The Apartment, Wilder seems to be taking some cues from predecessors/colleagues such as Ernst Lubitsch (Wilder’s admitted cinematic hero) and Preston Sturges in his attempt to mash up starkly different genres into a unified whole. And remarkably, it works: like those directors’ masterworks The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Wilder’s Apartment seamlessly meshes an entire range of human emotion into a brilliant, singular cinematic statement.
Wilder reportedly based the story of The Apartment on a tangential thought he had while watching David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). In that film, married lovers Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) borrow a friend’s apartment for a tryst. Wilder’s curiosity was piqued. What kind of man, he wondered, would be willing to loan out his home for such a thing? Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond also drew on Hollywood gossip of the day to flesh out their story—most notably the Joan Bennett-Walter Wanger scandal, in which Wanger shot his wife’s agent, Jennings Lang, in a fit of jealousy over the affair between the two. To conduct their affair in secrecy, Lang had been using an apartment belonging to one of his employees (a detail that Wilder and Diamond eventually used as the crux of their tale). The seedier elements of The Apartment–which had presented issues when Wilder first proposed the idea after seeing Encounter in the 40s–were, if not more acceptable, at least somewhat less controversial by the time the movie was produced in 1960. The gradual breakdown of the Production Code (due in large part to the efforts of envelope-pushing filmmakers like Elia Kazan and Otto Preminger in the 50s) allowed the more risque elements of The Apartment to not only pass the muster of the censors, but to appeal to a broader audience hungry for more realistic, “adult” narratives.
The result was a film that volleys between farce and heartbreak, delicately balancing the lighter and darker elements while utterly reveling in the chance to reveal the seamier side of life. It’s not a happy story; nor it is an entirely sad one. The ending is somewhat anticlimactic, yet fitting. Everything that probably shouldn’t work about The Apartment ends up working beautifully. Wilder worshiped the notion of the “Lubitsch touch” (as did many of his contemporaries), but as this film demonstrates so aptly, the “Wilder touch” was nothing to sneeze at, either.
Take, for instance, one of the first scenes of the film, which establishes the “other” use of Baxter’s apartment. As he walks home down the shadowy city street, he glances up at the brightly-lit window of his apartment, resigning himself to the fact that he’ll have to wait before he can get inside to get warm. He lights a cigarette and smokes nervously. Meanwhile, inside, Sylvia (Joan Shawlee) emerges from the bedroom, humming and dancing, to greet Al Kirkeby (David Lewis). It’s very obvious that the two of them have just finished having sex; there is no question that they have “shattered the Commandments” (to borrow a phrase), but at the same time, the characters make no apologies for what they have done. Their behavior is not secretive or shameful; they are almost nonchalant in their attitudes about adultery (Sylvia: “You mean you bring other girls up here?” Kirkeby: “Certainly not. I’m a happily married man”). Wilder switches between a shot of the careless lovers, cozy in their nest, and the shivering, increasingly frustrated Baxter outside. When the couple finally leaves, Baxter is left to clean up their mess, tossing empty booze bottles in the trash and fielding Kirkeby’s request for vodka, vermouth, and “little cheese crackers.” The juxtaposition here between the couple and Baxter brings up an interesting question: who should feel more guilty–the illicit lovers, or the man who provided their love nest at the cost of his self-respect and personal dignity?
The strength of The Apartment lies in the performance of Jack Lemmon. This marks the second of seven collaborations between the actor and director (the first of which was the year before, in Hot), and it presents what is undoubtedly the best role Wilder ever wrote for Lemmon. As an actor, Lemmon was a type of Everyman, highly relatable and sympathetic in a wide variety of roles, and Wilder instinctively knew how to take full advantage of that quality by crafting Baxter to Lemmon’s strengths. C.C. Baxter is many things: desperate, lonely, ambitious, love-struck, calculating, put-upon … he’s a multifaceted character if there ever was one, and Lemmon brings him to glorious life, juggling Baxter’s constantly-shifting emotions with aplomb and making the audience empathize with him in the process. [If I have only one complaint with Lemmon’s performance, it comes from the unforgettable scene in which Baxter strains spaghetti with a tennis racket–and then rinses the pasta. Eek! We good part-Italian girls know you NEVER rinse the noodles!]
The supporting cast is just as strong as their leading man: Shirley MacLaine, here playing one of the original Manic Pixie Dream Girls, is lovely, lost, and conflicted; Fred MacMurray, playing against type as the sleazeball Sheldrake, is a deliciously diabolical cheating bastard; and Edie Adams, as Miss Olsen, Sheldrake’s disillusioned secretary/former mistress, is great in a small but pivotal role. Jack Kruschen turns in an Oscar-nominated performance as Dr. Dreyfuss, Baxter’s nosy, concerned neighbor (“Be a mensch,” he admonishes Baxter). And for those of us who grew up watching Bewitched reruns, how weird is it to see “Larry Tate” (David White) playing a cheating executive at Baxter’s company? (Okay, it’s not so weird–Larry Tate was an asshole, after all.)
The Apartment is the highlight of Wilder’s partnership with Diamond, which spanned a dozen films over two decades. Diamond’s contributions to the latter half of Wilder’s career cannot be discounted; while Wilder brought a more caustic, world-weary sense to their screenplays, Diamond infused them with a great deal of heart. It is safe to assume that, had Diamond not contributed to the script for The Apartment, the sweeter elements of the story, particularly the lovely chemistry between Baxter and Miss Kubelik, would have been dulled, if not lost entirely. Compare The Apartment to 1950’s Sunset Blvd., which Wilder co-wrote with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.: not a drop of sentimentality to be seen, resulting in a harsher, more unrelentingly bleak tone. And while some might argue that such sentiment in The Apartment blunts the satirical message about ambition and business culture in America, I would in turn argue that the “fuzzier” elements of the story have their merits, as one of this movie’s most important themes is the triumph of hope and integrity over cynicism, embodied by Baxter’s moment of self-realization in the end and Fran’s no-nonsense, downright unsentimental acceptance of Baxter’s declaration of love (“Shut up and deal”).
The Apartment was a hit, both with critics (well, some of them) and at the box office. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Today, it is remembered as one of Wilder’s best, if not the best product of his career, with one of Jack Lemmon’s most iconic performances. If you’ve never seen this movie, you are depriving yourself of a truly wonderful experience. You’ll laugh, you’ll tear up, you’ll cheer, you’ll marvel at the general moral depravity of humanity. What more could you ask for from a single film?
This post is an entry in the ongoing “2012 TCM SUTS Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. Share the Lemmon love and check out all of the other “juicy” (sorry, couldn’t resist) entries being posted today.