The OTHER critically acclaimed film of 1960, The Apartment paints a sordid and complex view of life in white collar New York City.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemon) is a low-level accounting clerk at fictional Consolidated Life in Manhattan and is a bit of a pushover. He once let a friend use his apartment for the night and now he finds himself continually loaning out his apartment to superiors for use with their love affairs, often leaving him without a place to sit down at all hours of the night. He is fielding complaints from his neighbors about the noise, shuffling calendars to accommodate the various visits to his place and constantly getting sick from lack of sleep dealing with it all. He has a crush on one of the elevator operators in his building, Fran Kueblik (Shirley MacLaine) but hasn’t had the courage to push things past casual flirting.
One day, Baxter gets called up to the office of Jeff Sheldrake, a big wig in the office, who wants to use the apartment for his own affair and offers Baxter 2 tickets to The Music Man that he won’t use in exchange. Baxter, excited to ask Fran out on a date agrees. He asks Fran as she is exiting, she tells him that she can join him but she has to have a drink with a boyfriend with whom she is breaking it off first.
We then learn that Fran IS the affair that Sheldrake wanted the apartment for and she eventually blows off Baxter after failing to break off the affair with him after he tells her the he will divorce his wife to be with her.
Sheldrake promotes Baxter and continues to use his apartment twice a week. At the office Christmas Party, Fran learns from his secretary that Sheldrake has had tons of affairs, and always says he will leave his wife but never does. Baxter also discovers that night that Fran is the one that Sheldrake is having the affair with after he recognizes her mirror, which was previously left behind in his apartment.
Baxter leaves heartbroken and heads to bar where he proceeds to get drunk and pick up a barfly, whose husband is imprisoned in Cuba and takes her back to his apartment.
While he was out, Sheldrake and Fran have a huge fight after he gives her cash rather than a Christmas present and she realizes he isn’t going to leave his wife. He leaves, but she stays behind and empties a bottle of Baxter’s sleeping pills, attempting to commit suicide.
Baxter brings the barfly back to his apartment, but soon discovers Fran unconscious and enlists the help of his doctor neighbor to save her life. He nurses her back to health, cooks for her and plays Gin Rummy with her. Baxter tells Fran that he once tried to commit suicide over a broken heart, but couldn’t figure out where to shoot himself and wound up mishandling the gun and shooting himself in the knee.
Fran’s brother-in-law tracks her down to Baxter’s apartment and Baxter tries to take the blame as the reason she tried to commit suicide. He punches Baxter and they leave.
Baxter makes up his mind that he is going to tell Fran that he is in love with her. He plans to tell Sheldrake of his plan and position it as him taking a problem off his hands. Before he can explain it to him, Sheldrake tells him that his wife kicked him out and that he is going to be with Fran and that he will need the apartment for a bit until he can get settled. Baxter refuses. Sheldrake tells him that it will cost him his job. Baxter quits and gives the lease up on his apartment and starts to pack it up, on New Year’s Eve.
Fran and Sheldrake are at a New Year’s Eve party together and he tells her that Baxter quit and wouldn’t give him the apartment. Fran slips out at midnight and finds Baxter in his apartment. She asks to finish their Gin Rummy game. Baxter tells Fran that he is in love with her. She simply says “shut up and deal”.
This movie is a fascinating hybrid. It isn’t quite a comedy because it isn’t very funny, although Lemon is absolutely adorable in a lot of the scenes. It isn’t quite a romance because it isn’t particularly romantic for long stretches, the end notwithstanding. It at times feels light featuring scenes about straining pasta through a tennis racket, the headaches of keeping an appointment book and rescheduling people and how Fran doesn’t know how to light a gas burner. It at times feels heavy as a ton of bricks, attempted suicides, empty womanizing and ruthless office quid pro quo’s.
It is also a mix of things cinematically – it was shot in black and white, 21 years after the Wizard of Oz was shot in color and the same year that the cinematically beautiful Spartacus was also shot in color. It has some of the romantic comedy structural elements that earlier films such as Bringing Up Baby had but with a much darker, heavier social commentary, a prologue to the more revolutionary films of the later 60s and 70s.
It was thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking. The chemistry between Lemon and MacLaine is positively electric and the themes seem both contemporary to the time and highly relevant. The inner conflict that Baxter experiences wanting everyone to like him but trying to figure out what is right at the same time is compelling. And Fran’s despair and conflict is real. Two highly imperfect people who have both been pushovers finding each other in a roundabout way is engaging – maybe it is a romance after all.
The film flew by at 2 hours and 4 minutes and left me wanting more.
What were the flaws? The premise of Baxter’s apartment becoming a love nest for free rent seems far-fetched. Sheldrake’s character is a bit shallow and Fred MacMurray turns in a bit of a wooden performance as Sheldrake. The production is a bit simple. But make no mistake about it, the positives far outweigh the flaws. This is a great film and worthy of its place on the list. 1960 really was a great year for movies.
Production Quality 8/10
Rewatch Value 9/10
Total Score 36/40