I love this film. I love the performances, the story, the characters, and most of all I love the bittersweet blend of laughter, cynicism, and tragedy that the film depicts. This is Billy Wilder at his best. What’s not to love?
There is a great story out there about just what it was that inspired Billy Wilder to make this film in the first place.
The story goes that he was quite intrigued by the man in Brief Encounter who lets his friend Alec (Trevor Howard)use his apartment to bring Laura (Celia Johnson) back to. Billy was completely fascinated by this man loaning his home out, so that this couple could basically get together to meet there for sex. He wanted to know more about that man, and more about what would make someone do that. Thus The Apartment was born in Billy’s mind.
The Apartment is a perfect mix of cynicism, comedy, tragedy and romance. The film focuses on the best and worst of humanity. The film is all about men and women using others and being used, and in some cases continuing to allow themselves to be used. It looks at why people use others, and why some let themselves be walked over (they have no choice, they like the control their actions give them, they want the outcome their actions will deliver etc).
At the time this film was set, stories like this one(hopefully not loaning out your home for passionate rendezvous)were commonplace. Bosses slept with their secretaries, women were judged on their looks, and some men thought that women were only around so that they could have sex with them. Drinking, lying and cheating were as common as drawing breath. Billy’s film captures all of that perfectly, he holds up a reflection of life to us that would have been very familiar to many in the audience of the 1960’s.
The film also shows us that there is goodness to be found in such a world, even if you sometimes have to dig a little deeper in order to discover it.
C.C Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a clerk at an insurance company in New York. Baxter wishes more than anything to climb that corporate ladder, and he will do whatever it takes to get up it quick. Baxter lends his apartment out to senior male staff at his company so they that they can go there and be with their mistresses. Due to his seedy service Baxter is soon promoted in the company, and he is feeling very pleased with life indeed.
When Baxter lends his apartment to the boss of the company, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray),it suddenly dawns on him just what he has been doing. Very soon he starts to hate himself for his actions. Why the change of heart? Because Sheldrake’s mistress is the fragile elevator girl, Fran Kubelik(Shirley MacLaine). Baxter likes Fran very much, and when he sees how badly Sheldrake uses her something inside of him snaps.
When Fran attempts suicide in his apartment, Baxter must choose between his career, or looking after Fran and being a good guy.
There are two key sequences in the film which I think signal Baxter’s self revulsion. In these scenes we see him slowly begin to change and become a decent guy. The first is the famous mirror sequence. He sees Fran’s broken hand mirror, and when he tells her it’s broken, she says ” I know. I like it like that. It makes me look the way I feel.”
The famous mirror scene. Screenshot by me.
When Fran says those words, the look on Baxter’s face speaks volumes, he looks like he’s just been punched in the stomach. He sees the pain he is helping to inflict by allowing these men to take the secretaries and other women to his apartment to use for sex. Baxter has never thought about what happens to these women afterwards, but when he sees Fran’s state of mind it dawns on him what the reality is. Straight after those words the phone rings and it’s Sheldrake asking him if he’s remembered to stock up on some food and drink in the apartment. When Baxter answers him it is with a tone of revulsion and hatred. Slowly he is beginning to change to a decent man.
The second is when Baxter comes home to find Fran unconscious after taking an overdose. She has finally figured out that Sheldrake won’t leave his wife for her. At that moment we see he is torn apart with worry and fear. With the help of his neighbour Doctor Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), Baxter helps save Fran’s life and nurses her back to health.
Jack Lemmon is at his best here as the selfish man, always happy to oblige his bosses who suddenly develops a conscience. If anyone other than Jack had played this role, I’m really not sure how well the film would have turned out. One moment we hate Baxter with a passion, the next we’re laughing at or with him, the next he’s breaking our hearts and ours are breaking for him. That is all because of how Jack plays the role, the looks on his face (particularly the scenes of self loathing later in the film when what he’s been doing finally reaches home to him.) As the film goes on Jack conveys to us how his experiences and realisations are making him more aware and less self centred.
Shirley MacLaine makes your heart break as the mistreated Fran. Shirley lets us see the inner pain this woman carries around with her, but which she doesn’t show to the world (until the famous mirror sequence.) From the way Shirley plays the character, I believe Fran knows the men she goes with are heels, but for some reason she can’t stop herself from going with them.
Fran loves Sheldrake and it really damages her when she realises she is just the latest in a long line of meaningless conquests to him. Shirley’s performance is all in her eyes, we see how weary and depressed she is, and we see the brave face she puts on each day pretending all is well in her life.
Fred MacMurray is cast wonderfully well against type here, as the sleazy, hardhearted boss who treats women as objects for his pleasure only. He doesn’t care about their feelings, but he can make them believe he does. MacMurray is loathsome here and it is only the second time in his entire career he was cast in such a role. The first against type performance was also for Billy Wilder, in the Noir classic, Double Indemnity. On the strength of his performance in both films it is very strange to me that he never again got roles like this. He proves what a talented dramatic actor he was. There was much more to MacMurray than comic performances. He conveys to us that his character is selfish and will never change. Remorse? That’s a word this guy doesn’t even know exists.
Jack Kruschen is hysterical as the bemused neighbour of Baxter’s who thinks his neighbour is some sort of playboy. Why does he think that? Because of the different women coming in and out of his apartment all the time. Kruschen knows that this man is a good guy really (a Mensch)and his belief in this is proved right at the end. Jack is very good in the scenes where he is treating Fran, making you believe he knows what he is doing as a Doctor.
Edie Adams steals every scene she is in as Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen. She tells Fran that Sheldrake won’t care about her and is just using her. Miss Olsen used to be his lady and has never gotten over her time with him. Edie shows us this woman’s pain and depression and her despair at seeing what she went through happening to someone else. Like Shirley’s performance, Edie’s is another that is all in the eyes. Keep an eye on her when she is in a scene.
I like how the film shows how messy relationships are, and that heartbreak and disappointment is sadly more commonplace than lasting happiness. The film shows us that happiness is possible though. Live in the moment, value every shared moment of joy, don’t hurt one another, be there for each other through the good and bad, and really work at building trust and a bond, then you will know happiness. At the end of the film we see Baxter redeemed, and are left feeling more positive having seen some good people and good actions in this world.
I have to mention the famous ending to the film. Many take the ending to be a romantic one. I actually have a different view. It is clear that these two love each other very much, and Baxter admits as much in the final lines. I actually think that these two are soulmates and are that special person that the other needs in their life. I don’t think romance is on the cards for them though.
I think they are and will always remain the best of friends. They will always be there for one another and will support and help each other. A bond of friendship is love too, and I believe friendships are as meaningful and deep as any romance can be. When Fran says “shut up and deal”, I think she is saying lets just take things as they are. Maybe we will progress to romance, maybe we will just stay as friends, but for now lets just stay as we are and enjoy this moment. Somewhat similar to the ending of Now Voyager “don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Basically, they have everything they want and need right there, they don’t need to be romantic in order to love each other. So what that they don’t kiss? They are happy, and we know they will always be there for each other. That’s a happy ending if ever I saw one. It always leaves me with a smile on my face.
The film won five Oscars, including one for best picture. Sadly no awards were given to any of the actors.
My favourite scenes are the following. Baxter trying to watch Grand Hotel, only to grow more and more annoyed by the adverts that keep playing on the TV (if he watched TV today, he’d throw the set away I’m sure.) 🙂 The mirror discussion. The sequence involving the woman who looks like Marilyn Monroe. The entire final part of the film. Miss Olsen speaking to Fran.
I have to say as well, that I always get a real laugh from the scenes where Baxter is waiting outside his own building! Because his apartment is in use! How much of a pushover do you have to be to actually agree to something which stops you from being able to go into your own home? Baxter got wise in the end though, so I’ll forgive him for his stupidity.
What are your thoughts on this film? Please leave your comments below.