The Apartment (1960) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for subject matter
Running time: 125 min
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, David Lewis, Hope Holiday, Joan Shawlee, Naomi Stevens, Edie Adams
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Review published September 10, 2008
Winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 1960, The Apartment still stands up today as one of the best and most sophisticated Hollywood romantic comedies ever produced. Directed and co-written by the great Billy Wilder (Avanti!, Some Like It Hot), it emerges as one of his funniest, and yet most melancholy, of his classic comedies. Despite the constant shifts in tone, even dealing with notions of suicide, the film always feels right on the money, never manipulating for tearjerker moments or forcing in slapstick to elicit chuckles in every scene. This is a story told with respect and a level of likeability in its characters that is mostly absent in romantic comedies today, which would rather have the main characters antagonize one another until one of them, usually the male, shows he isn't a total oaf. Here we have two characters who are basically good but too weak to get out of the predicaments that cause them unhappiness, until circumstances force them to fight or take flight.
Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross, Short Cuts) stars as C.C. Baxter (as in "si, si!", a consummate Yes Man), who starts off as a lowly office worker living in a very plain New York City apartment. Not that you'd know he lives there, as most nights, there are wholly different people in that apartment -- married men from the office who dangle good words and potential promotions in front of hungry eyes in order to coerce a spot for entertaining their mistress of the day. Big fish turn into the biggest of all when the big boss, Jeff Sheldrake (MacMurray, Double Indemnity), catches wind of the goings-on and orders it to cease -- but only because he wants to use the place himself.
Other than Wilder's consummate knack for comedy, the biggest reason as to why The Apartment works so well lies in the casting. Jack Lemmon gives a performance that one couldn't imagine any other actor topping, perfectly embodying the loner, lover, and misunderstood mensch to perfection. Even though many of his actions ostensibly stem from ambition and weakness, he is shown as just too nice of a guy to ever really say no. There is even a dabbling with the notion that C.C.'s fast-track to success goes hand-in-hand with him being the type of soul-less empty suit whose home life is a shambles, especially when he eventually tries to use his own apartment to bed a married woman. His superiors are like magnets, throwing off his moral compass to the point where he can't find his way any longer.
Shirley MacLaine (The Trouble with Harry, Cannonball Run II) has rarely been more appealing, playing a young elevator operator whose low self esteem causes her to constantly settle for less time and again. Catching a corporate exec like Sheldrake would certainly answer many of her questions on whether she will ever find happiness and be cared for, but he's been stringing her along so long about getting a divorce, her longing for him is agonizing when he's with her, and even more so when he is not. Fred MacMurray, who is mostly remembered for more benevolent characters, works very well as the slimy boss without any sense of ethics. One senses that he's manipulated subordinates and lovers so persistently for so many years, he no longer has any feeling for them any more, merely seeing them as the conduits by which to feed his own vices. His indifference to toying with Fran's hopes, dreams and emotions makes him appear quite vile, despite never intentionally wanting to cause malice.
The Apartment is mostly known as a comedy, but it also works quite well as a very cynical satire of the business world as it stands in the late 1950s. Women are in the workplace, but hardly respected, and often seen as diversions for the male workers to try to get into the sack. Getting ahead means being willing to play along with the whims of the boss, who is shown as having the power to terminate employment to anyone he sees fit when they no longer can enhance his personal life. Office parties aren't places for mingling, but rather, a means to get the women sauced and take them to the nearest secluded office for a little romance. Looking at it today, in an era when sexual harassment training is a staple of many businesses and institutions (something many people consider a needless hassle), the film is a good example of how terrible working conditions could be absent laws to protect employees.
It's also rare to see a film of its day and age dealing with such adult subject matter. Adultery had been quite a taboo subject for light comedies, and if dabbled in, the guilty parties were almost certainly given a scene of comeuppance in the end. Wilder brilliantly skirts around the issue in such a way that it's always evident what the apartment is used for, but it's never overtly stated.
A nitpick: One thing that isn't quite explained is why C.C.'s apartment is the only option as far as venue for on-the-side nookie. These guys certainly could afford a hotel, and yet, when the apartment is unavailable, they behave as if there's just no way they will be able to carry through with the affair. Given that Sheldrake had been seeing Fran for some time before even learning about C.C.'s apartment, and the untold number of women before her, he certainly must have the means and know-how to do so.
The Apartment is more than just a fluff romance, and in fact, the two protagonists are never really shown as being together as an item, though they seem drawn to one another throughout. It's more about two innocent people who get trampled under the weight of the do-for-self corporate world, trying so very hard to conform, though it chews them up from the inside out. They both strive for success, as if success were the real road to contentment, all the while not quite realizing that the more successful people around them are in a perpetual state of unhappiness themselves -- they just have learned to cope with it through constant distractions from their humdrum lives. Trying to find meaning in doing meaningless tasks, and trying to find a ray of happiness in an area where people are consummately miserable paints a rather bleak picture of life in the corporate world. If you ever wanted evidence of Wilder's great talent, it's by making such misery feel like a great comedy, and such agony feel like a great romance. It's only because hope is never extinguished that it he is able to pull us through the muck without a stain of ill feeling.
©2008 Vince Leo