The Apartment
Reviewed in 1998
Director: Billy Wilder. Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen, Edie Adams, Ray Walston, David Lewis, David White, Joan Shawlee. Screenplay: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.

Photo © 1960 The Mirisch Corporation/United Artists
The Apartment is about as poisonous and black-hearted as major-studio comedies have ever been, and yet its status as a "comedy" has rarely if ever been challenged. The film's material is so dark that suicide, or the illusion of it, is the terrain of more than a few gags and wit-snappings. And we're not talking about Leslie Nielsen-type pratfalls off of ledges; we're talking a character barely who, in the throes of a worthless lover's rejection, consumes a half-bottle of sleeping pills and is barely revived by a doctor who lives next door.

It is tempting to laud Wilder's film (and the script he co-wrote with frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) for the mere fact of its own audacity, especially since the honchoes at a modern-day studio would probably only touch the film if at least four or five scenes were entirely re-written and sweetened up. Even in his own day, studios and critics often shrunk away from the scabrous humor and bleak cynicism of the now-canonical Wilder, as when an L.A. newspaper famously wrote in its review of Sunset Boulevard that the auteur should be "tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood." Darkness and sardonicism like Wilder's have never been fashionable, and yet he never appeared to shy away from stories or scenarios that other filmmakers, particularly those known for comic abilities, rarely chose to examine.

Despite its admirable unconventionality, however, and beyond a few winning performances and choice exchanges of dialogue, there is something ugly and off-putting happening in The Apartment from almost its opening frame that makes the picture surprisingly unappealing. The film centers around C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), one of the nearly 31,000 employees at an insurance company called Consolidated Life; C.C., usually called "Bud" with varying degrees of condescension by his co-workers, actually provides the precise number of people on the payroll at Consolidated Life. The company is such a behemoth that the hours of workers' shifts and their freedom to enter and exit the building must be carefully regulated so as not to overburden the elevators. Whenever possible, C.C. squeezes into the elevator operated by Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a pixie-faced charmer who appreciates C.C.'s politeness and kind conversation almost as much as he appreciates her girlish dimples and casual attractiveness. We hardly doubt that C.C., though a bit nebbishy, would go ahead and ask Fran over for dinner some night...except that he has no idea if he can get a reservation at his own table.

Lemmon, you see, has been lending out his apartment to various suits around the office so they can conduct their extramarital dalliances without their respective Missuses ever being the wiser. In any event, these arrangements often require Lemmon to work two or three overtime hours each day before he can come home to an empty, available apartment. Not infrequently, we find him hunched over on the sidewalk next to his stoop waiting for one of his colleagues to exit with an invariably voluptuous, invariably insipid evening companion.

As new complications are introduced into this already cumbersome arrangement, we see clearly that C.C.'s advancement through the ranks of the company—literally mapped out, it seems, so that the higher the floor your office is on, the more authority you possess—is entirely contingent on his willingness to enable the liaisons of more and more levels of colleagues and superiors. We are not, however, sure if his ascendancy to Floor 19, where he resides when the picture begins, was itself facilitated through these means, especially since the data processing job he holds down seems fairly entry-level—not, in any event, the kind of "reward post" one expects to receive through such an ornate regime of self-sacrifice and favor-lending. It is not difficult to argue that such concerns are beside the point of this story, since the germane fact of C.C.'s predicament is that he is now so embroiled in his provider role that he can perceive no escape. The time when C.C.'s apartment belonged to him alone is a memory so distant the film doesn't even bother with it. This approach has a price, which is that C.C.'s predicament is never very credible as anything but the scenario of a slightly labored office farce. We invest little in this situation and even less in C.C. himself, for whom it is hard to feel sympathy or affection. His primary incentive for continuing to offer this irksome service is the prospect of promotion at a company he hardly cares for, facilitated by sleazy superiors he doesn't really like. Sure, there's a point being made here about how quickly capitalist drones can be (and are) seduced into inglorious compromise with only the most ill-gotten gains as reward—but the bitter logic of the script still doesn't ingratiate us to the character, possibly too because Lemmon plays him at the fult tilt of his hammiest comic impulses, with such dazzlingly overwrought mannerisms that we'd happily let C.C. be locked out of his apartment forever if that meant we wouldn't have to spend any more time with him. The role is jerry-rigged for audience sympathy but the script and the actor are so shrill that our patience is tested and our compassion revoked.

Meanwhile, Wilder is off sullying the image of everyone else around. A premier within the company played by Fred MacMurray (consistently as nasty for Wilder as he was oafish and naive for everyone else) is an irredeemable lout. A secretary played by Edie Adams provides characters with secretive and, in plot terms, important information, but she does so in such coarse, grating fashion that we almost wish she'd just keep it to herself. Even MacLaine, who contributes an utterly charming and intoxicatingly sweet performance, is suddenly shown to be more compromised and self-punishing than we ever expected. The only characters who don't seem beholden to Wilder's project of exposing human failings and frailties are Lemmon's neighbors (Joan Shawlee and Oscar-nominated Jack Kruschen), who patiently endure the steady comings and goings in Lemmon's apartment, as well as the record-playing and carnal sound effects they receive through the walls.

In short, The Apartment's characters are almost uniformly distasteful, their behavior frequently inconsistent, and the film itself morbid and bitter at least as often as it is engaging and chuckle-worthy. One cannot escape the feeling of how much Billy Wilder looks down on these characters, but unlike other directors who are accused of hating their own creations, Wilder doesn't provide himself with much of an excuse for feeling so acrimonious. Robert Altman's Short Cuts, for example, was attacked in some quarters for its seeming misanthropy, but Altman set his characters, even the least appealing, in a context of uniquely contemporary predicaments—breakdowns of family, sexual conflict, problems of communication and technology, the arid and even infested terrain of Southern California, where even anti-toxins are toxic—that comprised a critique of a whole culture.

The Apartment, by contrast, is governed by a contrived scenario that bears little relation to any real-life predicament. The interpretation of the film that makes the most sense is that corporate culture is invidious and impoverishing, tainting everyone involved with a measure of moral compromise. Modern office politics may deserve such a harsh statement, but the image of the work universe that Wilder provides in The Apartment is too fuzzy in its details to support such a weighty accusation. Moreover, when Wilder has wielded his razor-sharp pen against other problematic modern conventions or communities—as in Some Like It Hot, a premier comedy of gender confusion, or Sunset Boulevard, a scathing account of how the Hollywood community annihilates its people in creating its products—he has leavened his frowning judgments with either enough humor or enough surreal atmosphere to cushion the blow. The Apartment's punches, however, land with dull thuds, and aside from the delicate charm in MacLaine's work, the film does not contain enough moments of lightness or delicacy to counter-balance all the pugilism of its satire. Entire chapters of The Apartment pass that only seem comedic because Lemmon insists on playing them that way, which means that this gifted actor frequently indulges his own latent tendencies toward hammy fussiness.

Most of the comedy and conflict in this picture, from the cold C.C. contracts while waiting for his "guests" to leave his apartment to the unbridled virility he feigns as an explanation for the traffic of women through his door, could all be avoided by the simple act of C.C.'s withdrawal from the system. It's all rather arbitrary, and raises a whole set of questions the film doesn't even wish to entertain. Again, Wilder could be suggesting that work is a necessary evil from which modern men and women cannot merely extricate themselves, but under those auspices the film's conclusion seems false and poorly designed. As it is, the film concludes with a nicely tentative scene that suggests a further romantic connection between Lemmon and MacLaine without assuring us that the couple will develop a long-lasting or full-fledged relationship. In these final moments, The Apartment finally discovers the benefits of subtle gestures, but we cannot take real pleasure in the romantic possibilities because MacLaine and Lemmon are by then so damaged by all they have been through.

The Apartment is the kind of unsuccessful picture that nevertheless demonstrates that everyone involved is capable of better work. The film and its performances contain more than a few laudable moments, but the overall message of the film and the premise on which it is based seem simultaneously too nebulous and too relentlessly dark to score with the audience. The film might well be saying something, but it offers us too few ancillary pleasures to persuade us we should bother figuring it out. I love films that follow their own unique paths, but sometimes even the road less traveled proves to be a road to nowhere. C


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Billy Wilder
Best Actress: Shirley MacLaine
Best Actor: Jack Lemmon
Best Supporting Actor: Jack Kruschen
Best Original Screenplay: Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Best Cinematography (Black & White): Joseph LaShelle
Best Art Direction (Black & White): Alexandre Trauner & Edward G. Boyle
Best Film Editing: Daniel Mandell
Best Sound: Gordon Sawyer

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Director: Billy Wilder
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Shirley MacLaine
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Jack Lemmon

Other Awards:
Venice Film Festival: Best Actress (MacLaine)
Directors Guild of America: Best Director
Writers Guild of America: Best Written American Comedy
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Picture (tie with Sons and Lovers); Best Director (tie); Best Screenplay
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Picture; Best Foreign Actress (MacLaine); Best Foreign Actor (Lemmon)

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