Apartment, The (1960)
Release Date: June 15th, 1960 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Billy Wilder Actors: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, Hope Holiday, Joan Shawlee, Joyce Jameson
Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works at Consolidated Life Insurance in New York, on the 19th floor in accounting. He frequently stays late at the office, not due to ambition, but because of a little arrangement he has with several of his coworkers. In exchange for various favorable words with superiors, he lends out his conveniently located apartment to four specific businessmen to use as a place to take their mistresses. His situation gets particularly sticky when executives extort the residence from him, sometimes at inconvenient hours late at night. He’s not sleeping his way to the top, but rather creating opportunities for others (the bigwigs) to “sleep” – while still lifting himself up through the ranks.
Though the next-door neighbor thinks Baxter is promiscuously picking up a new girl every night, Baxter is in fact leading a rather lonesome existence – save for casual flirtations with elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). When his inevitable promotion gets lined up, C.C. meets with top man Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who wants to get to the bottom of Baxter’s unusual popularity. But instead of cracking down on the unscrupulous activity, he edges his way into the operation, taking Baxter’s key for the evening. To complicate matters further, Sheldrake’s intention is to take Fran to the apartment.
“The Apartment” works on many levels, metamorphosing from corporate satire to drama to romantic comedy, all while maintaining sensational acting, sympathetically drawn characters, smart dialogue, and a grandly satisfactory outcome for the waves of building turmoil. Character development is also a priority for director Billy Wilder; for his two leads, he adeptly uses both a witty back-and-forth discourse and contrastingly sulky musings (complementary volleying) to establish an ideal duo struggling to not only end up together but also to realize that they should. Baxter routinely spouts quirky facts, figures, and numbers, along with cautious jokes, to deflect his emotions, while Kubelik lands some of the most darkly potent lines for the realization of her crumbling relationship and controversial kept woman status.
It’s all surprisingly adult, despite the regular, humorous interludes. MacMurray is equally notable as the obvious antagonist (amusingly cast against type) and third part to the love triangle. His debauchery is comically conventional, and although the themes of infidelity, betrayal, abuse of power, and prominently, suicide, are quite serious, the dialogue manages to lighten the tone. Jack Kruschen as judgmental neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss is also wisely cast, written to heighten the underdog qualities of Baxter as he conducts himself honorably, only to be negatively, yet incorrectly, appraised.
Balancing the comedy and drama is perhaps the film’s finest achievement, maintaining a synchronization that keeps the story alternately funny and poignant, while examining timelessly polemic scenarios gives the film a pronounced, permanently relevant quality, approached in a genuinely sweet and idealistic manner. And although the romance may seem a touch outdated (many accuse Lemmon of overacting, but his performance is more along the lines of lovelorn timidity combating an unappeasable environment), “The Apartment” frequently ranks among the greatest comedies of all time. For many, it is also one of the best movies of any genre – an unforgettable masterpiece of laughs and pathos, with an undeniably classic ending, that went on to deservedly win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director of 1960.
– Mike Massie