A Billy Wilder Classic (Now on Blu Ray)
In its opening voiceover, ambitious young clerk CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) explains the system that enables him to impress his seniors. Baxter lends his apartment to company executives who need somewhere discreet to have extra-marital affairs. His neighbors think he is a Casanova but Baxter is actually a lonely, isolated guy and he is really beginning to feel it.
Everything changes when Baxter meets Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the elevator operator and falls for her causing him to question what he has been doing by enabling others to have affairs. Here the world is an entirely male dominated structure, with women waiting for their lovers to divorce their wives and her being passed around from one man to another with no hope of lasting happiness. Fran is depressed by what he sees and basically emotional withdraws from the world.
“The Apartment” was released in 1960 and it looked at dangerous territory for its time. It has a playful attitude toward the sexual mores of its day and it doesn’t portray its female characters as uninterested in having a good time. In places its sexual jokes, played absolutely straight, probably provided a real challenge to the censor. On a social level, it is deeply subversive and challenges the established way of living, which is responsible for the imbalance of power between men and women. The story is focused on the relationship between an exploited clerk and a depressive woman thus challenging the very pretext of comedy.
Nonetheless this is a very funny film. It’s wittily scripted and inventively directed by Billy Wilder and is regarded as a classic. Some of the stereotypes are a bit out-of-date now but so much of this film still rings true that it is still relevant.
“The Apartment” works as a source of humor, drama, and romance. We see that are many ways to get ahead in the business world. The preferred way of working hard and putting in long hours is often a myth. Baxter’s alternative is to 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 fun and. 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. However, there’s a complication: Sheldrake’s girlfriend is elevator operator Fran Kubelik and Baxter knows that he is only using her.
The first part of the film gives a dim view of corporate ethics and is probably more accurate than any of us would like to consider (especially now with all of the sexual assaults being exposed). Getting ahead in business is a matter of trading favors and closeting one’s conscience. Wilder presents this in a lighthearted fashion. There are some classic moments of broad comedy like when Baxter is forced to re-schedule a bunch of assignations so he can have the apartment for a night to sleep off a cold. There is also his next-door neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), who sees all the comings-and-goings and assumes that Baxter is a Don Juan.
At its core, the film is a romance, and it gets down to setting up the relationship between Baxter and Fran during the second part of the plot. At the beginning, there’s a tentative chemistry between them. Because of Sheldrake’s playing with Fran’s emotions, she attempts suicide while in Baxter’s apartment. He finds her in time, uses Dr. Dreyfuss to pump her stomach, then nurses her over the next two days and they begin to realize things about themselves, each other, and what all of this is costing them. Both are trying to use Sheldrake to get ahead 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.
In 1960, Jack Lemmon was just a B-list actor who in “The Apartment” 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, it has never hard to identify with him and se see that here. Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine plays Fran as a woman with a strong will but also a deep core of vulnerability. Her performance is a revelation in understatement. The film works primarily because of the interaction between Lemmon and MacLaine. As a low-key romance, there’s plenty of chemistry that is not necessarily sexual. Their relationship is based not on physical attraction but on a kinship of souls. Attempted suicide brought something deeper than their friendly banter and lighthearted flirting. 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 film was widely recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures and had ten Oscar nominations (five wins). It was Wilder’s final nomination (and win) for Best Director. Many believe that this film represents Wilder at his most complete and that this is one of the best films made during this era.