Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
If there is such a thing as a perfect film, The Apartment strikes awfully close to the mark. Full of quiet comedy and a streak of pathos so deep that it seems to become sadder the more I think about it, The Apartment is utterly lovely from open to finish. It certainly helps that when I think about “my type” of film, The Apartment fits the bill almost to the tee. I have always preferred what I call “small films,” films that have a story that only concerns a handful of people in a limited number of locations dealing with regular, ordinary, everyday problems. And while the central conceit of The Apartment is played for ludicrous satire, it is so gloriously small in its scope that I love it more and more each time I see it. This is my kind of movie.
C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) works in insurance in a big, generic corporation in Manhattan. He often works late, not because he’s driven but because four of his bosses regularly use his apartment in the west sixties as a trysting place for their extramarital affairs. Baxter trades his apartment for promotions at work, leading him to ultimately come up before big boss Sheldrake (MacMurray) who has heard about Baxter’s place through the grapevine. Sheldrake wants to use the apartment as well to continue his affair with cute and perky elevator girl Fran Kubelik (MacLaine). Thing is, though, that Baxter, has fallen hard for Fran, not knowing she is Sheldrake’s lover. Fran, for her part, is too hung up on the married guy she knows is no good to pay any notice to Baxter’s earnest attentions. Things come to a head when Fran is dumped in Baxter’s apartment.
While there’s certainly more to this film than C.C. Baxter as played by Jack Lemmon, it can be hard for me to see it. This central character and this brilliant performance completely make the film for me. This is my personal favorite Jack Lemmon performance because it strikes such a fine balance between comedy and tragedy. Lemmon makes me laugh as he watches his typewriter at his desk, nodding his head along with its rhythm. About an hour later, he breaks my heart as he frantically paces his apartment after finding a comatose Fran lying in his bed. Neither is played too extreme; Lemmon, definitely known for his hammy comedic talents (and I mean that in the best possible way) never lets his hamminess completely take over the lighthearted scenes. The opposite is true as well; when the tenor turns more somber, he never dreams of ranting and raving and throwing things around to express his angst. Instead, it’s all done so perfectly quietly in his face where I can read the depth of sadness and worry he is feeling. Lemmon makes my heart ache in this film. He is utterly sublime.
But Lemmon would not be as amazing as he is were it not for the creation of the story itself, and that credit goes to Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond. Lemmon’s perfect blend of funny and heart-wrenching pain comes directly from a story that makes it abundantly clear from the get-go that no one is above reproach. No heroes, no villains, just regular people making bad choices. Sheldrake is perhaps the clearest-cut villain from the cast of characters, but even he seems less dastardly and more simply an arrogant man used to getting his way. There are even moments where I feel sympathy for him (albeit not many). And Baxter? I suppose he is the de facto hero, but what I adore about this story is that really, he is not. Is Baxter a good person? Well, that depends. At first glance, yes, you see his earnest interest in Fran and you think, wow, what a nice guy. You see him throw away what other people think of him in order to take the blame himself rather than incriminate others, and his self-sacrifice seems positively noble. Indeed, that self-sacrifice is another component of Lemmon’s performance as Baxter that utterly breaks my heart. But then back it up: Baxter trades his apartment, where he lives, for its use for sexual favors, all in order to climb the corporate ladder. He has sold more than a bit of his soul, making seedy bargains to work his way to that elusive corner office. From the very beginning, I yearn for Baxter to finally say “No” to his demanding bosses, his bosses who kick him out on the street at 2am because they met a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (lovely little in-joke from Wilder there), but he can’t. He doesn’t have the necessary spine to get himself out of the web he’s woven for himself and so simply keeps surrendering to the lewd demands of others. Baxter, a hero? Hardly. I think he is a good man, but deeply flawed, and he must learn to overcome it in some small way.
Opposite Baxter is MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik, another brilliantly written character. Fran is believably stuck in a toxic relationship that she desperately wants to end yet cannot. I love that Fran knows in her head that she needs to end the affair with Mr. Sheldrake. Fran knows this, she says it over and over again. And yet, her heart won’t let her. She is in love with him despite desperately not wanting to be. This makes her sad and frustrated and everything comes to a head. This sort of situation, of knowing that you SHOULDN’T be in a certain relationship, yet not being able to actually cut and run, this is a difficult situation to believably portray, but I believe it completely in The Apartment. MacLaine is fantastic and helps me believe that Fran knows better yet can’t find the strength to walk away. So our two main characters, those we feel should be our heroes, both can’t seem to find the strength to end the morally reprehensible situations they find themselves stuck in.
It is the utter ordinariness of the film that I love as well. The Apartment is rife with ordinary, everyday touches that make me love it even more. I love Baxter’s drab little apartment that only grows seedier as the film continues. I love him unceremoniously lighting the oven and preparing a foil-wrapped TV dinner. I love him drinking the leftover cocktails from the party as his place. I love the electric blanket he has to plug in. I love the simple feast of spaghetti and meatballs he prepares, complete with grated Parmesan from a jar. I love Fran’s taxi driver of a brother-in-law. I love her broken compact mirror. There is no attempt to glamorize the sets in The Apartment, and I love that. I mean, I really love that. So gloriously, perfectly ordinary, lumps and all.
There is so much more to The Apartment; the fantastic set design, the gorgeous cinematography, the witty banter, script-wise, and the rampant social commentary running through the film. All this is great and important, but that’s not why I love The Apartment. I love it because of its characters, because of their brokenness, because of Jack Lemmon, because of the perfect tiny details, and because it breaks my heart and makes me laugh at the exact same time. And it’s aged extraordinarily well. I recently put this on while my parents were visiting, and my mother watched it in spite of herself. Still engrossing, still wonderful, still relevant, still real.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10, ratings-wise.