Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen
Advancing up corporate ladders should be based on merit, but it may not always be the case as brilliantly displayed in The Apartment. To get to the next rung may force someone to complete unsavory deeds but a limit must be met. That particular limit may be different for each individual person, but knowing it remains incredibly important.
Working as a cog in a larger machine C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works for an insurance company in New York City. His workspace resides in a room full of desks and others doing the same activity where they clock in, do their work and then go home to their normal lives. Baxter lives a similar life except that he allows his superiors to use his apartment for their extra-marital affairs. He allows them to do so because of the promises they make of eventually promoting him in the near future. While his bosses use his apartment for their lustful needs, Baxter needs to find other places to sleep as he dreams about getting his own office.
As a character, Baxter presents a very interesting type of male figure, especially in the 1960s. A man that allows his bosses to use his home as a hotel, but never uses it himself for the same purposes. Someone who would allow those actions to happen for the sake of getting a promotion. He’s complicit to these actions because he sees it as the only way to advance in a world that makes him woefully unhappy. He credits that pain to not having the right position, where he struggles with a different set of issues. Jack Lemmon handles this character magnificently well, because Baxter proves to be a very troubled character as he reveals his darker moments in life. Speaking on these issues in the 1960s must have been challenging, but because of Lemmon’s stature as a comedic actor, he can walk the line between the humor and the melancholic moments. Lemmon’s characterization represents the entire film’s story.
While having the potential to be a complete screwball comedy, The Apartment has many dark moments that really have some powerful messages especially considering the era in which it was released. Billy Wilder, the director, does an excellent job of illustrating the giant office area where Baxter works. It’s just a sea of typewriters, all doing mindless and meaningless work. Baxter wants to get away from it all. These dark moments also present themselves with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). She works as the elevator girl for the office and Baxter sees her as a light at the end of the tunnel only to discover that she’s the mistress of his superior, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Not only does Baxter discover this heartbreaking news, but he pieces together that they’ve been together in his own apartment. The relationship between Fran and Jeff sounds very typical as the latter promises to leave his wife for the former. However, Fran finds out that other women have been told the exact same thing by Jeff and attempts to take her life in Baxter’s apartment. Again, for a film in the 1960s, this pushed the boundary and it all came under the guise of a comedy.
Fran and Baxter become the catalysts in each other’s lives to change for the better. In their darkest moments they connect about what they want to achieve in life, thus creating a budding romance between the two. MacLaine shines as the character of Fran and elevates her beyond a prototypical character. She has aspirations and seeks to do more in life but finds herself in a relationship that will not offer what she wants and cannot properly see it until reality forcefully sets in. Her attempt of killing herself through overdose inadvertently creates comedy with Baxter finding her in his apartment and trying to save her. That sparks their friendship and how they fully realize that what may be best for themselves, which does not include Jedd Sheldrake.
Once again, Billy Wilder puts together another timeless comedy that hits all of the right moments embedded with some social messages. Wilder creates these atmospheres that contrast to tell the story from the lifeless office space to the simple card games played in Baxter’s apartment. Ultimately, Baxter and Fran feel lonely and yearn for more in life and that somewhat extends to the other characters in the film. Baxter’s bosses feel unfulfilled in their relationships so they resort to having affairs with other women. The bosses are unhappy with their marriages so they seek warmth from another woman. Baxter and Fran simply want someone to fill their lives with purpose, as they don’t receive it from their work. These themes lie beneath the surface of a film that can simply be seen as a great comedy with wonderful performances. You could easily walk away with enjoying the hijinx but these raw emotional moments leave a mark and that comes from the incredible writing but also by the multi-faceted work by Lemmon and MacLaine in the lead roles.
The Apartment offers so much to love as a story and it stands out as the definitive New Year’s Eve film as it celebrates the holiday throughout it. Not only does the holiday start a new year, but also a new beginning for two lost souls seeking something to accomplish in their lives. The new year presents them with that opportunity. The comedy mixed with melancholy can connect with someone on multiple levels and did enough to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. From the production design to the small character moments, The Apartment left a mark on me by lighting a fire and creating a warm home for these two characters and does so with much zeal.