Film Review - The Apartment (1960)
This is a review of 'The Apartment', a romantic film comedy, an indictment of philandering hypocrisy, and a story of upbeat good humour in the face of loneliness.
'The Apartment' was the major Oscar winner of 1961, receiving the ultimate accolade of the Best Picture Oscar, and garnering several other awards including that of Best Director. There were also Oscar nominations for both leading actors. All of this should not be too much of a surprise when one considers the legendary Billy Wilder both wrote and directed this film, and the movie starred the hugely popular Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. 'The Apartment' was made in black and white, but it is a movie which has stood the test of time, remaining as fresh and as relevant today as it was when it first aired, for what it tells us about some of the least respectable character traits of some seemingly 'respectable' human beings.
Much of 'The Apartment' follows the predictable patterns of a romantic comedy, so it probably isn't necessary to include too much in the way of plot spoiler warnings. However, under 'FAVOURITE SCENES' the closing sequence of the movie will be in bold type, and will be labelled as a spoiler.
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WHAT’S THE STORY ?
C.C Baxter has been an employee of 'Consolidated Life' for the past three years and ten months. He works in a vast, impersonal office on the 19th floor of a skyscraper in New York City - a tower block which houses 31,258 other employees. His hours of work are 8.50 am to 5.20 am. C.C Baxter tells us most of this in a narration at the beginning of this film, because he likes statistics - he is an accountant.
At the end of the day, he often stays late in the office working on, not so much because he loves his job, but more because of the rather peculiar circumstances in which he lives, the apartment he rents, and the dubious manner in which that apartment gets used each evening.
Whilst C.C Baxter works on late at his desk, 'happily' married executives at 'Consolidated Life' are making use of his apartment as a safe house in which they can conduct their extra-marital affairs. And they all take advantage of C.C's good nature. They are inconsiderate towards him, just as they are inconsiderate to their wives. More and more, C.C has given in to their demands to the extent that now he regularly stands out on the streets in the cold or rain whilst they conduct their affairs, One time he is turfed out of his own bed by an executive with a need, falling asleep on a park bench on a cold and windy night. What C.C gets in return is enticements of possible promotion to keep him sweet. (He never actually seems to ask for this, but he does accept the promotion when it comes).
C.C's life is dull, though he is so upbeat about life, he scarcely seems to realise it. He works, he wanders the streets when he can't get into his apartment, he eats T.V dinners, and he sleeps. There's no girl in his life, but there's an elevator girl at 'Consolidated Life' whom he secretly admires. This is Fran Kubelik, and C.C would clearly like to know her better, but all his time is currently taken up with his work and the organising of his apartment schedule for the four executives who regularly use it.
Eventually, a fifth executive gets to hear about these dubious arrangements. Head of Personnel Mr Sheldrake summons C.C to his office. At first Baxter is worried he's in trouble, but the real reason he's been called soon becomes clear; Mr Sheldrake just wants the key to the apartment for his own adulterous affair. He offers C.C two tickets to a theatre performance to encourage him to get out of the apartment for an evening, and Baxter readily agrees. He figures he can use the two tickets to at last invite Miss Kubelik out on a date. But unbeknownst to him, the woman with whom Sheldrake is planning to spend the evening is none other than Miss Kubelik herself.
Sheldrake's been having an on-off affair with Fran Kubelik, and today he intends to entice her out with the 'news' that his marriage is over and he's filing for a divorce. It's a deceit, but Fran is lovestruck and wants to believe in him. Mr Sheldrake is lying to Fran, just as he lies to his wife. He treats them both disgracefully. And soon his treatment of Miss Kubelik leads to a downward spiral of despair for the elevator girl.
While Fran heads towards depression, C.C Baxter's compliance in Sheldrake's affair leads to the promotions he has been promised. He rises up the ladder of success, or in this case the skyscraper of success, first becoming 'Second Administrative Assistant' before moving up to the 27th floor and the post of 'Assistant Director' in an office adjacent to Mr Sheldrake's. He seems powerless to resist Mr Sheldrake's requests for the key to the apartment even when he finally learns that it is Fran who is being taken there. But then one night C.C Baxter heads back to his apartment after it's been used by Mr Sheldrake and Miss Kubelik, and he finds that Fran has taken an overdose .....
The real cost of C.C's complicity now hits him hard. It is time for him to consider changing his own habits. Does he continue to say 'yes' to anything his seniors ask of him, or does he take a moral stand now that he's witnessed at first hand the consequences of these executives' affairs and the effect they have had on someone dear to him?
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
CC (Bud) Baxter
Jeff D Sheldrake
FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR - Billy Wilder
WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :
- Billy Wilder, I.A.L Diamond
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1960
RUNNING TIME : 125 minutes
GENRE : Romantic Comedy
ACADEMY AWARDS :
- Billy Wilder (Best Picture)
- Billy Wilder (Best Director)
- Billy Wilder, I.A.L Diamond (Best Writers)
- Alexandre Trauner, Edward G Boyle (Best Art Direction, Set Design - Black and White)
- Daniel Mandell (Best Film Editing)
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
- Jack Lemmon (Best Actor)
- Shirley MacLaine (Best Actress)
- Jack Kruschen (Best Actor in a Supporting Role)
- Also nominations for Best Sound, and for Best Cinematography (Black and White)
KEY CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCES
C.C Baxter or Calvin Clifford Baxter to give him his full name, is a young bachelor living alone in his rather run down second floor apartment. He has a neighbour, Dr Dreyfuss, and he has a nagging landlady, and apart from his work, that is just about all there is to life. He is at one point described as 'loyal, resourceful and cooperative' and that sums up his character. His upbeat personality is irrepressible, and makes him a person you cannot dislike despite the purposes for which he allows his apartment to be used. He's an innocent. Although he gains promotion through his acquiescence, we never see him actually asking for this. The real reason he allows his apartment to be used is because he just can't say 'no' to anyone who uses him and abuses his good nature. It's a perfect role for the light gentle comedy at which Jack Lemmon was so good. For this performance he received an Oscar nomination in 1961.
Shirley MacLaine plays Fran Kubelik, and gives a first rate performance. Even in the early stages of the film before she receives a rejection from Sheldrake which makes her feel suicidal, she manages to convey that all is not right with her life. Although Fran smiles sweetly at all the passengers in her elevator, and there's not a huge amount of emotion on show, one can nonetheless sense a loneliness about this woman. Later, she is forced to confront the reality of a one-sided relationship, and she plays the role of a depressed soul with sensitivity. Within the constraints of what is, and always remains, a romantic comedy, this is a touching performance of vulnerability for which she also received an Oscar nomination.
Fred MacMurray is Jeff Sheldrake - Mr Sheldrake to CC Baxter. He's not evil, but he's selfish, inconsiderate, and hypocritical. As long as he gets what he wants, he's happy, but he never gives a thought to who may be hurt along the way, and he doesn't understand why they may be hurt. His obliviousness to his own selfishness is staggering. He's a rat.
One should also mention Jack Kruschen, who plays Dr Dreyfuss, for which role he received the third acting Oscar nomination in this movie. The long suffering Dr Dreyfuss and his wife are C.C's next door neighbours. The doctor seems to like C.C's affable nature, but unfortunately is gaining very much the wrong impression of his lifestyle. Almost every night he hears party-like goings on in the rooms next door, and regularly sees women - different women - coming and going. He's not to know that these women doing the comings and goings are visiting other men, not C.C Baxter. Dreyfuss's role is to show how despite the detrimental effects on his own reputation, C.C Baxter does his best to preserve the reputations of the men who borrow the apartment, and most of all to preserve the reputation of Fran.
In the apartment Fran Kubelik gives a Christmas present to Mr Sheldrake, a record album with a personal touch, recorded by the band at the club where they used to meet. In return, he gives her a $100 note. No thought. No tenderness. Just the implication which Fran latches on to, but which goes way over Sheldrake's head, that he is effectively paying Miss Kubelik for her services.
The aftermath of this moment, is the suicide attempt, and the interplay between C.C and Fran in Baxter's apartment. We see all the sadness of Fran, the cruelty of the 'other woman' situation in which she finds herself, and the kindness of C.C as he begins at last to appreciate just one of the real costs of letting out the apartment.
(Plot Spoiler) The closing sequence features festivities at the New Year Eve celebrations. Mr Sheldrake - puzzled as ever by normal human sensitivities and amoral to the end - inadvertently reveals to Fran that C.C Baxter has effectively just thrown away his job and promotion rather than let out his apartment one more time for Fran to be taken advantage of. And Fran realises the truth that C.C is the only genuine person she knows. The music here on New Year's Eve is for the first time upbeat and optimistic. It is Auld Lang Syne. But Fran at last knows who she should be with to see in the New Year. A broad and happy smile spreads across her face - the most beautiful moment in the film. Then, for the first time it is she who abandons Mr Sheldrake, as she rushes off to the man she knows she should be spending her life with. Music, acting and sentiment all come together to make this one of the great closing sequences in the history of the movies.
The script sets this movie apart, and is at its best when exposing the utter hypocrisy and the insensitivity of the executives in C.C Baxter's office block. The quotes here illustrate how Fran Kubelik and Mr Sheldrake contrastingly view these behavioural and character flaws. Fran reveals to Sheldrake the feelings of a woman who desperately wants to believe in Mr Sheldrake's true love, but who knows that the reality is not so wonderful:
- 'For a while there, you try kidding yourself that you're going with an unmarried man. Then one day he keeps looking at his watch and asking you if there's any lipstick showing, then rushes out to catch the 7.14 to White Plains. [Sheldrake's home] So you fix yourself a cup of instant coffee, and you sit there by yourself, and you think, ... and it all begins to look so ... ugly.'
Mr Sheldrake in contrast is completely oblivious to his own hypocrisy. Where he is being unfair and cruel and inconsiderate, he only sees the same traits in others he is mistreating. Even when his unfairness is pointed out to him, he is blind to it. On one occasion Mr Sheldrake describes his fellow cheating executives as 'rotten apples'. When C.C obliquely and unintentionally implies that Sheldrake himself is a rotten apple, it goes right over his head. On another occasion, he complains to C.C about Fran's 'unfairness', and again he fails to comprehend C.C's critical response:
- 'You know you see a girl every week just for laughs and right away they think you're gonna divorce your wife. Now I ask you, is that fair?
- ' No sir, it's very unfair. Especially to your wife.'
Whilst recovering from her overdose, Fran confides to C.C about Sheldrake:
- 'He's a taker. Some people take, some people get took. And they know they're gettin' took, and there's nothin' they can do about it.'
The words of a woman who is in love, but who knows the love is not reciprocated. It's not so easy however, to give up the feeling of love.
It's a little difficult perhaps to reconcile C.C Baxter's good nature with his abject acquiescence in the adulterous goings-on. Has he no thought for the part he is playing in what may lead to the possible break up of several marriages? It seems it just doesn't occur to him, but surely no one could be that innocent? Though he gains promotion through these favours, this doesn't appear to be the motivation. He never asks for anything. It seems he is a bit of a pushover, and his discomfort with the concept of saying 'no' and upsetting his colleagues, overrides any morality thoughts he might have.
We hear of Mr Sheldrake's insenitive approach to his relationships, and we see the effect upon Fran Kubelik the 'mistress'. We don't see much of Mrs Sheldrake or the Sheldrakes' children, the most important victims of his adultery. That's understandable in what is a romantic comedy, because there is no lighter side to their situation to explore, but some may feel it detracts from the more serious message of this movie that the saddest consequence of all receives such scant attention.
In his introductory speech C.C says he is known as 'Bud'. Although the senior executives sometimes call him 'Buddy-boy', nobody actually calls him Bud throughout the movie.
It is said that Billy Wilder had grown increasingly annoyed with the ill-discipline and unprofessional attitude of Marilyn Monroe when directing her in 'The Seven Yeatr Itch' and 'Some Like it Hot'. In this movie he included a drunk party-girl, described as being 'like Marilyn Monroe'.
Later however, Marilyn Monroe and Billy Wilder met up at a Hollywood party and Marilyn said how she wished she could have played the part of Fran Kubelik.
The well known song 'I'll Never Fall in Love Again' was taken from the Neil Simon musical 'Promises, Promises', which was an adaptation of the screenplay for 'The Apartment'.
This was the last black and white film to win the Best Picture Oscar until 'Schindler's List' (which has a few moments of colour) in 1993.
IF YOU WISH TO SEE THIS FILM OR RELATED FILMS ...
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WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT
What a clever film 'The Apartment' is. If one thinks about it, almost everybody's behaviour is pretty sordid, even if some of their intentions are not.
C C Baxter is letting out his home for adulterous sex, and Fran is indulging in that adulterous relationship. But C.C somehow doesn't appreciate its wrongness, until the girl he is fond of becomes affected. And Fran's motivations are genuine. She thinks Mr Sheldrake's marriage is over, and she is deep in love. Almost all the other characters in the office block where they work are unpleasant, greedy and thinking only of themselves. We have a bitter, revengeful secretary Miss Olsen, and we have five executives all cheating on their wives and not even fretting over the morality of it. On the face of it, this was a very daring storyline for 1960.
Not only is the behaviour immoral, it is all rather sad. Five families are being lied to, at least one marriage seems destined to end, C.C is leading a lonely existence even if he doesn't seem to realise it, and Fran Kubelik is getting seriously depressed. And throughout much of the film the musical score adds to this depressive air.
Billy Wilder conveys an atmosphere of loneliness, of broken dreams, of selfishness.
So why do I say it's such a clever film? Because this is intended to be a comedy drama, and even though the message of the immorality is never ever forgotten, or swept under the carpet, (except in terms of its effects on Sheldrake's family) it is never allowed to make the film depressing. C.C Baxter is such a nice, easy going character, and it is his irrepressible determination to try to be upbeat, which tempers the sadness and makes the film a genuine and likeable comedy.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
How to turn a rather depressing bunch of characters and a satire on their uncaring, inconsiderate amorality, into a sympathetic portrayal of two likable people who you really want to find love with each other? - Billy Wilder does it with this film, and creates one of the great romantic comedies of the cinema.
With a well written script and well chosen actors and characters, 'The Apartment' is a movie which was well worth watching in its time, and is still worth watching today.
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