Apartment, The (1960)

“When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.”

Synopsis:
An aspiring insurance clerk (Jack Lemmon) allows his married colleagues to use his apartment as a love nest in exchange for advancement opportunities at work — but when he falls in love with his building’s elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) and learns she’s the mistress of his supervisor (Fred MacMurray), he begins to rethink his goals.

Genres:

Review:
The Apartment — directed by Billy Wilder and co-scripted by I.A.L. Diamond — won five Oscars (including Best Picture) and was nominated for five more, possibly as a belated or combined acknowledgement of the team’s comedy classic Some Like It Hot (1959) from the year before. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary gives the Best Picture award for 1960 to Psycho rather than this film, which he argues “was daring in its day because of the amorality of its characters and because it mixed humor with such serious elements as a suicide attempt”, but today is “somewhat dated and… still has a dubious premise”. While I can’t argue with Peary’s choice of Psycho as Best Picture, I disagree that this film — inspired by a sequence from David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) — is dubious or dated; it’s actually held up remarkably well on numerous fronts.

While one might question the need for a usable apartment when hotel rooms are readily available, it seems clear that this type of arrangement is about much more than a private space for sex: it’s about making the woman feel comfortable, happy, and unashamed of her fling (much easier in a fully furnished apartment with a kitchen, bar, sofa, and record player). It’s also, of course, about power: as an underling lost in a sea of other employees, Lemmon “freely” giving up his apartment night after night (even during bitterly cold weather, when he has nowhere else to go) is a way for him to demonstrate his loyalty and willingness to suffer in order to become part of the upper-echelon crowd. His aspiration story is a fascinating one, but so is MacLaine’s tale of woebegone romance — and the lives of the other supporting characters (including MacMurray, wonderfully cast against type here) are rich as well. Wilder’s direction, combined with Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography, create a seamy yet emotion-drenched world where unlikely couplings can take place, and power dynamics can eventually be disrupted.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Joseph LaShelle’s b&w cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine and deserving Oscar winner. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Apartment, The (1960)”

  1. A no-brainer must-see that holds up well on repeat viewings. (I’ve seen it quite a few times and it just seems to work… every… time.)

    This is, of course, the second half of Wilder’s (and I.A.L. Diamond’s) one-two punch that begins with ‘Some Like it Hot’. It’s an admirable achievement indeed that one of the funniest comedies ever made could be followed-up by an equally accomplished drama. (Though there is a certain low-key comedy that flows in and out of ‘The Apartment’, it’s essentially a drama.)

    It’s just got a real sure-fire script (it’s about as simple as that); as richly textured in its own way as ‘SLIH’ with (here again) a wonderful collection of peripheral players, all given memorable things to say.

    I would agree that the film doesn’t feel “dubious or dated”.

    I esp. like MacLaine’s performance. She has a certain reserve here that works well for her and for her character. It’s one of my top favorite performances given by her throughout her career. (Once, in an interview, MacLaine referred to herself as someone who had a limited range – she was comparing herself to Meryl Streep and remarking on how much in awe of Streep she was. But there are times when MacLaine can be particularly good and seeming to be doing a lot even if she’s doing a little. To me, ‘The Apartment’ is one of those times.)

    However, I would only raise one caveat – and it could just be a personal preference, but I wish someone other than Fred MacMurray were playing Sheldrake. Given the ‘weight’ of his role (it’s ultimately not all that large), many viewers may not care one way or the other. But I feel, somehow, that he’s miscast. I just don’t get much of a sexual vibe from MacMurray (I never have) – and, actually, his entire film career is something of a mystery to me since I don’t feel that there’s much going on… there. (As a result, I’m at a little bit of a loss as to why MacLaine is so… gaga… over someone who – to me – seems to barely register.)

    Sidebar: When I was a teen, starting to see Broadway shows, the first musical I saw was ‘Promises, Promises’ (based, of course, on ‘The Apartment’). I don’t recall which I saw first – the film or the musical – but it’s possible that I saw the film first, since it would have been a television staple by the mid-’60s. The musical is actually a rather terrific adaptation of the source material. As C.C. Baxter, Jerry Orbach was as charming as Jack Lemmon… as Fran, Jill O’Hara (given some lovely songs) was as interestingly vulnerable as MacLaine… and, as Sheldrake, Edward Winter was a knockout! It was immediately easily understandable why Fran was having a hard time coping; Winter was a real heart-breaker in a number of appropriately frustrating ways. The status of his affair with Fran made complete sense to me – even as a young teen. 😉

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