The Apartment (1960)
★★★ / ★★★★
Determined to become an executive in the insurance company he works for, Bud (Jack Lemmon) provides a special service to his married superiors (Ray Walston, David Lewis, Wilard Waterman, David White): whenever they have a dame, Bud pencils them into his planner and lends his apartment in the Upper West Side. When one of the directors, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), learns about it, it appears to be the perfect opportunity for Bud to grab the promotion he has been waiting for. The catch: The woman that Mr. Sheldrake is seeing happens to be the elevator operator named Fran (Shirley MacLaine) that Bud has had his eyes on.
Sharply written with a true understanding of how real people might feel given a particular difficult situation, “The Apartment,” based on the screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, is a comedy-drama for those looking for depth along with laughs. It treats jokes and punchlines as a punctuation point rather than an unending parade of awkward or embarrassing situations. As a result, audiences are given time to really consider and assess a situation from everyone’s point of view. Yes, even Mr. Sheldrake, a man who has a lot to lose given that he is married and has children.
Lemmon and MacLaine share joyous chemistry, but the material tends to place their characters in different wavelengths. The more things do not work out in their favor, whether it be situational or psychological, the more intensely we wish for Bud and Fran to get together in the end. But the picture is clearly not about that. It is about decisions—lending the apartment to men who consider an individual to be only as good as the last favor is able to provide, entertaining a man’s attention who one suspects may not be a good fit for her, the decision to stay (or not stay) when a person is in dire need of help. Choices drive to picture forward and it is in their mistakes that we are drawn toward.
The picture is shot beautifully in black and white. I relished the interior shots of the protagonist’s apartment. It is nice and cozy yet it is lonely, despite its many visitors, because the person who owns it tends to think of something or someone else when he is left by himself. Lemmon is able to reach a balance between timid and alluring—Bud is a nice guy but he is not the most exciting. So, even though we may think that he and Fran are a good match, it is understandable why Fran may not be drawn to him at first.
Also, I liked looking at the workplace. The many rows of busy worker bees with their papers and typewriters make it look like a very successful insurance company. Thus, we understand why Bud wishes to climb the corporate ladder. Many of us can relate to that feeling of wanting to be successful by being a part of something. Upon looking closely, Bud wants to become one of the executives not because of the money. He wants to be one of the guys. Notice the vast personality difference between him and his superiors.
Directed by Billy Wilder, “The Apartment” could have just been about getting the girl against all odds. In many comedies these days, it really is that simplistic—and boring. Here, we are challenged a little bit. At one point, I asked myself if Bud and Fran would ever be on the same page—that maybe the two of them overcoming that challenge is beyond the scope of the picture, that maybe they need to learn a bit of self-respect first before really loving another. And I was all right with that. It was then that I knew I was watching something worthwhile.