In the beginning of The Apartment we see C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) being lost in a sea of desks within a gigantic office room. He works for a huge New York insurance company employing over thirty thousand souls spread over twenty-seven floors. Sometimes he is working overtime; "It's not like I was overly ambitious..." Baxter tells us defensively. "You see, I have this little problem with my apartment
I can't always get in when I want to."
The reason are several superiors, to whom he is lending his apartment for their extra-marital escapades. In exchange they promise to give his career a push by passing recommendations to the personnel manager, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Although Buddy Boy (that's his disrespectful yet firmly established nickname) is daily surrounded by hundreds of people, he is drowning in lonesomeness. Apart from his mocking colleagues, there does not seem to be any family or close friends. In fact, the only decent person among his acquaintances is his neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), ironically under the wrong impression that the man next door is a womanizing drunkard.
So Baxter meekly adapts to the mercilessness of corporate life, putting all hopes of happiness into his career. His free evenings consist of watching TV, preparing dinner or cleaning up after the occupants of his apartment. Yes, one could say that Baxter does not exactly lead a joyful life.
Yet, there is something, or rather somebody carrying light into the loner's gloominess when he falls in love with the pretty elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Although Fran likes him for his decency and kindness, she does not quite share the feelings of her ardent admirer. But Buddy Boy refuses to notice any signs of unrequited love and eventually talks her into going out with him. You can imagine how Baxter feels when she fails to turn up, and how things get significantly worse when he finds out that she is actually having intimate meetings with the personnel manager Mr. Sheldrake in HIS apartment. The image of purity Baxter had of Fran is gone. On Christmas Eve, he decides to drown his broken heart in a bar while his apartment is occupied by the cause of his misery. But Fran doesn't feel any happier than Baxter, and with the depressing effect Christmas can have on the lonesome and desperate, the story threatens to take a turn into tragedy...
It is hard to pin The Apartment on a single genre. The sharp, witty dialogue as well as Jack Lemmon's hilarious mimic would hint at a romantic comedy. Yet, one cannot overlook the tragic elements which let us dive into thoughtfulness, but never too deeply. Then again the film works on a satiric level, operating as cynical social commentary on corporate culture in the sixties (which is not very unlike today's business life). The remarkable thing about this film is that these three qualities merge perfectly into each other without ever losing the balance. The Apartment is a most entertaining picture, sometimes rushing from one hilarity to the next, and then suddenly slowing down to leave room for contemplation. Sometimes uplifting, sometimes depressing, sometimes both at the same time. Billy Wilder mixed these contrary moods, and most amazingly, it worked out just fine.
First and foremost The Apartment deals with loneliness and the everlasting search for unaccomplished love. "I used to live like Robinson Crusoe. I mean shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand and there you were." Baxter tells Ms Kubelik. Does any relationship ever work out the way one dreamed it would? Additionally the film points out how people let themselves be treated badly out of total lack of self-esteem. Standing up for oneself and saying the simple word "no" can sometimes be an art of its own.
As an able filmmaker and scriptwriter (together with I. A. L. Diamond, "Some like it Hot"), Billy Wilder once again produced a film classic of outstanding quality. I have yet to see another picture, equally consistent at providing such humorous and well-timed dialogues. The amount of memorable quotes is remarkable and the entire cast did a terrific job at delivering them. Moreover, Wilder chose to shoot in black and white widescreen, shining with beautiful cinematography, and thereby gave the film a very special melancholy mood.
Maybe the greatest strength of The Apartment is its honesty. It doesn't lie to us by painting images of perfect love or of perfect people. Neither does it create scenarios of utter hopelessness. However, it shows us that although life can be unfair on default, everyone is responsible for oneself to work up the courage to achieve happiness. With the director's cynical, yet comic approach to life, the film takes itself serious and it doesn't. It lets us taste the bitter and the sweet, thereby lending itself a tone of reality. For that reason alone I don't feel cheated by The Apartment and its story never failed to cheer me up. Then again, I may be too much of a pessimistic optimist.