The Apartment (1960), directed by Billy Wilder, follows the lovable yet lonesome C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) who works at a bustling New York insurance company hoping to climb the corporate ladder. Baxter is coerced by a group of upper managers to lend out his apartment for extramarital affairs in return for a glowing recommendation to personnel manager, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
Gossip surrounding this mysterious apartment reaches Sheldrake, who offers Baxter a promotion in return for access to his apartment. Baxter agrees but is dismayed as he realizes that the elevator operator he is in love with, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), is having the affair with Sheldrake. Sheldrake’s poor treatment of Kubelik and Baxter’s fondness for her results in dramatic actions taken by Kubelik and Baxter.
The mixture of cynicism and comedy is what I think makes this film so noteworthy. Fran’s weary outlook on life is in stark contrast with Baxter’s comedic outlook. After a particularly harrowing ordeal where Kubelik questions her will to continue living, Baxter attempts to break the tension. He sings overdramatic opera while preparing dinner for her and strains spaghetti with a tennis racket to lighten the mood. The constant shift of serious moments with lighthearted scenes makes The Apartment an adventure worth watching.
The chemistry between Kubelik and Baxter is my favourite aspect of the film. At their first encounter, Baxter awkwardly attempts to flirt with Kubelik in the elevator. MacLaine’s ability to play off Lemmon’s advances so swiftly is an ingenious performance. A majority of the film is set in Baxter’s apartment with just these two characters. It’s gripping to watch their admiration for each other unfold, even if it’s just them playing an endless card game.
The production design of the film is also what makes it so captivating. There are long shots of Baxter’s office building with infinite rows of employees typing away on their identical typewriters. This is later transformed for the wild holiday office party where people dance on their desks and let loose from their monotonous life. Baxter’s small apartment is also on full display as a lived-in home. When he is running around his apartment, every aspect of it is shown and the audience gets a great sense of the layout and Baxter’s personality. The culture and design of the emerging 1960s is apparent and interesting for audiences to absorb decades later.
Winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1960, The Apartment is a heartwarming and dramatic story about breaking through the perils of mundane life and finding happiness.