In Billy Wilder’s Academy Award-magnet, “The Apartment,” winner of Best Picture, Director, Editor, Screenplay and Art Direction, there’s an unforgettable moment about halfway through that perfectly pays off everything that came before and beautifully sets up the unexpected to come.
The Mighty Jack Lemmon is C.C. Baxter, a worker-drone in the Kafkaesque office located on the 17th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper that’s home base for the insurance company Baxter works for and is desperate to get ahead in. With thousands of employees competing for a very few executive positions, Baxter decides to stand out by joining the good-ole-boys club. The awful men who can help to promote Baxter are a gaggle of adulterers in need of a place for their trysts. Believing the inconvenience is worth the eventual payoff, Baxter lends out the key to his bachelor pad a few nights a week.
As smitten as he is with the idea of becoming an executive, Baxter also has his head turned by one of the building’s many elevator operators, Fran Kubelik (a delightful Shirley MacLaine), who on the outside stands out as a confident, composed, and charming young woman who has it all together. The opposite, unfortunately, is true, but by the time Baxter figures this out he’s already in love with her.
The key to Baxter’s executive dreams is held by the company’s powerful personnel director, Jeff Sheldrake (a superb Fred MacMurray), and Baxter’s cynical plans all appear to come together when Sheldrake agrees to his promotion… in exchange for the key to Baxter’s apartment. It seems the very-married Sheldrake is just another good ole boy, but that’s no skin off Baxter’s nose, until the perfect moment I mentioned above arrives.
You see, it’s Fran Kubelik Mr. Sheldrake is trysting with, and it’s at the company’s wild Christmas party (a clothed Roman orgy) where Fran finally learns she’s being used — that she’s not the first subordinate Sheldrake’s conned into bed with the promise of a future together. This is also where Baxter learns the truth about Fran.
At this point the story has all been fun and games, not unlike those delightful Doris Day sex comedies always based on comic misunderstandings. But it’s at this moment you know Wilder is about to steer two characters you’re already very much invested in into some very dark and murky waters — something Wilder does as expertly as any director ever has.
I absolutely ADORE Jack Lemmon, and because his marvelous career extended into the first three-quarters of my life, I mourn his loss like no other movie star (Paul Newman, for the same reason, is a close second). It’s a cliché and it’s repeated whenever one speaks of Lemmon, but he is an Everyman. The reason he is, though, is because Lemmon was a brilliant actor capable of plumbing the endless depths of his famous persona like only a real movie star can.
When we meet Baxter, he’s nothing but a pimp, a man enriching himself by providing the means for scumbags to cheat on their wives. It’s indefensible behavior, and what the movie’s really about is his moral awakening to this fact. Wilder puts Baxter through emotional hell and screams “see what you’re enabling!” at him. In one of the making-of extras, a number of film experts go on and on about how Wilder pushed the boundaries of the Production Code (as though removing the limits that make art art is some sort of virtue) with “The Apartment,” and yet they all seem to miss completely how, in a word, MORAL this story is.
Adultery and those who aid and abet it are either portrayed as the lowest scum on earth or are forced, like Fran and Baxter, to pay a breathtakingly high price for their role in it. That’s what “The Apartment” is about. It’s also about chivalry. The heart of the story comes from witnessing the terrible blame Baxter volunteers to take on in order to protect Fran’s honor.
MacLaine is a real standout here. My goodness, she’s fetching — pretty, sexy, funny, and smart. But the mindblower is MacMurray, who plays the sleaze of all sleazes. Paul Douglas was the director’s first choice, but the actor died before production began. I don’t mean to sound cold, but things did work out for the best. Wilder knew there was a dark side to MacMurray and had brought it out magnificently before in 1944’s “Double Indemnity.” 16 years later, the depravity of Sheldrake’s selfish indifference hits even harder coming from the kindly face of the MacMurray who would go one next to star in all those Disney films.
In high-def the black and white, widescreen photography is nothing short of stunning. The detail of the production design, especially Baxter’s apartment and the vast office we meet him in, is a feast for the eyes. The disc also includes two documentaries, one about the making of the film and another about The Mighty Jack Lemmon’s career and technique.
“The Apartment” is available at Target.com.