#175) The Apartment (1960)
OR “1BR/1BATH, PERFECT FOR AFFAIRS (Upper West Side)”
Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Class of 1994
The Plot: Young go-getter C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) wants to move up the corporate ladder at the insurance company he works for in Manhattan. He achieves this by loaning out his apartment to some of the company managers so they can carry on their extra-marital affairs in secret. This attracts the attention of personnel director J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who not only promotes Baxter, but also insists on exclusive use of the apartment. At the same time, Baxter is trying to woo elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) who, unbeknownst to Baxter, is Sheldrake’s mistress. It’s a complicated love triangle that can only be solved with clever Wilder-Diamond dialogue.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “sardonic, satiric comedy” and praises Wilder, Lemmon and MacLaine. There’s an expanded essay by Northwest Chicago Film Society programmer Kyle Westphal.
But Does It Really?: Full disclosure: This is one of my favorite films. Like, top five. “The Apartment” is the rare film that successfully balances comedy and drama, making a modern film that feels more “real” than others of the era. It has all the hallmarks of a studio release, but with none of the conventions. There’s a lot of taboo (for 1960) subjects being discussed here, marital infidelity being the main topic, but Wilder and Diamond provide a well-crafted, funny script that challenges production codes without being preachy about it. This is all supported by brilliant turns by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Like the script, Lemmon and MacLaine’s performances are equally funny and humane. “The Apartment” is still entertaining and touching after all these years, and the last truly great Billy Wilder film.
Shout Outs: Baxter tries to watch “Grand Hotel” on TV, and catches a glimpse of “Stagecoach” while channel surfing. There’s also an allusion to Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend”. In addition, Wilder has cited “The Crowd” as an influence on “The Apartment”.
Everybody Gets One: Edie Adams is the main one, plus most of the supporting cast, including Johnny Seven (hard to believe, but that’s not his real name).
Wow, That’s Dated: The film’s frequent but casual sexism aside for one moment, “The Apartment” also features topical references to Fidel Castro and Cape Canaveral, as well as a shout-out to “The Untouchables”.
Seriously, Oscars?: Critically divisive but commercially successful, “The Apartment” led the 1960 Oscars with 10 nominations and won five, including Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay (making Wilder one of a handful of people to win three Oscars on the same night). Jack Lemmon – a recent Supporting Actor winner for “Mister Roberts” – lost Best Actor to an overdue Burt Lancaster for “Elmer Gantry”. And despite all bets being placed on Shirley MacLaine to win Best Actress, Elizabeth Taylor’s emergency tracheotomy during the voting period gave her a ton of sympathy press, as well as the award for her work in “BUtterfield 8”. MacLaine would be an Oscar bridesmaid for 23 years and four more nominations.
- Among the screenplays many gifts, it tows the line between airtight and leisurely. This movie takes its time getting started (plot-wise), but you really get to understand the characters of Baxter and Kubelik, and it especially helps you sympathize with their very unsympathetic situation.
- This film takes place back when spouting random facts was a sign of intelligence, rather than a sign of falling down yet another internet wormhole.
- Baxter’s rent is $85 a month, roughly $715 today. Which is hilarious because do you know what an apartment in the Upper West Side goes for these days?
- Who knew Larry Tate was such a shady character? Stephens!
- Boy when you get Fred MacMurray in the right role, he is a joy to watch on the screen. Sheldrake is such a dark turn for the dad from “My Three Sons”, and MacMurray nails it.
- The one part of this film that ages the poorest is the scene where Baxter tells Kubelik that he looked up her file and knows everything about her. There’s no way you could pull this scene off today without making him a stalker.
- On the one hand, my office Christmas parties aren’t this raucous. On the other hand, they’re not this depressing either.
- My favorite line in the film: “Hey Charlie! Give me a shot of bourbon, and step on it. My sleigh is double parked.”
- Readers, I give you “Rickshaw Boy”!
- “The Apartment” is on my “Die Hard” list of great not-Christmas movies. There’s even fruitcake!
- Jack Kruschen managed an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Dr. Dreyfuss. It’s another case of a veteran character actor finally getting their due, and Kruschen is great as the only real “mensch” in the film.
- Wilder is well aware that you only use close-ups for emotional impact. Most of this film is done in wide shots (natural for widescreen); when they cut to a close-up, it’s because something important is happening.
- Single living really hasn’t changed since 1960. The main difference is that Jack Lemmon wears a tie even when he’s lounging around the house.
- Shout-out to King Farouk of Egypt.
- Edie Adams does not get enough credit for her work in this film. She’s primarily remembered as an entertainer/personality, but she absolutely nails the role of scorned lover.
- “Shut up and deal”. Wilder was always great at curtain lines.
- Back when musicals based on popular films were less common, “The Apartment” became the 1968 Broadway musical “Promises, Promises”. It never improves upon the film (and mistakenly de-emphasizes Kubelik), but the show does feature a fun score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, as well as an automatic Tony Award for whoever plays Margie MacDougall.
- This is the film that helped Jack Lemmon transition from comic star to dramatic actor. He followed this film up with “Days of Wine and Roses”.
- Wilder, Lemmon, and MacLaine reunited three years later to make another, more farcical comedy, “Irma La Douce”.
- Besides every TV show having an episode called “The Apartment” at some point, this film’s other major influence was on future Best Picture winner “American Beauty”, particularly Kevin Spacey’s performance. Remember when you could reference “American Beauty” without feeling slightly dirty?
Further Viewing: One more song from “Promises, Promises”.