The Apartment is Billy Wilder’s best film. And that’s saying something seeing how this is the same guy that both wrote and directed movies like Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Blvd. The film is written very well and the acting proves that point. The Apartment is serious, but you laugh with it. It’s comedic, but with dark undertones. The film never takes itself too serious. It takes us to the dark side briefly without selling out its lighthearted tone.
Most of us, especially those my age probably think of Shirley MacLaine as the mother from Terms of Endearment, the grouch from Steel Magnolias or any other matronly, yet comedic and entertaining roles. Unfortunately, our minds aren’t trained to automatically think of that adorable elevator girl with the quick-witted disposition from The Apartment. MacLaine plays Fran, an easy-going young woman who seems just fine on the outside, but internally she struggles over her relationship with corporate executive Jeff Sheldrake (played by Billy Wilder regular, Fred MacMurray), who has a family of his own and continuously gives Fran empty promises of running away together. Fran sports the short bob cut in a film era where noir was big and along with it, long, wavy and shiny hair. MacLaine’s style and likeness in The Apartment could be easily compared to that of Zooey Deshchannel (or vice versa) in the perfectly made 500 Days of Summer, a similar film in many instances (see also Annie Hall). Fran isn’t flashy, but definitely fashionable.
I’ve always thought that Jack Lemon, who plays C.C. Baxter, was a great actor. However, his mannerisms (in many films) seem overly emphatic and too emerged into the part. For me, this technique of his makes him somewhat annoying to me. (I would expect a flood of hate emails from all the Jack Lemon faithful out there, but most of them are probably dead and those that aren’t probably don’t know how to work the email.) C. C. Baxter is a loveable, hard-working young man who is easily manipulated by the corporate executives at his work. They promise him promotions and raises in exchange for the use of his apartment with their secret girlfriends after a night on the town. We know Baxter to be a nice guy, but his neighbors assume that he’s a partier and a ladies’ man on account of all the music, empty liquor bottles on his doorstep and noise coming from his apartment nearly every night.
The Apartment is completely timeless. In 50 years, people will be watching this film and appreciating just as much as I am now and as the public did 50 years ago when the film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1960. It does contain a few moments that seem a little weird today, though. For instance, Baxter tells Fran that he knows all about her because he pulled her insurance file and read up on her. That seems a little stalker-ish to me but what do I know? Back then there was no Facebook. There was no way to stalk someone in the privacy of your own home. For all I know back then it could have been completely normal and perhaps even flattering to have someone go to such lengths to find out stuff about you. He tells her everything he knows about her including the removal of her appendix to which she simply smiles and says not mention “that appendix part to anyone or they’ll wonder how you found out”. This sets up a cute counter joke by Baxter later on in the film.
There are a few scenes that standout to me, mostly those that take place in the closed space of the apartment where Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography really stands out. One of the more entertaining scenes shows a sick Baxter, after double-booking his apartment, at work as he tries to take his temperature and restructure his entire calendar at the same time. A little over the top, perhaps, but that’s Jack Lemon (see Glengarry Glen Ross). Another favorite of mine is in the end; the camera moves parallel with Fran as she runs down a New York sidewalk towards the Apartment. Her head is back and short hair blows in the wind as she runs and smiles with the sweeping score playing in the background.
The Apartment won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay (Billy Wilder), Art Direction (Alexander Trauner, Edward G. Boyle) and Film Editing (Daniel Mandell). The film was also nominated for Best Actor (Jack Lemon), Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Kruschen), Sound Recording and Cinematography.