It’s amazing, for a film that won the Oscar for Best Picture the year it was released, and was made by one of Hollywood’s Golden Age directors, how underrated Billy Wilder’s 1960 black and white drama-comedy “The Apartment” is. This is especially true in comparison to the wildly overrated comedy he made, a year earlier, “Some Like It Hot,” which, by comparison, is a silly ball of fluff. By contrast, “The Apartment” may be, along with “The Fortune Cookie,” Wilder’s best and most underrated films. And both (along with “Some Like It Hot”) starred Jack Lemmon in the lead role. Not only does “The Apartment” have drama, but it has real themes and issues of depth that it deals with. According to the DVD features for the film, Billy Wilder claimed that the film was about its two lead characters, C.C. ‘Bud’ Baxter (Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), becoming emancipated from their respective lives of corporate devotion and relationship self-sabotage. While this is true, the film is also about the two characters’ realizations that the little things in life are those which grow with time, while the momentary things in life, those small problems of a given moment, which cause one the most worry, in reality, with the passage of years, mean nothing, in the grand scheme.
Baxter and Kubelik work for a big New York insurance company- he as a mid-level office schlemiel and she as an elevator girl. He has always had an eye for her, but she has been involved with the office’s head of personnel, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Meanwhile, Baxter has been trying to curry favor in the company by lending his apartment out to some mid-level managers at the firm who take their mistresses there to tryst, in exchange for giving Baxter glowing praise. They are Vanderhoff (Willard Waterman), Eichelberger (David White, best known from the TV show “Bewitched,” as Larry Tate), Dobisch (Ray Walston, best known from the TV show “My Favorite Martian” as Uncle Martin), and Kirkeby (David Lewis, best known from the TV soap opera “General Hospital,” as Edward Quartermaine). The quartet quickly turn against Baxter when their trysting rights are trumped by Sheldrake’s finding out of the scam, and wanting to take his mistress, Kubelik, there. This exchange does Baxter well, as he rises several notched up the corporate ladder.
Meanwhile, Baxter’s neighbors, Dr. and Mrs. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens) think Baxter is the Playboy of the building, bedding young girls incessantly, even as he is often unable to use his apartment at nights. When he asks Kubelik out, to see “The Music Man,” with tickets given to him by Sheldrake, in exchange for the use of the apartment. Little does he know that she is his mistress, who stands him up, after reconciling with Sheldrake. He only learns this after he sees her broken mirror case at a Christmas party, after he had found the same case in his apartment after Sheldrake, and his mistress, had used it. At the same party, Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen (Edie Adams) reveals to Kubelik that she was once Sheldrake’s mistress, and he has apparently gone through many. After meeting with Sheldrake, after the party, at Baxter’s apartment, Sheldrake goes home, after coldly giving her a $100 bill, and Kubelik OD’s on Baxter’s sleeping pills, feeling little more than a prostitute. While Baxter picks up a married woman Margie MacDougall (Hope Holiday), who is married to a horse-doping jockey, who is jailed in Cuba. Once home, Baxter kicks her out when he discovers Kubelik has OD’d. He gets Dr. Dreyfuss to save her life, and spends the next two days sobering her up, while Sheldrake feigns concern, but dares not go visit her.
While there, Baxter cooks for and plays gin rummy with her. They grow closer. After Sheldrake fires Olsen for blabbing to Kubelik, she then tells the truth to Sheldrake’s wife, who throws him out. Kubelik takes this as a sign that he wants to be with her, and leaves to rejoin him, after her brother-in-law, Karl Matuschka (Johnny Seven), has come to the apartment to take her home. He found out about them after Kirkeby and Dobisch finked on Baxter, and Matuschka decked Baxter. Baxter, after taking care of things with the suicide attempt, is promoted to Sheldrake’s assistant, until Sheldrake asks for the key to the apartment, again. Baxter refuses, under threat of firing, but quits, instead. He spends New Year’s Eve alone, packing up his belongings to move out. Meanwhile, Kubelik is lorn, out on the town with Sheldrake. That’s when he tells her how Baxter quit, refusing him the apartment, especially if he was to bring Kubelik there. At the stroke of midnight, singing Auld Lang Syne, Sheldrake turns around, and when he turns back, Kubelik is gone, running to Baxter’s apartment, and thinking he’s killed himself with a gunshot, only to find he opened a bottle of champagne. They play gin rummy, and Baxter declares that he loves and adores Kubelik. As they sit on the couch and choose to see who deals, Baxter wind, and Kubelik tells him to ‘Shut up and deal.’ The film ends on that note, as the two smile deeply at each other. Thus the film gets a seeming Hollywood ending, but one that subverts it with a great ambiguous line.
The film has something rare- a heart and smarts. It is a terrific satire on American business, as well as a love story, in the truest sense. And the fact that Kubelik probably does not love Baxter at the end, but is on the precipice of falling for a decent guy for the first time, makes the film all the more satisfying. And it is plot points like this, which are natural, and not primarily ‘plot points, which makes the film’s screenplay, by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, so good. Yes, there are some nicely composed shots, here and there, by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, but in a Wilder film, as in a Joseph Mankiewicz film, one watches and waits for the gems of dialogue. Visual stylistics are not the Wilder mainstay. And it’s also why the screenplay won an Oscar. The film won 5 of 10 nominations. The score, by Adolph Deutsch, is good, solid, and evidence by the fact that it never intrudes enough to be heavy-handed. But the film also scores points for its stats-laced opening voiceover, by Lemmon, and its pot shots at television, when Baxter tries to watch “Grand Hotel,” on TV, only to be plagued with commercials on that channel, and bed westerns on the others. But its best rips come in its dead-on take of American business. It’s so accurate, even down to how companies are run today. Fifty years ago, it may have seemed over-the-top, but having decades in corporate America, there is nothing over the top about its portrayal now. Liars, ass-kissers, and bullshitters are who succeed, while those who are decent usually just ignore what they can, or use ‘the system,’ like Baxter, in as inoffensive a manner as possible. And it is for these reasons that the film, despite its manifest comedic scenes, is nonetheless very realistic. One final point in its favor is how it shows a number of black workers at the company, in the same positions as Baxter starts out in. Hell, even in the realism of diversity, Wilder was ahead of the curve.
The MGM DVD has only a few features. The film is presented in black and white, but in widescreen- a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. There are two featurettes. The first is a making of one, called “”Inside The Apartment. It features reminiscence by cast members, and Lemmon’s son, actor Chris Lemmon. It is fairly informative. A better featurette is the second one, called “Magic Time: The Art Of Jack Lemmon.” It also features Chris Lemmon and others, in a retrospective of Lemmon’s career. The best feature is the audio commentary, by film historian Bruce Block. While not in a league with the best commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Ebert, or Dana Polan, it is a good, solid commentary, albeit with a bit too many dead spots. He is, however, scene specific and quite thorough. However, Block tends to have less passion about certain elements of cinema, and this film, in particular, than one might expect. But, he does provide some valuable insights into the film (although relying too heavily on anecdotal evidence of how many shots were required for a specific scene), such as elaborating on how Wilder rarely used master shots, or made excess close-ups or kept extra scenes past rushes, other than those in the screenplay, for the specific reason of wanting to maintain control over his film. His reasoning was that if the studio heads had little alternative footage, there was no way that they could re-edit the film to their desires. Thus, Wilder learned that economy in film shot meant autonomy in how that film was used. It is insights like this which lift up any commentary, and Block’s is no exception.
It’s a shame that some artists almost always get credit for works that are the lesser lights in their canons, such as Wilder’s frivolous Some Like It Hot, whereas films that are far better made and far deeper, like this one, or far funnier, like The Fortune Cookie, are almost always short shrifted in the process. This is where good criticism plays a valuable, in reassessment of not only artists and art works, but in the pantheon of works of artists. On that score, move The Apartment to the head of the Wilder pantheon. Is it a great film, in the sense that its contemporary film cousins, made in Europe or Japan, were? No. But it’s not that far behind, and certainly arguable. And in an era that posited Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford as the best this country could muster, let me state that Wilder was more consistent, and a better maker of film than either of them, and The Apartment proves it, for it has a depth and breadth that none of the films that those other two directors could muster. Don’t take my word for it. Go watch it!