I spent a good chunk of 2013 watching a bunch of classic films I had no business having not seen (you can find the full list with some spurious star ratings on my Letterboxd), catching up with directors I had ignored like Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Kurosawa, some early Woody Allen and the like. But my biggest take-away from the marathon was definitely the work of Billy Wilder. Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like it Hot are all classics (and just a surface skimming of his catalogue) that I thoroughly enjoyed watching. But the film that really stuck with me, the film that was likely my favorite cinematic experience of the entire marathon, was The Apartment. Considering it was just added to Netflix Streaming on January 1 and is in many ways the perfect New Year’s movie (sorry, Meg Ryan rom-coms), it was ripe for a rewatch.
The winner of the 1960 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, and Art Direction (Black and White), The Apartment just may be Billy Wilder’s crowning achievement. Following the story of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a bachelor in New York who works as an insurance adjuster and loans out his apartment to executives and their mistresses in an attempt to get ahead, The Apartment is a romantic comedy of the highest order. The romance comes in the form of Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik, a young elevator operator with which Baxter shares some mild flirtation. Things get complicated (as one would expect) when Fred MacMurray’s Mr. Sheldrake, a director in Human Resources, is introduced, as he has ties to both Baxter and Kubelik in surprising ways.
There’s a lot to love about The Apartment, but one of the aspects of it that stands out the most is how forward-thinking it truly is. Considering its release in 1960, long before the free love hippie revolution took control of the culture, and coming at the tail end of the 1950’s nuclear family Donna Reed Leave it to Beaver decade, the content of this film really is on the razor’s edge of counterculture for the time (though, to be fair, this was the same year Psycho was released). Much of the friction of the plot is based around this casual adultery that is the domain of these powerful middle aged WASP-y executives. Their gleeful exploitation of Baxter’s apartment is the axle upon which the film turns, and the impetus of much of the more farcical moments of the plot. Specifically, the way the other tenants of his building view him and how he covers for the infidelity of his superiors is always a source of amusement.
Lemmon lost out the Academy Award to Burt Lancaster that year, but it’s entirely possible that this was the best performance of his storied career. C.C. Baxter is an interesting psychological profile; he’s extraordinarily meek, but has found a way to use those traits to his advantage, but he also doesn’t have a way to fight back against the tide when they push things too far. Lemmon’s physical acting and mannerisms are top-notch, from his nasally cold-induced voice to his exasperated attempts to reschedule these dates so he could have the temerity of keeping his apartment to himself for a night when he’s running a fever. He is an actor in complete control of his character, and the perfect lead for this type of film. Take, for instance, his explanation to Sheldrake for how he got caught up in the mess of loaning out his apartment to his coworkers. The way he squirts his nasal spray across the office at the first sign of stress, the way he fiddles with his tissues, the way he frantically tries to explain himself when questioned, the way his demeanor falls when he figures out what Sheldrake is up to. It’s a master class.
His supporting cast is just as up to the task as he is, from the smarmy coterie of executives spearheaded by Fred MacMurray (reuniting with Wilder after playing the lead in Double Indemnity) to MacLaine’s deeply alluring Ms. Kuberlik, the exact sort of girl you could expect anyone to fall in love with after spending months riding in the same elevator. She’s perfect in her portrayal of a girl who keeps falling for the wrong man when the right one is staring her in the face. It’s a well-worn character trope, but MacLaine breathes life into it with her pixie haircut and her wounded center on the verge of breaking through. She easily could have gone for a more histrionic approach, but the subtlety does wonders, especially when playing off Lemmon’s blatant attraction and overly pleasing demeanor as he attempts to woo her. The final principal cast member is Jack Kruschen’s Dr. Dreyfuss, the moral center of the film and the impetus for Baxter’s slowly forming backbone. Kruschen received a nomination for Supporting Actor for his role, and he’s a perfectly fine character in the film. Personally, I would have given the nod to MacMurray, who plays Sheldrake with the exact mix of charm, smarm and insidious disregard for those he takes advantage of.
The award-winning screenplay, from Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, hums along at a wonderful speed, making the 125 minute run time feel like a quick jog down the street. Its use of recurring speech patterns, most famously the use of “-wise” as a modifying suffix (“that’s the way it crumbles…cookie-wise” or the famous ”as far as I’m concerned, you’re tops. I mean, decency-wise and otherwise-wise”) or the way his conspirators derisively refer to him as “Buddy Boy,” creates a wonderful through-line for the plot of the film on which to hang itself. There are dynamite lines everywhere, from MacLaine’s explanation of her broken compact mirror (“Yes, I know. I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel”) to Baxter’s backhanded shot at Sheldrake’s infidelity and the neediness of his mistresses (“No, sir, it’s very unfair…Especially to your wife”). This script is an all-timer, the type of document that should be (and I would assume is) studied academically as an art form in its own right.
I can find little to no flaws in The Apartment. It is possible that once the film turns from out and out farce into more of a core relationship film that it might falter just a tad, but the script sets up their relationship so well and so unconventionally (it lovingly refuses to give in to the storybook ending), and Lemmon and MacLaine are so good at playing their parts that to me the momentum never falters (take, for example, the way MacLaine mimes the number three the same way Lemmon does after she sees him do it earlier; it’s the little things). This is the total package. The loving art direction and the understated camera work serve to give the light comedy a slight noir tinge, which works its way to the fore when things don’t go right for Baxter.
To me, The Apartment deserves to be spoken of in the same hushed, reverent tones that are reserved for Citizen Kane or Vertigo or Gone with the Wind. It is an indisputable true classic of the art form, and one of the most enjoyable movies ever put to celluloid. An absolute, unqualified delight.