What is The Apartment? Is it a comedy, a tragedy, a romance, a satire, or a commentary? Well, under the versatile direction of Billy Wilder- it is all of the above. Wilder is my favorite director as his films, no matter what the subject matter, are touching and come from someone with such a distinct voice (Martin Scorsese would rank as my favorite active director for very much the same reasons). The Apartment remains important to me as I've yet to see any other movie like it. In fact, I can't think of a film that came before or after that has a story so uniquely presented.
The story is that of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a man who is climbing the corporate ladder at his job at an insurance company by renting out his apartment in New York City to his bosses so they can have a convenient place to take a lady to now and again. Baxter hits the jackpot when the head of the company, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) wishes to keep promoting Baxter if he would give him the keys for a lady who he claims to be important to his heart. Perhaps this promotion will even give Baxter enough nerve to ask out the beautiful elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).
The performances of this film are impeccable. Looking at Lemmon's films chronologically, his films before The Apartment that I've seen would have me only view him as a fine comic actor. Yet the role of Baxter requires him to be goofy one moment and depressing the next. Lemmon delivers a performance that is so versatile and expressive that this ranks as my favorite performance by him (right above such other multi-faceted, but ultimately tragic characters like Ed Horman in Missing or Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross). His co-stars, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray also do a great job of embodying what they need to be for this movie to work. That is what I love about older film stars, you go around and hear how iconic they are and then those expectations are fully realized when you experience their work. I felt that way about MacLaine in Terms of Endearment and MacMurray in Double Indemnity and that same exact feeling is repeated again with Wilder's film.
I find all of that surprising as none of the characters are all that likable as your typical American audience member might be used to (I'd imagine even more so in 1960). I mean, the male protagonist is practically a pimp and the female is suicidal... but they are played with such charm, something that Wilder excelled at throwing into all of his films. His plot and the visuals contain so much detail and the script is so superb that everything in the story leads to something else and then there is a call back to it later in the film. For example, the scene where Sheldrake first meets Baxter has so much going on in it that I'd imagine that the master of comedies with romantic touches, Ernst Lubitsch, would be quite proud of his previous collaborator. And to just touch on the visual for a second, I love how Wilder never really used close-ups in his films as much as others do. The scenery by Alexander Trauner (who amazed me with his work on Children of Paradise) has created such a dynamic environment that you can admire especially, since whether it be the office or the apartment, the sets are like characters of their own in this story.
There are so many themes and characterizations that this film may be the most complex movie that I've ever seen that can be enjoyed on even the most basic levels that one views it at (whether it be for pure entertainment or food-for-thought). When Kevin Spacey accepted his Oscar for American Beauty, he said that he was inspired by Jack Lemmon's work in The Apartment and rightfully so. Baxter is nice, but gullible- but don't worry, his morals see him through this rough patch at the end of the day. After all, he is a human being or as Dr. Dreyfuss tells him- "Be a mensch!"