The cracked compact mirror. I would be tempted to sell my soul in order to have the talent needed to come up with a narrative device like that.
–If you’ve seen The Apartment and appreciate good screenwriting, then you’ll know why I’m referring to a prop in the movie up top. If you haven’t, I’ll touch upon it later.–
When reviewing Ace in the Hole at his blog Film Freak Central, Walter Chaw wrote that writer/director Billy Wilder “never made a movie that wasn’t kind of an asshole… [or] reflect the essential nihilism of his worldview.” I don’t know if I agree with this sentiment a 100%; Wilder’s pronounced cynicism is a distinctive characteristic of his best, most memorable work, but there’s enough nuance in his films to suggest he wasn’t just a sourpuss.
–Just consider the hurts-so-good ending of the Double Indemnity in which Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff realizes upon dying that the person who really cared for him was his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson.))–
But to go along with Chaw’s assertion: if The Apartment is an asshole, it’s a bittersweet asshole that directs its assholeishness at corporate culture to show how it dehumanizes people in subtle and insidious ways, all the while being a superlative, bittersweet dramedy about things like forced compromises, misguided love and missed connections. It’s an asshole that’s cynical only because it’s upset by the crappy ways that people can be treated, and it reminds you that dignity and self-respect can be restorative and empowering. It’s a mensch of an asshole.
Jack Lemmon stars as C.C. Baxter, a lackey at a corporate insurance company in New York City who reluctantly allows four managers to borrow his brownstone apartment to conduct their extra-marital affairs. The plot thickens when a) the company’s personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (MacMurray) wants to give him a promotion in exchange for access to Baxter’s apartment so that he can carry on his own tumultuous affair and b) Baxter learns that Fran Kubelik (Shirely MacLaine), an elevator operator in the building that he has a crush on, is the other part of that affair.
The tone of The Apartment’s first third to half is satirical in a somewhat bouncy but matter-of-fact way. In fact, it’s similar to the tone of Wilder’s previous film Some Like It Hot, which was also co-written by I.A.L. Diamond and made a year prior. (Fittingly, I wrote something about that film about a year ago.) Considering that The Apartment was partly conceived as a way for Wilder to utilize Lemmon after they worked together so well on SLIH, it makes sense that its first half would also play as another scabrous romp.
Yet, the film’s second half is something more poignant and dramatic. Production started before Wilder and Diamond had finished the script, so it’s reasonable to assume that the circumstances of the production inspired or motivated them to take the material in a direction different from SLIH. If I had to wager a guess on top of that assumption, I would say that one of those circumstances was Shirley MacClaine’s performance as Fran Kubelik, which is one of the greatest ingénue performances in cinema.
Most of the other performances in the film are somewhat heightened, including Lemmon’s. But MacClaine played Fran in a more instinctive, grounded way, and as Fran is focused on more as the movie progresses—she’s a good-looking, young, working-class woman who’s unlucky in life and love, a type of person that many of us have known and sympathize with—the movie downshifts into something that’s more low-key and somber. If the upbeat first half is about acts that occur when personal and professional impropriety overlap and people delude themselves into being exploited, then the second half of The Apartment is about the realistic consequences that follow. MacClaine’s portrayal of Fran Kubelik is the element that brings that theme home, and I like to think that it influenced Wilder and Diamond to take the movie to where it goes.
–Lemmon’s performance is also great. He plays Baxter in an exactingly comical way that seems influenced by great silent film comedians and conveys the character’s nebbish-ness but manages to avoid turning the character into a complete pushover; he’s just a guy who’s forced into a bad professional place, in over his head, and wants to keep his job. So the material depends on its lead actor to be relatable and likable despite the story’s moral complications and Lemmon pulls that balancing act off handsomely. Likewise, you can see the seeds of Lemmon’s great, late-career dramatic roles in his portrayal of C.C. Baxter and he might’ve been stuck just playing roles in movies like Under the Yum Yum Tree if it weren’t for this performance.—
Another aspect of the film that’s consummate in its realism is Alexandre Trauner’s Oscar-winning black-and-white art direction, which accomplished things like recreating the interiors of a New York corporate office building and Baxter’s brownstone apartment building on a soundstage in Hollywood. A common adage about awards categories like Best Costume Design, Best Make-up and Best Production Design is that the nominee that usually wins isn’t the best but “the most”, as in it has the most obvious costume design, make-up and production design, and it’s hard to argue with when you look at the winners. So it’s encouraging to come across an example like Trauner’s work in The Apartment as a counter as it’s an effective, story-appropriate example of award-winning art direction/production design. For example, borrowing a trick from King Vidor’s film The Crowd, Trauner used forced perspective to create the set of the large work area in the insurance company where C.C. Baxter initially toils, which involved using successively smaller props, furnishings and day players. (See above.) Another noticeable detail is the long, crooked lateral marks on the hallway wall outside of Baxter’s apartment that could’ve been made by an unsupervised, crayon-wielding kid who lived in the building. They suggest the building’s age and its state of dis/repair in a way that’s “there but not there.”
But my favorite element of the art direction is a single prop that’s hand-sized yet crucial to the plot. **MINOR SPOILER** After he has given Sheldrake exclusive access to his apartment, Baxter find a cracked compact mirror in his couch which he returns to Sheldrake, assuming that it’s the property of Sheldrake’s lover whom Baxter doesn’t know is Kubelik. Then during the office Christmas party, Baxter brings Kubelik to his new office to get her opinion on a new bowler (“The Junior Executive Model”) that he bought as a way to celebrate his promotion. When she offers him her compact mirror for him to see how he looks with the hat on, Baxter recognizes the cracked mirror, realizes that Kubelik is seeing Sheldrake and is heartbroken. **END MINOR SPOILER**
Wilder emulated his mentor and idol Ernst Lubitsch, director of such classics as Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner, and aspired in his filmmaking to imitate “the Lubitsch touch”, aka Ernst’s ability to convey things like story and humor through subtle and clever/witty means in his films, often relying on callbacks/leitmotifs. The cracked compact mirror is an obvious attempt to achieve “the Lubitsch touch”, but Wilder, in a rare example of self-deprecation, never felt he accomplished it as well as his mentor. But while Lubitsch was a great director, there are few things in his films that are as effective as the cracked compact mirror in The Apartment. It progresses the story in a plausible manner while also encapsulating one of the movie’s themes through heartbreaking symbolism. Duplicity, to others and one’s own self, is a fault that can only be exposed through clear yet harsh self-reflection. It’s so good that Lubitsch would’ve tipped his hat if was still around when Wilder made the film.
Then there’s the film’s ending. **SPOILERS** After Kubelik attempts suicide in Baxter’s apartment because of Sheldrake’s callousness, Baxter comes home and saves her life with the help of his neighbor Dr. Dreyfus (Jack Kruschen.) As he takes the rap for being the cause of her suicide attempt in order to protect Sheldrake, Baxter nurses Kubelik back to health in his apartment and prevents her from trying again. Eventually Kubelik’s taxi driver brother-in-law finds her in Baxter’s apartment to take her back to Kubelik’s sister’s place and punches Baxter out when he assumes that Fran was taken advantage of by Baxter.
Meanwhile, when Sheldrake’s secretary and former mistress Miss Olsen (Edie Adams) is fired, she retaliates by telling Mrs. Sheldrake about her husband’s infidelities. Consequently, Sheldrake leaves his wife and promotes Baxter to be his assistant as a reward for how he handled Kubelik’s suicide attempt. But Baxter takes a stand when he refuses to let Sheldrake use his apartment again for another rendezvous with Fran and quits his newfangled job.
When Fran learns of Baxter’s abrupt resignation from Sheldrake during a New Year’s Eve party, she runs out on Sheldrake and goes to Baxter’s apartment, where he’s packing to move out. As they resume a game of gin rummy they started earlier, Baxter confesses to Kubelik his loves for her. She replies warmly by saying, “shut up and deal.” **END SPOILERS**
When commenting upon the film’s famous ending to Cameron Crowe in the book Conversations with Wilder, Wilder declared that it wouldn’t have worked out for Baxter and Kubelik after the credits roll because they are fundamentally incompatible people. Here’s where I lean towards the notion that Wilder was prickly, and not necessarily because I want Baxter and Kubelik to live happily ever after and I’m mad that Wilder dispelled that notion.
What’s most important about the ending of The Apartment has less to do with them getting together and more to do with them individually standing-up for themselves by rejecting the manipulative, sleazy Sheldrake once-and-for-all. And by doing so, they acquire the self-respect needed for them to love each other, or anyone, at all. So, Mr. Wilder: what matters the most is whether Baxter and Kubelik live happily ever after with their own selves, not whether or not they live happily ever with each other, and that’s what makes the movie’s denouement endure. You should’ve talked about that to Crowe instead of putting attention on the “will they, won’t they” question when what matters is the answer to the “can they even” question: yes.
The Apartment has been one of my all-time favorite movies since I was a teenager and it’s bittersweet mixture of cynicism and melancholy has never stopped speaking to me. In fact, when an friend dissed they movie via a Facebook status update that said that everyone who recommended the movie to him were crazy, I felt like he was insulting another friend and had to resist getting into online argument with him. It’s an example of a Best Picture Academy Award winner where I think, “yeah, they got that right.”
–A note on this clip: Lemmon and MacClaine were nominated for Best Actor and Actress for their work in The Apartment but lost to Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry and Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8. So clearly Wilder dedicated his Best Picture Oscar to Lemmon and MacClaine as a way of consoling their losses (and, in my opinion, they should’ve won.) So, again, he just wasn’t a sourpuss. He could be a decent sort.–
I could go on and on about the film but won’t as that wouldn’t be good, efficiency-wise. So I’ll conclude with this: see it if you haven’t, rewatch it if you love it, and shut up and deal.
 In fact, according to MacLaine, Wilder and Diamond put many of her own musings on love that she shared at lunch during the film’s shooting– which were probably influenced by her unrequited crush on Dean Martin who was married at the time– into the script.
 Many of the facts or production anecdotes in this article are ones that I recall from this book, which I no longer own. So if anything is wrong, let me know.