Nothing is more painful for a guy to hear from a woman he has feelings for than that line from Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic The Apartment and that is one of the reasons this movie breaks my heart every time I watch it. It also breaks my heart because this farcical drama is one of the most brutally honest stories of love in the modern world.
The Apartment stars the late, great Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, a cog in the machine of a large insurance company. Baxter works in a giant building that houses no less than 31,259 employees. A brilliant opening shot—an homage to director King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd—shows Baxter sitting on the 19th floor, desk 861, surrounded by hundreds of fellow employees in endless rows of desks. In a terrific opening narration, Baxter informs us that his floor’s shift ends at 5:20 pm—staggered by floor so the elevators can deal with the traffic of 31,259 employees—but that sometimes he stays an hour or two late at the office. It is not that he is overly ambitious; it’s just that he can’t always get into his cozy apartment.
Baxter has been loaning his apartment out to four of his superiors for their extramarital affairs in exchange for the promise of promotion. His neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) believes that all the amorous noises he hears through the walls is Baxter himself and asks if he would be willing to donate his body to the Columbia Medical Center when he dies. Forced to sleep on a Central Park bench because one of his supervisors is wooing a woman who “looks like Marilyn Monroe,” Baxter arrives at work the next morning with a cold and in a terrifically comic scene—no one plays cold symptoms better than Lemmon—shuffles his bosses’ affairs around so he can have a good night’s sleep.
On his way up to the nineteenth floor, Baxter chats with the elevator operator, Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a lovely young woman that he has growing feelings for. Baxter finally gets the courage up to ask Miss Kubelik out when he is given two tickets that evening for a stage production of “The Music Man.” Unfortunately these tickets were given to Baxter by the big boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) in exchange for the use of his apartment and unbeknownst to Baxter, Miss Kubelik is the woman who will be escorting the boss.
Up to this point, the film has been little more than a satire on office politics, but here it takes a serious dramatic turn. After learning the Miss Kubelik is the woman that has been sharing his bed with Sheldrake, Baxter heads to a local bar—on Christmas Eve no less—to drown his sorrows and winds up in the arms of another woman. After taking this woman back to his apartment—“might as well go to mine, everyone else does”—Baxter is alarmed to find Miss Kubelik lying in his bed accompanied by an empty bottle of sleeping pills. Kubelik saw no reason to live after Sheldrake’s secretary gave her the rundown on his revolving door of mistresses. With the help of Dr. Dreyfuss, Baxter is able to revive her, but the doctor orders her to stay there for 48 hours. It is over these 48 hours—or however many hours it was before her brother-in-law came to take her home and give Baxter a black eye—the attraction between the two begins to grow, although she admits that she is still hopelessly in love with a married man. Soon everyone has what they think they wanted—Baxter a cozy new 27th floor office, Kubelik a soon-to-be-divorced lover—but haven’t they discovered something better in life?
The Apartment was the last one hundred percent black and white film to win the Oscar for Best Picture (Schindler’s List had the little girl in the red dress) and it also took home awards for director, screenplay (Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), black and white art direction and film editing. Amazingly where the film failed to win was in the acting categories. Both Lemmon and MacLaine were nominated for their leading roles, as was Jack Kruschen for his supporting role as Dr. Dreyfuss. At least the director knew who he had to thank for the film’s success. When handed his Oscar for best picture, Wilder said that “it would only be proper to cut it in half and give it to the two most valuable players—Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.”
Lemmon gives the best performance of his career as C.C. Baxter. It was the film that first proved he could switch back and forth between farcical comedy and tragic drama in the same performance. Lemmon’s performance in The Apartment was sited by another actor with a talent for mixing comedy and drama when Kevin Spacey accepted his Oscar for American Beauty and watching the films together, you can definitely see not only the inspiration for Spacey’s performance, but for the entire 1999 Oscar winner. The Apartment was also a breakout for MacLaine, who had appeared mostly in light comedies in her five previous years of film work.
One of the film’s key elements that the Academy did recognize was its brilliantly constructed script. The brilliance in the construction was the way Wilder and Diamond built on lines and actions that occurred early in the film and used them again later. For example, Baxter’s repeated addition of “wise” to everything reminds us of one of his superiors, symbolizing the morally challenged ladder he is climbing (“you’re beginning to sound like Mr. Kirkeby already”). There is also an early seen in which Baxter holds up four fingers while speaking three, and the same is done by Kubelik later, while she is in his apartment.
The plot—with its many married men dashing off for their illicit affairs—of The Apartment must have been very risqué in 1960, still a good seven years before films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde would bring an end to the decency code and make way for the current ratings system. Controversial topics were nothing new for Billy Wilder, however, the man responsible for tackling alcoholism in 1945’s The Lost Weekend (also a best picture winner) and Hollywood in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. Wilder seemed to have a definite talent for mixing a kind of dark, satirical comedy with less than reputable topics—murder in Double Indemnity (1944), gang violence in Some Like it Hot (1959) and prison camps in Stalag 17 (1953). In fact, he had already tackled adultery in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
The amazing thing about watching The Apartment today is how the film has not been dated one bit. Sure, it costs a little more than $85 a month to rent an apartment nowadays, but outside of that you could easily see this film taking place in modern day.
The Apartment ends, like Wilder’s previous film Some Like it Hot, with one of the best closing lines in movie history. “Shut up and deal” provided the film with an ending that managed to give the film a happy ending, while still maintaining the film’s toughness.
One of Hollywood’s greatest directors and greatest actors working at the top of their game help to make The Apartment a true classic and “that’s the way it crumbles; cookie-wise.” It gets an A+.