The Apartment: Executive Privilege

MOVIE-WISE, THERE HAS NEVER BEEN ANYTHING LIKE “THE APARTMENT” –LAUGH-WISE, LOVE-WISE, OR OTHERWISE-WISE!

theapartmentWhen Billy Wilder saw Brief Encounter (1945), where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard have their rendezvous in an apartment belonging to a friend of Howard’s character, the director started thinking about who that person might be. Not the ones who take part in a dizzying love affair, but the poor sucker whose only job is to provide them with a place. Wilder reunited with his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond and star Jack Lemmon right after making the marvelous Some Like It Hot (1959) and struck gold once again. For fans of the iconic last film, there’s even a funny gag involving Ray Walston and a Marilyn Monroe lookalike.

C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) works for a big insurance firm in New York City, hoping to climb the corporate ladder by loaning his apartment on a regular basis to four executives who use it for their extramarital affairs. The arrangement is far from perfect for C.C. who keeps hearing complaints from neighbors and struggles to make the schedule work. Eventually, he’s approached by Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the personnel director, who tells him that he needs to get in on this deal too. Exhausted, C.C. agrees to it – but he doesn’t know that the woman Sheldrake intends to take to his apartment is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator at the firm, whom C.C. is attracted to.

Grim portrait of male chauvinism
Wilder’s last truly great film is a dark comedy that paints a grim portrait of male chauvinism in corporate America. The office landscape is dominated primarily by greedy men who feel that it is their God-given right to bed anything remotely female. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle and art director Alexandre Trauner collaborated to make the office look as imposing in all its drabness as possible; forced perspective was used to make the set look bigger and deeper. Trauner also furnished Baxter’s apartment to look small and cheap, but I’m sure a lot of people would nevertheless kill to own that place today. New York City is portrayed as a pretty depressing place full of lonelyhearts, but Wilder and Diamond emphasize humor and cynicism in equal parts and balance it skillfully. The film has sometimes been described as a cynical masterpiece, but it isn’t really. That’s only a sentiment that Wilder is depicting; humanism is front and center, represented by Lemmon and MacLaine’s characters. They are both being taken advantage of and agree to the humiliation because they dream something better might come out of it; they are two decent human beings in a world full of scum. Their last scene together has become a classic, including MacLaine’s last line… and the dialogue is one reason why this film remains so much fun throughout. It is delivered with great finesse by the cast, especially Lemmon who gives one of his finest performances, subtly but still very physically combining comedy and tragedy, especially in that scene where C.C. is sick as a dog at the office and still trying to patch up his pathetic schedule. MacLaine is very sweet as the elevator girl with a dark streak, and it’s amusing to see MacMurray as an amoral shit at a time when he was better known as a wholesome Disney symbol.

It may be hard to imagine now, but Wilder and his collaborators were seen by some people at the time as a threat to moral decency. Having men run around dressed up as women in Some Like It Hot, then portraying adultery in this film. A cop falling for a prostitute in Irma la Douce (1963), and then there was more “smut” in Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). But something much more important was at the core of it – a genuine eye for comedy, and a big heart.

The Apartment 1960-U.S. 125 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond. Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle. Editing: Daniel Mandell. Art Direction: Alexandre Trauner. Cast: Jack Lemmon (C.C. Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (Jeff Sheldrake), Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, Edie Adams.

Trivia: Paul Douglas, who was originally cast as Sheldrake, died suddenly of a heart attack and was replaced by MacMurray. Later turned into a Broadway musical, “Promises, Promises”.

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay, Film Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy), Actor (Lemmon), Actress (MacLaine). BAFTA: Best Film, Foreign Actor (Lemmon), Foreign Actress (MacLaine). 

Quote: “When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.” (MacLaine)

Last word: “We started filming ‘The Apartment’ with twenty-nine pages of script and Jack Lemmon and I had no idea how the film would end and neither did Billy Wilder, the director. So he just watched our relationship to see how the chemistry would evolve. Everything was evolving. At the time I was hanging with Frank and Dean, learning how to play gin Rummy. (That’s why the gin game is in the apartment.) Billy Wilder was such a fabulous writer/director that the studio just financed the film without knowing what he would do, but they did know his reputation of creating great films and the studios knew their investment was secure. Billy could do a film on the phone book and studios and actors would stand in line to be part of the project.” (MacLaine, ShirleyMacLaine.com)

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