Coming just a year after Billy Wilder’s smash hit Some Like it Hot, the writer/director produced The Apartment, a stunning film which was nominated for ten Oscars and went on to win five, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. All three of those awards are well and truly justified (although the movie beat a personal favourite Psycho to a couple) and the movie is a magnificent triumph of comedy, drama and romance.
A young and lonely office worked called C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is persuaded to let senior colleagues use his apartment in the evenings to entertain young women. This often leaves Baxter alone at work or left outside in the cold streets. When his boss (Fred MacMurray) finds out he too gains access to the apartment with the promise of a big promotion if Baxter plays it smart. Eager to please, Baxter does as he is asked but begins to get second thoughts when he discovers that one of his boss’ girls is elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) whom Baxter is secretly in love with.
The Apartment features one of the best screenplays I’ve ever seen and just this evening I read that it was named the 15th best in history by the Writers Guild of America, beating the likes of Pulp Fiction and It’s a Wonderful Life. The script is just brilliant and combines great humour with touching romance and poignant drama. The characters are beautifully written and the plot develops slowly and gradually, at a perfect pace to swoop you along with it. Because of the constant noise of a sexual nature coming from his apartment, Baxter’s neighbours take him for a ladies man and he gets a reputation. This is only emphasised in a fantastic scene in which Baxter does finally get his own woman back to his place only to find another woman already inside having overdosed on sleeping tablets. The look on his neighbour and doctor’s face when he walks into the circus is priceless and the next morning a third woman is seen knocking at the door which adds to the joke further.
The comedy isn’t always laugh out loud funny and occasionally it’s a little dated but I had a smile on my face from start to finish except for brief moments when I audibly awww’ed. The film builds and builds and each time something happens, Baxter is trounced upon, further cementing his role as the hero. The dramatic side to the plot kicks up a gear at the mid point with the overdose. This though gives Baxter the chance to play the hero and he steps up to meet his destiny. The romantic elements are present throughout the movie and are up there with the best I’ve seen. When you compare the romance, comedy and drama to the average modern romantic comedy/drama it makes you realise just how poor its modern day equivalents are. I’m looking at you The Vow.
Occasionally I found myself shocked by the adulterous nature of the film. By today’s standards it is very tame but for 1960 I can imagine that the subject matter was more than a little scandalous. 1960 feels like a watershed moment for American cinema though with the likes of The Apartment, Elmer Gantry’s alcoholism and con man themes and Psycho’s horror, transvestism and incest. Perhaps 1960 could be considered the year when the Hays Code was put to bed? The Code had definitely lost its power by the late 1950s. One of the reasons the movie may feel shocking is because it was filmed in black and white. This ages the film more than perhaps it deserves and The Apartment was actually the final film of the black and white era to win Best Picture at the Oscars and the last for over thirty years before Schindler’s List won in 1994. Although The Apartment is certainly an old film, it was produced at the same time at which Mad Men is set and the two share many ideas themes and even design ideas.
Jack Lemmon is fantastic as C.C. Baxter and hits all the comedic and dramatic notes full on. His performance reminded me a little of Richard Kind who must surely have been influenced by Lemon. There are also shades of Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham from American Beauty and Spacey actually referenced Lemmon in his Oscar acceptance speech. Lemmon is simply sublime all the way through and maintains a dignity to his performance despite being used and abused by those around him. Shirley MacClaine is equally excellent and has a cheekiness about her character. She is quite coy and aloof which adds to her appeal and manages to maintain her classiness despite her situation. A scene in which she is given $100 was one of my favourite and perfectly summed up her character and situation. Fred MacMurray was also very good and not always the slime ball he actually was meant to be. This added complexity to his character and relationship with Fran.
The Apartment is an absolutely superb film and a classic in every sense of the word. It is funny, sweet, dramatic and kind hearted and features many ideas and themes which are still relevant today. The screenplay is simply superb and easily one of the best I’ve seen while the leads bring it all together to complete a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable movie.
- The original idea for the film came in the 1940s but Wilder shelved it as he knew it would never get passed the Hays Code.
- The nasal spray Lemmon uses was actually milk. Real nasal spray wouldn't have shown up on film.
- Paul Douglas was cast as Sheldrake but died before filming began.