The Apartment is deeply rooted in the 1960s business world, an era that came back in view with Mad Men. But it also touched relevancy in the 90s, possibly inspiring David Fincher’s Fight Club with its opening narration.
As Mad Men makes clear, this is a chauvinistic world. It would be almost a decade before women’s lib brought a lesson or two. It’s hard not to cringe watching the men employed at the New York insurance agency where most of the film is set grabbing around at the spunky elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) knowing that the threat of a sexual harassment complaint wasn’t even in their mental lexicon.
But even in this bucket of rotten apples there is room for a well-meaning ordinary guy like Jack Lemmon. His C.C. Baxter became his best remembered performance because it is so purely the quintessential lonely guy. Everyone pushes him around and his bosses belittle him. In the 50s and 60s, moving up in the business world was linked to masculinity, and so meant the world to men. When we first meet him Baxter is at a moral crossroad, having to choose if his dignity means more to him than his career (a theme that would resurface in the 90s). Even his office, a drab place without cubicles or privacy, turns him into a chip in a machine.
Along with Psycho and Billy Wilder’s own Some Like it Hot from the previous year, The Apartment was instrumental in bringing the demise of the Production Code. After the success of Some Like it Hot, Wilder was eager to work with Lemmon again, but perhaps he should have waited a little for this one. It’s exciting to imagine the sexual-psychological depths Wilder could have explored with greater ease once the Code was crumbled and swept away completely. Still, The Apartment was groundbreaking in its sexual innuendo and in-your-face substance abuse. What he was able to make is a poignant movie that is both funny and sad in like Alexander Payne’s most wonderful work.
Baxter is not blameless. At the first point he cares mostly about his career. To advance he lends out the key to his apartment to philandering husbands who happen to be his work superiors. He tries too hard to be a people pleaser, but the encompassing theme of The Apartment is his transformation into a mensch. That such an ideological morph was even thought of as the crux of the film is a sign of the modern mentality present in the making of The Apartment. The situation initially allowed but later denounced by Baxter is intended to make us laugh as well as cringe.
Baxter is a man capable of sincere love and that is what he has for Miss Kubelik. She too is facing a moral conflict as the mistress of Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), Baxter’s boss. But she too will change and Wilder was perhaps the first director honest about the way women are hurt through affairs. Rarely, too, was a female character allotted so much wit and the trick is that we all fall in love with her. In her and Baxter we have two good people caught in situations they aren’t proud of. Pain is inevitable and we can almost see Baxter’s heartbreak when he discovers that Kubelik is Sheldrake’s mistress.
The Apartment was advertised as a comedy as a box-office ploy, but it’s truly a dark tale. It’s set during the holidays, but during Christmas a happy ending still seems far off. The holidays can be such a lonely time for some folks. Instead, Christmas comes with a suicide attempt by Miss Kubelik after she realizes she is being used by Sheldrake. This changes The Apartment into an intense tragedy. Few bait and switches work so well, but The Apartment is an exceptionally well-crafted film.
As skillful as Wilder must have been to pull this off, it would not have worked had his cast not been as versatile. Even the jerk Sheldrake has to change appearances to hide his activities. He can pose all too well as a devote father, but shows his true colors when he refuses to be there for Kubelik after her suicide attempt or to even speak to her.
Jack Lemmon is truly fantastic and delivers one of the most deserving Oscar nominations ever. It’s amazing how many emotions he conveys through Baxter. He can be goofy, but unselfishly caring. He may have tried too hard to kiss up and do things which weren’t right, but he grows the nerve to tell Sheldrake off. Through Lemmon’s dynamic rang, we see Baxter come full circle. First as a desperate ant in an office that seems ready to swallow him whole and ultimately as a mensch. More than just the happy ending, it is watching Baxter and Kubelik becoming the persons they want to be that makes The Apartment such a pleasing movie. Having come full circle, they can guiltlessly shut up and deal.