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There is a melancholy gulf over the holidays between those who have someplace to go, and those who do not. “The Apartment” is so affecting partly because of that buried reason: It takes place on the shortest days of the year, when dusk falls swiftly and the streets are cold, when after the office party some people go home to their families and others go home to apartments where they haven't even bothered to put up a tree. On Christmas Eve, more than any other night of the year, the lonely person feels robbed of something that was there in childhood and isn't there anymore.
Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a definitive lonely guy, in “The Apartment,” with the ironic twist that he is not even free to go home alone, because his apartment is usually loaned out to one of the executives at his company. He has become the landlord for a series of their illicit affairs; they string him along with hints about raises and promotions. His neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) hears the nightly sounds of passion through the wall and thinks Baxter is a tireless lover, when in fact Baxter is pacing the sidewalk out in front, looking up resentfully at his own lighted window.
When Billy Wilder made “The Apartment” in 1960, “the organization man” was still a current term. One of the opening shots in the movie shows Baxter as one of a vast horde of wage slaves, working in a room where the desks line up in parallel rows almost to the vanishing point. This shot is quoted from King Vidor's silent film “The Crowd” (1928), which is also about a faceless employee in a heartless corporation. Cubicles would have come as revolutionary progress in this world.
Baxter has no girlfriend and, apparently, no family. Patted on the back and called “buddy boy” by the executives who use him, he dreams of a better job and an office of his own. One day he even gets up his nerve and asks out one of the elevator girls, Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), but she stands him up at the last moment because of a crisis in her relationship with the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). She thought her affair with Sheldrake was over, but now apparently it's on again; he keeps talking about divorcing his wife, but never does.
The screenplay, executed as a precise balance between farce and sadness, has been constructed by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond to demonstrate that while Baxter and Miss Kubelik may indeed like each other--may feel genuine feelings of the sort that lead to true love--they are both slaves to the company's value system. He wants to be the boss' assistant, she wants to be the boss' wife, and both of them are so blinded by the concept of “boss” that they can't see Mr. Sheldrake for an untrustworthy rat.
The movie has been photographed in widescreen black and white. The b&w dampens down any jollity that might sweep in with the decorations at the Christmas parties, bars and restaurants where the holidays are in full swing. And the widescreen emphasizes space that separates the characters, or surrounds them with emptiness. The design of Baxter's apartment makes his bedroom door, in the background just to the left of center, a focal point; in there reside the secrets of his masters, the reasons for his resentments, the arena for his own lonely slumber, and eventually the stage on which Miss Kubelik will play out the crucial transition in her life.
Other shots track down Manhattan streets and peer in through club windows, and isolate Miss Kubelik and the phony-sincere Mr. Sheldrake in their booth at the Chinese restaurant, where he makes earnest protestations of his good intentions, and glances uneasily at his watch.
By the time he made “The Apartment,” Wilder had become a master at a kind of sardonic, satiric comedy that had sadness at its center. "Double Indemnity" (1944) was about a man (MacMurray again) who trusted that one simple crime would solve his romantic and financial troubles. “Sunset Boulevard” has William Holden as a paramour to a grotesque aging movie queen (Gloria Swanson), but there was pathos in the way her former husband (Erich von Stroheim) still worshiped at the shrine of her faded greatness.
Wilder was fresh off the enormous hit “Some Like It Hot” (1959), his first collaboration with Lemmon, and Lemmon was headed toward “The Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), which along with “The Apartment” showed that he could move from light comedian to tragic everyman. This movie was the summation of what Wilder had done to date, and the key transition in Lemmon's career.
It was also a key film for Shirley MacLaine, who had been around for five years in light comedies and had good scenes in “Some Came Running” (1958) but here emerged as a serious actress who would flower in the 1960s.
What is particularly good about her Miss Kubelik is the way she doesn't make her a ditzy dame who falls for a smooth talker, but suggests a young woman who has been lied to before, who has a good heart but finite patience, who is prepared to make the necessary compromises to be the next Mrs. Sheldrake. The underlying seriousness of MacLaine's performance helps anchor the picture--it raises the stakes, and steers it away from any tendency to become musical beds.
What's particularly perceptive is the way, after her suicide attempt, she hauls herself together and actually gives Sheldrake another chance. Like Baxter, she has not been forced into job prostitution, but chosen it. One of the ways this is an adult picture and not a sitcom is the way it takes Baxter and Miss Kubelik so long to make the romantic leap; they aren't deluded fools, but jaded realists who have given up on love and are more motivated by paychecks. There is a wonderful, wicked, delicacy in the way Wilder handles the final scene, and finds the right tender-tough note in the last lines of the screenplay. (“Shut up and deal” would become almost as famous as “nobody's perfect,” the immortal closing lines of “Some Like it Hot.”)
As it happened, I watched “The Apartment” not long after Jack Lemmon's death, and looked at Blake Edwards' “The Days of Wine and Roses” (1962) and James Foley's “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992) at the same time. The side-by-side viewings were an insight into Lemmon's acting, and into changing styles in movies. “The Days of Wine and Roses” has dated, in my opinion; the famous greenhouse scene looks more like overacting than alcoholism. Wilder's “The Lost Weekend” (1945) was made 17 years earlier but feels more contemporary in his treatment of alcoholism. “Glengarry Glen Ross” contains probably Lemmon's best performance. His aging, desperate real estate salesman is deserving of comparison with anyone's performance of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” and it is interesting how Lemmon, who famously began with directors asking him to dial down and give “a little less,” was able here to hit the precise tones needed for the David Mamet dialogue, which is realism cloaked in mannerism.
In observing that “The Lost Weekend” hasn't dated, I could be making a comment about Wilder's work in general. Even a lightweight romantic comedy like “Sabrina” (1954) holds up better than its 1990s remake, and the great Wilder pictures don't play as period pieces but look us straight in the eye. “Some Like It Hot” is still funny, “Sunset Boulevard” is still a masterful gothic character comedy, and “The Apartment” is still tougher and more poignant than the material might have permitted. The valuable element in Wilder is his adult sensibility; his characters can't take flight with formula plots, because they are weighted down with the trials and responsibilities of working for a living. In many movies, the characters hardly even seem to have jobs, but in “The Apartment” they have to be reminded that they have anything else.