What has always stood out to me about Billy Wilder’s films and the writing behind them is that you can almost always observe cynicism paired with wit. They are continually sharp, often funny, but they also are underlined by more serious topics altogether. This quality is what allowed him to make films as diverse as Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot. There’s a subversion of the norm that sometimes is dark, sometimes is funny. His second pairing with Jack Lemmon in The Apartment seems to fall somewhere in between.
The legend is that this story formed in Wilder’s mind after watching a Brief Encounter, about a tryst between an English man and woman. What interested him was a very small detail indeed. What type of person would allow his place to be the location of such a rendezvous? And in such a question came the inception of C.C. Baxter a man who was unwittingly funny, but also pitiful as played by Lemmon.
He’s a man trapped in the bureaucracy, attempting to climb the corporate ladder of a company. He’s fighting in this game of survival of the fittest and trying to get ahead the only way he knows how. Lending his flat out to higher ranking executives who are looking for a place to take their dates and have a good time. Baxter is somewhat of a hapless stooge though. He’s far from shrewd and his high ranking pals like him for it. He follows their requests. Does what they want. He’s a perfect cog in their plan. He’s one of them. Even Baxter’s neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss and his landlady get the impression that he’s a real high flyer, since there’s always music emanating from his suite and bottles piling up outside his door. But he lives the charade and spends many a frosty evening waiting for his customers to clear out. It’s certainly a sorry existence, but he doesn’t mind at first since it pays off handsomely as he moves up the ranks.
One of the more personable employees in this mass of humanity is elevator gal Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacClaine), who is always friendly with Mr. Baxter since he is a true gentleman. However, she is also caught in an affair with top exec Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) and she is actually in love. It’s a messy situation made even more complicated when Sheldrake asks Baxter for the use of his flat. He enthusiastically agrees, but he has no idea who else will be there. That’s one of those painful moments of dramatic irony where our opportunistic nonetheless lovable protagonist gets hurt. Lemmon is good at playing the drama movingly and filling his scenes with organic humor (much like the late Robin Williams).
At this point C.C. Baxter becomes the general scape goat for his colleagues and even his neighbors. Everyone gives him a hard time for things he has not done or does not really deserve. Sheldrake leaves his wife and looks to solidify things with Fran, and this moment is paramount because Baxter finally mans up. He may have lost his job, but he got to finish the best game of gin rummy of his life.
I must admit the themes of The Apartment are not always my favorite. I am much more partial to Some Like it Hot or even The Odd Couple, but Lemmon makes the film for me. Whether he’s straining spaghetti through a tennis racket or trying on his new suave business bowler for size, it’s hard not to like him. Ray Walston, Fred MacMurray, and about every other character is a cad. Shirley Maclaine is pretty good, but then again she’s never been the most captivating for me actress-wise.
When it’s all said in done, this is not Wilder at his absolute best, but teaming up with IAL Diamond elicited another classic vehicle with Jack Lemmon. Now shut up and deal!