The Apartment is the bittersweet, darkly comic tale of a mild-mannered office nebbish who sells little bits of his body and soul to climb the corporate ladder, falls in love on the way up and finds his way back down to redemption. Jack Lemmon will quite simply break your heart in this wry, cynical indictment of corporate America.
C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Lemmon) toils away at desk number 861 on the 19th floor of the Consolidated Life of New York insurance building, making a modest living which pays for a cozy little bachelor apartment on the Upper West Side. The problem is, Bud spends most of his evenings outside the apartment, waiting for the coast to clear.
He’s fallen into an arrangement with some of the married higher-ups in the office who use the apartment for liaisons with secretaries, switchboard operators and girls they pick up in bars. They leave his key under the mat, and he’s left to clean up the empty booze bottles, lipstick-stained cigarettes and stray earrings before eating his lonely TV dinner.
The payoff for all of this is supposed to be professional advancement, and Bud starts moving upstairs fast. Meanwhile, he’s falling for a charmingly quirky elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). He doesn’t know she’s next on the list for a tryst with a bigwig in the personnel department. The office fall guy is about to take a series of tumbles that get harder and harder to bear.
Not one of the stupendous cast members misses a beat, but Lemmon is a revelation. He’s a stitch orchestrating a complicated switch of apartment appointments, just so he and his 101-degree fever can get a decent night’s sleep. He‘s disarming when he earnestly models his new “junior executive” bowler hat for Miss Kubelik. His bits of physical comedy – leaving a mess of crumpled tissue on a boss’s desk, draining spaghetti through a tennis racket – are inspired.
It’s his unrequited love for Fran, his stalwart support for her, his attempts to get her rat-fink of a married boyfriend to be kind to her and his careful tenderness that will really get you. Will selfless love be the route to his salvation? Lemmon makes you hope so.
MacLaine is lovely and touching as the girl who’s a “bad insurance risk” when it comes to men, falling for an old line from a well-practiced liar, getting her backside pinched in her own elevator, and sadly knowing all along she’s the one being taken for a ride.
Fred MacMurray plays an irredeemable scoundrel, the highest higher-up, with a perfect wife and kids in the suburbs and who-knows-how-many girls on the side. He’s ably assisted by a raft of office wolves including Ray Walston as a randy supervisor and David Lewis as a stinker who keeps putting “-wise” on the end of words for corporate double speak and double entendre. “Profit-wise.” “Kubelik-wise.”
Hope Holiday does a fun bit as a bar fly who tries to get Bud’s attention by blowing the wrappers off drinking straws at his bowler hat. Jack Kruschen is wonderful as Bud’s neighbor, a kindly doctor who thinks mild-mannered Bud is some sort of disreputable party animal, but clearly can’t help liking the younger man.
Billy Wilder was a writer-turned-director, who took the helm of his pictures to save his sharp writing and dark plots from censors and meddling studio executives. He wrote The Apartment with I.A.L. Diamond, his collaborator on Some Like It Hot and all his later work. Wilder’s hand is plain in the clever plot situations, crackling one-liners and sharp observations of human foibles. He won the Best Director Oscar for the picture, and he and Diamond also took home the Best Screenplay statuette.
The Apartment was the last classic black-and-white film to win the Best Picture award. (Not until 1993 did another black-and-white film, Schindler’s List, win the top prize.) Lemmon, MacLaine and Kruscher were nominated, but all lost out on the acting awards.
The Apartment also marked the end of Fred MacMurray’s career as a screen villain. The actor received so much fan criticism for his role as the reprehensible Mr. Sheldrake that he accepted only nice-guy roles from then on, including the absent-minded inventor of flubber in The Nutty Professor.
One of the fun little features of the film is Lemmon’s opening narration. It sets the scene in a New York that few would recognize today, where men always wear hats, elevator operators wear uniforms and white gloves, and a nice little one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side goes for $85 a month.
The Bottom Line
Many cite the screwball comedy Some Like It Hot or the ultimate film noir Double Indemnity as their favorite Wilder film. For me, the prize goes to The Apartment, which lies somewhere in between. It’s both light and dark, cynical and humane. It’s a moving story that condemns human weakness and celebrates strength of character in the same man, and makes you care about him all the way through. It’s brilliant.
Just the Facts:
Year: 1960, Black and White
Director: Billy Wilder
Running Time: 125 minutes
Studio: United Artists