Filmsite Movie Review
The Apartment (1960)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Background

The Apartment (1960) is producer/director Billy Wilder's bittersweet, heart-rending tragi-comedy/drama of a compliant insurance clerk (Lemmon) who secretly lends out his apartment to other company executives for adulterous sexual affairs and liaisons. The plot thickens when the clerk realizes that his building's elevator operator (MacLaine) is being taken for trysts by his married boss (MacMurray) to his apartment. The sophisticated yet cynical film of the early 60s is a bleak assessment of corporate America, big business and capitalism, success, and the work ethic, when a lowly but ambitious accountant enables his climb up the corporate ladder by ingratiating himself to his superiors - he literally prostitutes his own standards and moral integrity and allows himself to be exploited.

It won five major Academy Awards out of ten nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (co-written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), Best B/W Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Film Editing. [It was not until thirty-three years later that another black and white Film would win Best Picture - Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993)].Three acting awards were passed over: Jack Lemmon for Best Actor, Shirley MacLaine for Best Actress and Jack Kruschen for Best Supporting Actor. It was a triple win for Wilder as Director (Wilder's second directing Oscar), Producer, and Screenplay author. Wilder's previous The Lost Weekend (1945) had also won Best Picture and Best Director. Wilder would cast Jack Lemmon in five more films as a leading man, including Irma La Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Avanti! (1972), The Front Page (1974), and Buddy Buddy (1981).

Reportedly, Wilder was inspired for the film by watching David Lean's Brief Encounter (1946) with a short scene about a man who vacates his apartment for a couple's secret tryst (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson). The 1969 Broadway musical Promises, Promises (from Neil Simon, Hal David, and Burt Bacharach) was based on the film. It became a Tony winner and made the song "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" a hit.

The Story


The film's credits play atop a view of the second-story apartment window of a lonely, young, vulnerable, and subordinate office clerk, C. C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon). He is employed in a large impersonal Manhattan insurance firm - as an average hard-working, upwardly-mobile American employee, he describes his powerless position in life in the opening voice-over narration, as the film opens with aerial helicopter views of the city:

On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company - Consolidated Life of New York. We're one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees - which is more than the entire population of Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th floor - Ordinary Policy Department - Premium Accounting Division - Section W - desk number 861. My name is C. C. Baxter - C. for Calvin, C. for Clifford, however most people call me Bud. I've been with Consolidated for three years and ten months and my take-home pay is $94.70 a week. The hours in our department are 8:50 to 5:20 - they're staggered by floors, so that sixteen elevators can handle the 31,259 employees without a serious traffic jam. As for myself, I very often stay on at the office and work for an extra hour or two, especially when the weather is bad. It's not that I'm overly ambitious, it's just a way of killing time, until it's all right for me to go home. You see, I have this little problem with my apartment...I live in the West Sixties, just half a block from Central Park. My rent is $85 a month. It used to be eighty until last July when Mrs. Lieberman (Frances Lax), the landlady, put in a second-hand air conditioning unit. It's a real nice apartment - nothing fancy - but kind of cozy - just right for a bachelor. The only problem is - I can't always get in when I want to.

He is seated at his impersonal gray steel desk, with a nameplate on the side of his desk, in a sea of similar desks and expressionless-faced employees under fluorescent lights in the center of the 19th floor. [This particular shot paid homage to director King Vidor's similar sea-of-desks image in the silent film classic The Crowd (1928).] On his desk is an old-fashioned computing machine for number-crunching. When 5:20 pm approaches, he is left abandoned at his desk, and remains there for a few hours. As he approaches his apartment at a quarter to nine and paces back and forth, he looks up from the sidewalk at the lit window in his second-story apartment on West 67th Street in a converted brownstone - cha-cha music emanates from inside.

Bud has discovered that he can advance his career and become well-regarded by four philandering middle-level superiors in the enormous, competitive organization by lending his nearby apartment so it can be used for "hospitality" (extramarital activities) with some of the firm's female secretaries or telephone operators. That way, the executives don't have to resort to paying for tacky hotel rooms. This particular evening, Mr. Kirkeby (David Lewis) has borrowed Bud's love nest to entertain a dim-witted switchboard operator Sylvia (Joan Shawlee) for almost two and a half hours after work - but Kirkeby has taken one hour longer than expected. Fatuously, the middle manager calls himself "a happily married man," and explains that the apartment belongs to "some schnook that works in the office."

Finally, Bud is able to enter the vestibule of his own building, climb the stairs to his apartment, and find his key left under the mat. His next-door Jewish neighbor Mrs. Dreyfuss (Naomi Stevens) comments: "Such a racket I heard in your place - maybe you had burglars." Inside his place, he must clean up the mess left behind by his guests. Kirkeby rushes back in to retrieve Sylvia's forgotten galoshes, promising: "I put in a good word for you with Sheldrake, in Personnel...I told him what a bright boy you were. They're always on the lookout for young executives. You're on your way up, buddy boy." Bud is regularly displaced from his own apartment - often catering the liquor and cheese crackers for the higher-ranking male employees in exchange for the promise of advancement.

As he takes a wastebasket full of empty liquor bottles to the garbage, he becomes embarrassed when his neighbor Dr. David Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) mistakes him for a 20th century Don Juan lothario and alcoholic, but he doesn't dissuade his neighbor's perception:

The way you're beltin' that stuff, you must have a pair of cast-iron kidneys....As a matter of fact, you must be an iron man all around. From what I hear through the walls, you got somethin' goin' for ya every night...Sometimes, there's a twi-night double-header. (He clucks his tongue) A nebbish like you!...You know, Baxter, I'm doing some research at the Columbia Medical Center and I wonder if you could do us a favor?...When you make out your will, and the way you're going, you should, would you mind leaving your body to the University?...(Shaking his finger) Slow down, kid.

Because he has missed his own dinner, he must make do with a frozen chicken TV dinner, which he washes down with a bottle of Coke in front of the TV in the living room - the only programming on his picture set is old movies "from the world's greatest library of film classics" with "Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore in Grand Hotel" - a tongue-in-cheek parallel to the many comings and goings of the temporary 'hotel' guests in his own apartment. Changing the channel, he finds only shoot-em-up Westerns, so he returns to the original classic film station, only to be put off a second time with more sponsor commercials.

As Bud settles down to sleep around eleven p.m. after taking a sleeping pill, he is stirred by an obnoxious phone call from another office associate in Administration (whose office is located in a glass-enclosed cubicle on the 21st floor), Mr. Dobisch (Ray Walston) - he is phoning from a bar on 61st Street with a blonde who "looks like Marilyn Monroe" [a not-so-subtle critique of Wilder's difficult star performer in Some Like It Hot (1959)] with a late-night request to borrow the apartment for forty-five minutes - the bargain is sweetened up with another deal and hint of promotion: "Look Baxter, we're making out the monthly efficiency rating, and I'm putting you in the top ten. Now you don't want to louse yourself up, do you?" Resigned to his predicament, Bud pliably accepts the offer, puts his trousers on over his pajamas, dons a raincoat, impales a note reading "NOT TOO LOUD! THE NEIGHBORS ARE COMPLAINING" on the phonograph spindle, and vacates the apartment into the rain. When Dobisch arrives with his blonde date and stinger cocktails in hand, Bud hides and overhears the threat that he'll be "out of a job" if he "squawks," so he plods over to Central Park and sits sleepily on a deserted, damp park bench.

The next day, Bud has inevitably caught an awful cold. He arrives at the office with sniffles and a box of tissues under his arm and rides the express elevator to his floor. The company's pixie-faced, elfin elevator operator is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a cheerful, sensitive young worker who greets all the passengers by name and is especially appreciative of Bud. A statistic-spouting font of trivial information, he is the only one who respectfully removes his hat in her elevator:

Fran: I never catch colds.
Bud: I was reading some figures from the Sickness and Accident Claims Division - do you know that the average New Yorker between the ages of twenty and fifty has two and a half colds a year?
Fran: That makes me feel just terrible.
Bud: Why?
Fran: Well, to make the figures come out even, if I have no colds a year, some poor slob must have five colds a year.
Bud: Yeah, that's me.
Fran: You should have stayed in bed this morning.
Bud: I should have stayed in bed last night.

Kirkeby is surprised that he has had no success in "a tumble - datewise" with Miss Kubelik: "A lot of guys around here have tried it - all kinds of approaches - no dice. What is she trying to prove?" Bud sympathetically defends her: "Could be she's just a nice, respectable girl - there are millions of them." The deathly-ill office fall-guy has suffered through another personally-inconvenient evening - Dobisch left the executive wash room key under Bud's door mat rather than the apartment key - and he had to wake the landlady at four in the morning to gain entrance to his own home. Coughing and feeling his feverishly-warm forehead, Bud takes his temperature with a thermometer, and realizes how sick he really is.

In an anxiously-comical scene, he notices on his desk calendar that his apartment is booked for another client's date that evening. He scans his revolving card-index file for the phone number of Mr. Vanderhof (Willard Waterman) of Public Relations - positioned in another glass-enclosed cubicle on another floor - and phones him to cancel the booking, but is told: "Cancel? But it's her birthday - I already ordered the cake...Just the other day, at the staff meeting, I was telling Mr. Sheldrake what a reliable man you were." Vanderhof's extra-marital date is transferred to the following Wednesday - "the only night of the week I can get away," but Mr. Eichelberger (David White) - another superior in a larger office in the Mortgage and Loan Department - is already "pencilled in." With "a little monkey wrench" thrown into his agenda, Eichelberger moves his Wednesday "meeting" to Friday. However, after consulting his calendar, Bud notices that Mr. Kirkeby is already scheduled for Friday - with Sylvia. Kirkeby is heard dictating in his office, with his familiar habit of adding -wise to every word, before he receives Baxter's phone-call plea to switch nights:

Premium-wise and billing-wise, we are eighteen percent ahead of last year, October-wise.

Kirkeby agrees to check with Sylvia and switch to Thursday with her. Finally, all the adjustments are synchronized and Bud phones everyone to confirm:

Kirkeby: Hello, Baxter? It's OK for Thursday.
Bud: Thank you, Mr. Kirkeby. (He dials) Mr. Eichelberger? It's OK for Friday. (He dials again) Mr. Vanderhof? OK for Wednesday.

Bud rushes for the elevators when summoned by Sheldrake's secretary Miss Olsen (Edie Adams) to the executive's plush 27th floor office, and steps into Fran Kubelik's elevator - believing "they're kicking me upstairs":

And drive carefully. You're carrying precious cargo - I mean manpower-wise...I am in the top ten, efficiency-wise, and this may be the day, promotion-wise.

To wish him good luck because he's a "nicer guy" compared to the other characters she transports ("Something happens to men in elevators. Must be the change of altitude - the blood rushes to their head or something - boy I could tell you stories..."), she offers him the white carnation from her lapel, and puts it in his buttonhole.

A fast-talking, authoritative married executive Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, cast against type), the Director of Personnel, has an executive suite for an office, and immediately flatters Baxter: "Been hearing some nice things about you. A report here from Mr. Dobisch - says you're loyal, cooperative, resourceful...And Mr. Kirkeby tells me that several nights a week, you work late at the office without overtime...Mr. Vanderhof in Public Relations and Mr. Eichelberger, in Mortgage and Loan - they both would like to have you transferred to their departments." And then Sheldrake, who boasts "I know everything that goes on in this building," sits back omnisciently and asks:

Tell me Baxter, just what is it that makes you so popular?...Just what kind of a joint are you running?...There's a certain key floating around the office - from Kirkeby to Vanderhof to Eichelberger to Dobisch - it's the key to a certain apartment - and you know who that apartment belongs to?...Loyal, resourceful, cooperative C.C. Baxter.

While spraying his nose full of antihistamine nasal spray and thinking that he is being reprimanded for spreading immorality and running a house of ill-repute, Baxter quickly explains how the custom of giving out his key to four ranking insurance company "charter members" was first established when he was going to night school and taking a course in Advanced Accounting. Sheldrake sleekly responds with:

Sheldrake: How many charter members are there in this little club of yours?....Four rotten apples, no matter how large the barrel, you realize if this ever leaked out.
Bud: It won't. Believe me. Never again. Nobody is going to use my apartment from now on.

In a phone conversation with his wife, Sheldrake mentions that he will be 'entertaining' the branch manager from Kansas City that evening. Corruptly and callously, Sheldrake offers Bud two tickets to see the stage production of The Music Man: "I'm not just giving these tickets. I want to swap them." Without answering Bud's question: "Swap them? For what?", Sheldrake replies: "It also says here that you are alert, astute, and quite imaginative." The vulgar, womanizing boss will be cheating on his wife, and the two theater tickets are in exchange for the right to use Bud's apartment with 'the branch manager'. When it suddenly dawns on Bud what is being implied and he's promised that he will be considered as "executive material" during a shift in personnel, he nervously complies by fishing out his valued apartment key. He shakily begins to write down the address of his apartment - using his thermometer instead of his fountain pen - it is agreed that this will be their "little secret." Bud suddenly has no ethical, moral, or statistical qualms: "Four apples, five apples, what's the difference, percentage-wise?"

That evening while waiting in the lobby of the insurance building, Bud overhears Sylvia as she is leaving the Employee's Lounge for Women, complaining about her cheap dates with Mr. Kirkeby: "So I figure a man in his position, he'll take me to El Morocco, maybe 21 - instead, he takes me to Hamburg Heaven and some schnook's apartment." When Fran walks by, at first he doesn't recognize her in "civilian clothes," but then he takes the opportunity to invite the elusive elevator operator to join him at the theater. She declines, because she is "meeting somebody...like a man" for a drink - she describes how their relationship "used to be serious - at least I was, but he wasn't," but it is now "more or less kaput." So instead of committing to dinner with Bud, she hesitantly agrees to meet him in the Majestic Theater lobby at 8:30 pm for the start of the show. Bud reveals that he has had a strange interest in her for quite some time:

Bud: I know when you were born - and where. I know all sorts of things about you...A couple of months ago, I looked up your card in the group insurance file...I know your height, your weight, and your Social Security number. You had mumps, and had measles, and you had your appendix out.
Fran: Don't mention the appendix to the fellows in the office, OK? I wouldn't want 'em to get the wrong idea about how you found out.


Next Page