US (1960) Dir. Billy Wilder
Everyone wants to make it up the ranks of their workplace or chosen vocation with many resorting to some interesting, if questionable, methods to achieve this. It is fair to say that the one employed by low ranking account clerk C.C Baxter (Jack Lemmon) fits into that category.
In exchange for a positive review with the personnel director Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) Baxter allows four high ranking executives – Dobisch (Ray Walston), Kirkeby (David Lewis), Vanderhoff (Willard Waterman) and Eichelberger (David White) – to use his apartment to conduct their extra-martial affairs.
This pays off and Baxter gets his promotion but his happiness is short lived when Sheldrake asks to use the apartment with the girl in question being his long time lover, lift operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), whom Baxter himself happens to be besotted with.
After the huge success of Some Like It Hot the burden for Billy Wilder – already a hugely successful filmmaker by this point – to follow to this up with a similarly profitable an critically acclaimed film was met head on and in typical Wilder fashion, he went in a totally different direction rather than replicate its predecessor. Taking home five Oscars, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay, it’s fair to say Wilder’s gamble paid off.
The inspiration for this story came from a single scene in romantic classic Brief Encounter where the two married leads borrowed a friend’s apartment for one of their illicit dates, and Wilder wondered about how the chap who leant them the room felt about it. Then a real life incident involving producer Walter Wanger who shot an agent named Jennings Lang for having an affair with his wife, actress Joan Bennett. Where did these trysts take place? In the borrowed apartment of one of Lang’s employees! This was enough for Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond to create a cracking and bittersweet script out of.
Baxter is your everyman good guy who is keen to please everybody because of his good nature rather than for personal gain although the prospect of going from being a nobody on the 19th floor to a somebody on the 27th floor was appealing. He certainly doesn’t across as a voraciously ambitious man who will step over anyone but he is open to a little mutual back scratching.
Even with this slight help up the ladder Baxter’s upward trajectory isn’t a smooth one and certainly doesn’t happen instantly. One early scene sees Baxter on the phone trying to get his “clients” to rearrange their dating schedules to accommodate the addition of Sheldrake to the rota, like he was making a big time business deal.
This is just one side of the film’s appeal – Wilder’s acerbic depiction of the corporate America. The other side is the romantic comedy in which Baxter unsuccessfully tries to woo Fran, assuming their verbal rapport is a green light. Sadly for Baxter, Fran is still clinging on to the twelve year promise by Sheldrake to leave his wife. The metaphor for this fruitless union is the crowded lift Fran spends her working days in, always with a brave smile and quick witted comment ready.
When an image make over fails to yield results with Fran and a pertinent clue reveals that she is Sheldrake’s mystery woman, we get one of the highlights of the film when he drowns his sorrows in a bar on Christmas Eve and attracts the attention of a female barfly (Hope Holiday), whose husband has been captured by Castro apparently.
Wilder manages to disarm us all by taking the direction down a darker and more serious path when Baxter and his new friend arrive back at the apartment to find Fran passed out on his bed after overdosing on sleeping pills after being let down by Sheldrake. Thankfully Baxter’s neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) was on hand to bring Fran round leaving her recovery in Baxter’s hands. While he takes this opportunity to get her better purely for her own sake rather than his own romantic intentions, Fran is still foolishly holding out for Sheldrake.
While it may seem a conventional trait now, at the time this was considered a brave move by Wilder to introduce such a drastic tonal shift but he handles it with such adroit acuteness that it is a seamless transition. It also gives the two leads a chance to flex their acting muscles, particularly Lemmon who had thus far been pegged as a comedy actor.
While some bright moments appear the overall mood in the third act is one of pathos as the human ability to prioritise is put under scrutiny. And once again Wilder is keen to swerve us right up until the very end, with some neat self-referential mis-directions (for anyone paying close attention) and his now famous witty closing line.
As ever the key to success, along with a strong script, is in the casting and having proven himself to Wilder in Some Like It Hot, the role of Baxter was written for Lemmon who rewards Wilder and us with a rounded and multi-faceted essaying of the perennial good guy-cum-doormat.
Shirley MacLaine manages to make Fran a surprisingly likeable other woman and proves a good foil for Lemmon, while Fred MacMurray surprises us all by playing an unpleasant character for once. Also deserving credit is Jack Kruschen, who is part of the film’s running joke in which Dreyfuss thinks the carry on in Baxter’s apartment is all him and warns him to slow down!
There are so many little moments, visual references, subtle character changes and overt critiques on how capricious and duplicitous we humans can be that it is amazing that Wilder was still able to entertain us with an engaging love story amidst this satirical onslaught. The Apartment is a multi-layered and mould breaking film that shows how one can dabble with a familiar convention whilst reinventing it at the same time.