Magical. That shouldn’t be the word that describes a film about a sleazy arrangement that allows executives to use an employee’s apartment for lurid affairs. The title The Apartment should bring to mind booze, broads, and empty promises. Instead, it makes us think of a fragile romance that slowly, achingly enables two people to grow and find happiness. Billy Wilder’s movie is beautiful, but it’s also cynical, tough, and occasionally cruel. Watching Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon get their hearts broken by the ignorance and arrogance of others is difficult. Their performances are breathtaking, though, and the script is such a perfect balance between the sweet and the sour.
There are many things that make The Apartment as strong as it is, from the lovely music to the gorgeous cinematography. However, what inspires repeat viewings is the cast and the rich, complicated material they are given to work with. These characters and their situations are both completely relatable and utterly idiosyncratic. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is forlorn, lazily ambitious, and a pushover. As our introduction to him demonstrates, he is a guy you could find in any crowd. But then he drains spaghetti with a tennis racket, arranges the olives from his martinis into a circle, and tells us about the time he shot himself in the knee during a failed suicide attempt. Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), meanwhile, is Baxter’s dream girl, the sweet elevator operator who rolls her eyes at the unwanted advances of the men who ride her elevator. As Baxter learns, though, she does not exist to be solely his dream girl, a realization that initially sends him reeling. She has her own struggles with insecurity and loneliness, and she actually has given in to the seduction of an executive, Baxter’s boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
The people who inhabit The Apartment are people we have all encountered. We have seen both the takers and the people who get took; we’ve probably even experienced it for ourselves. The plight of Fran Kubelik would be pathetic if it weren’t so poignantly honest. She has fooled herself into believing that Mr. Sheldrake has the ability to love her unconditionally when the truth is that he only appreciates the pieces of her that he can exploit. Her capacity for love is preyed upon because Sheldrake knows it means she will always be there when he is ready for their next rendezvous. He doesn’t want any part of the things that make her complex because that would make her human. When she cries, he chides her for not being the “fun” Fran he used to know. Her unsuccessful suicide is tragic only because it interrupts Christmastime with his family.
Baxter, on the other hand, embraces every single thing about Ms. Kubelik. What she finds ugly, he finds adorable. He recognizes her pain because he has felt it himself. Her affair with Sheldrake disgusts him — until he takes the time to understand it. He listens to everything she says, despite how uncomfortable or upset it may make him because when it comes to love, he has the same amount of capability as she does. As Fran regains her health, the apartment transforms from a sordid meeting place to a home full of warmth, care, and real romance. The artificial becomes genuine, and lust becomes love.
Although it is an exceptionally romantic film, Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond don’t engage with the conventions we come to expect. Lemmon and MacLaine never share an embrace. Instead, the looks on their faces have to convey unsaid words and affection that isn’t acted upon. Just look at Baxter’s dazed, adoring look at Fran when he is punched by her brother-in-law. He shouldn’t be thrilled with the attack, but he is because it shows that on some level, Fran cares for him as evidenced by her scream and rushing to his side. When we initially see them together, Fran is so focused on working the elevator that she doesn’t notice Baxter’s stare. In the scene, she only really looks at him when she gives him her flower to spiffy up his suit. At the end of the film, Fran’s inability to pay attention to Sheldrake at the Chinese restaurant illustrates that her thoughts are elsewhere, her eyes looking to someone who isn’t there.
The ending of The Apartment is another one of Wilder and Diamond’s challenges to conventions. There isn’t some big declaration, they don’t fall into each other’s arms, and they still call each other Mr. Baxter and Ms. Kubelik. The scene is a masterclass of understatement and simplicity. They ring in the new year with a card game, an activity they did while Fran was recovering. Puzzled about why she says she is now on her own, Baxter asks, “What about Mr. Sheldrake?” Fran replies matter-of-factly, “We’ll send him a fruitcake every Christmas,” recalling what happened with the previous woman who broke Baxter’s heart. As he watches her shuffle the cards, Baxter tenderly admits, “I love you, Ms. Kubelik. Did you hear what I said, Ms. Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.” They look at each other. She smiles. “Shut up and deal.” Even as he deals the cards and she picks up her hand, they don’t stop looking into each other’s eyes. Finally, finally they have found what they have been longing for.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.