Movie Review: The Apartment (1960)

Laughs and love in the age of Mad Men ___ 9/10
Review by Brian Wright

Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
The ApartmentDirected by Billy Wilder

[first lines]
C.C. Baxter
: [narrating] On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company – Consolidated Life of New York. We’re one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees, which is more than the entire population of uhh… Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861.

Jack Lemon … C.C. Baxter
Shirley MacLaine
… Fran Kubelik
Fred MacMurray … Jeff D. Sheldrake
Ray Walston … Joe Dobisch
Jack Kruschen … Dr. Dreyfuss
David Lewis … Al Kirkeby
Hope Holiday … Mrs. Margie MacDougall
Joan Shawlee … Sylvia

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… also a fair amount of humor. The Apartment starts out in step with Mr. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), called Buddy Boy by his coworkers. He’s a good ol’ boy to these others for the simple reason that C.C. lends out his small New York apartment for an hour or two after work for a few days per week for ‘assignations.’ C.C. himself is not a ladies’ man, preferring the safety and comforting routine of his insurance job.

It’s quite a scene looking at the office where C.C. works. Reminds one of the pod fields in the movie The Matrix where the machines grow humans for use as batteries: C.C.’s work environment is desk after desk in a football-field-sized room with hundreds of men in dark suits, white shirts, and ties—answering phones, reading charts, performing calculations, all looking the same. Then on the periphery of the room lie supervisor offices, one resembling another. That 9-to-5 world could not be more different from the the independent free-market operation C.C. has going on the side. It’s a hassle but nets him a few bucks, plus the sights and sounds from his apartment are giving him a playboy reputation with the neighbors.

Another distinction from C.C.’s regular drone job, a bright mark in every day, comes from his banter with the cute elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) as he rises up to work. She’s single, he’s single, and each assumes the other is ‘playing the field.’ C.C. decides to make the first move, invites her out. Some complications, and I don’t want to reveal all the connections, suffice it to say that Big Boss Man Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) has a deal with Fran, too, in which the Apartment factors in.

The Academy in 1961 loved The Apartment. It was nominated for ten Oscars and won five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Story and Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Film Editing. Jack and Shirley were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively. (Burt Lancaster won for Elmer Gantry and Elizabeth Taylor won for Butterfield 8 that year.) How come it did so well? And should it have? Well, to answer the second question first, yes, it should have. So why should it have won, what makes it such a remarkably fine film (IMDb ranks it a stellar 8.4)?

Three reasons I see:

  1. The skillful blend of humor and pathos—mainly how the introductory apparent humor of the playboy lifestyle transforms itself later on into something quite somber when looked at through the eyes of the victims of its duplicity and faux charm; yet the writing is so competent to retain a lightness and benevolence throughout.
  2. The precocious exploration in art of sex and love in the time of Mad Men—yes, in a word, duplicit; the movie comes along just before the James Bond phenomenon on screen with Dr. No (1961) and From Russia with Love (1963) and the book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1962); the Sexual Revolution intersecting an emerging respect for Woman; I cannot think of a better movie than The Apartment for explaining the way it was in those days: the ignorance, the games, and the heady new potential of romantic love.
  3. The logical integrity and efficiency of the plot—at the movie’s completion, the person who watched it with me commented that the film was uniquely composed like a hand fitting a glove; all the elements working together in an architecture so smooth and complete, a magnificent building or a Beethoven symphony; as if some supreme intelligence from the future had come along to show what possibilities exist for the medium.

I realize the above points, particularly the latter, come off gushy, and I don’t mean to. I’ve felt the same perfection of melodious weaving (that I see in The Apartment) in a couple of my favorite movies: Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. What makes The Apartment stand out is that it occurred 25-30 years earlier. Also, the quality of the work is more grounded at a time when sexual morality, or morality in general, was considered worth an honest struggle: As the neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) advocates to C.C. (whom Dreyfuss thinks is an awful womanizer), “Be a mensch, Baxter.” Be a man, a human being. Be real. Do the right thing with people.

The irony is C.C. has always had a good heart and never means to hurt anyone. He lets out his place, yes, for a financial and job-advancement consideration, but also because for the most part—even if the men are often married and the women often being led on—he knows that consensual sex is good for people: better to have it going on here than in a disreputable flop house. C.C. has an innocence about him that prevents him from dwelling too long on long range consequences of some of the behavior, such as broken marriages or unwanted pregnancies. He’d rather think about his job and about finding a sweet girl like Fran.

It’s a quintessential Jack Lemmon role, and he negotiates it like a top Grand Prix driver at Monza. But the key character for this gem is Fran Kubelik, whose portrayal MacLaine hits out of the park. On the surface she’s bubbly and engaging, almost a carefree quality, but with glances and subtle body language Fran reveals not everything is picture perfect with the ultimate young city girl. Remember that back in the day, the objective of any ‘good’ girl was to find a good man, get married, and raise a family. Consequently, men of power, even married men of power, or men of the suggestion of power, could take advantage of—in the parlance of the day: have some laughs with—single girls who demurred at being wed and bed by Joe Slabotnik the high school sweetheart.

One of the best—deep while entertaining—movies of all time.

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