Good Movies: The Apartment, 1960

Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder on the set of The Apartment

I keep reading about  Mad Men and how people think it’s really cool to have this retro series about sexist times when everyone smoked a lot of cigarettes. In fact, the 1950s and early 60s have become the setting for modern bodice rippers, the kind of story where women have to use their wiles to prevail even as they are forced to perform all kinds of terrible, terrible acts. This has become such a happening genre that there’s a series about stewardesses of that time and another about Playboy bunnies. Now I think everyone is entitled to the porn of their choice but, having lived through that era, I don’t find these shows very appealing. I saw, back then, this blockbuster about stewardesses (“stewardii”, as Shelley Berman called them), though not the 3-D version and, though I have no desire to watch it again, I think current day critics and commentators might be informed by it. In fact, there are other, better, movies on these topics that were made back then that are deserving of your time. One such is The Apartment from 1960.

Billy Wilder had viewed Brief Encounter and mused that the interesting part of the film was not about the clandestine couple, but the guy whose apartment they used, the man who had to come back to a lonely place where the bed was still warm. Wilder sat down with his new favorite writer, I.A.L. Diamond, and they hashed out a script about a nebbish who has to lend his apartment to men who want a quick assignation. This has been called one of the greatest filmscripts ever. Jack Lemmon was a mid-level star that had made Some Like It Hot (as second lead) the year before. Billy Wilder appreciated Lemmon’s comedic talents but wanted to cast him in something deeper and darker. Shirley MacLaine had been good in Some Came Running but had a couple of duds afterwards, still she was perfect as the working class girl whose soft heart overcomes her native distrust.

Lemmon and MacLaine worked extremely well together but the script also called for a slimy insurance executive. Originally Wilder had Paul Douglas in mind, but Douglas suffered a heart attack and Wilder returned to an actor he had previously cast as a slimy insurance man: Fred MacMurray, who was the insurance salesman in Wilder’s Double Indemnity. It was a fine choice. Lemmon and MacLaine both got Oscar nominations, but Jack Kruschen, who plays another role in this movie, got the Supporting Actor nomination. Too bad for Fred who soon went to television and  My Three Sons. But let’s remember him here and in Double Indemnity and The Caine Mutiny as a guy who could play slime very well. MacMurray got so much hate mail after The Apartment that he swore never to act as a slimeball again. He never had another good movie.

Now from here on are Spoilers, okay?

The Consolidated office.

The story is this: Lemmon plays C.C. (Bud) Baxter, one of 31,259 employees at Consolidated Insurance. We see some shots of office hell that may tell the modern viewer that cubicles were quite a step up in worker comfort. In fact, Consolidated looks like some of those Chinese cyber-sweatshops where workers grind out computer games, the places that make us all shudder. Yes, that was the United States in 1960. Running one of the elevators is Fran Kubelik, MacLaine’s character. Yes, they still had elevator operators then but they were swiftly being phased out. The last elevator operator I ever saw was in Vancouver’s Sun building (once the tallest in the city) in 1971.

Shirley MacLaine as Miss Kubelik.

Well, Bud likes Miss Kubelik (as she is called throughout the movie) and she may like him, but they are merely two cogs in a huge machine. Bud has something going for him, though; he has an apartment near to Consolidated’s Manhattan office. This apartment is used by Bud’s managers as a place to meet up with women for sex. Bud is required to keep track and re-assign the guys who miss out because someone a little higher in the pecking order requires his place. He sits outside waiting for these guys to leave. Here’s some dialogue between one of these busy businessmen and his sweetie:

Where do you live?

I told you — with my mother.

Where does she live?

A hundred and seventy-ninth
street — the Bronx.

All right — I’ll take you to the

Like hell you will.  You’ll buy me
a cab.

Why do all you dames have to live
in the Bronx?

You mean you bring other girls up

Certainly not.  I’m a happily
married man.

Bud goes up to his place, but it’s not really his yet. Kirkeby runs back up because Sylvia has forgotten her galoshes:

Mr. Kirkeby, I don’t like to
complain — but you were supposed
to be out of here by eight.

I know, Buddy-boy, I know.  But
those things don’t always run on
schedule — like a Greyhound bus.

I don’t mind in the summer — but
on a rainy night — and I haven’t
had any dinner yet —

Sure, sure.  Look, kid — I put in
a good word for you with Sheldrake,
in Personnel.

(perking up)
Mr. Sheldrake?

That’s right.  We were discussing
our department — manpower-wise —
and promotion-wise —
(finds the galoshes
behind a chair)
— and I told him what a bright boy
you were.  They’re always on the
lookout for young executives.
Thank you, Mr. Kirkeby.

(starting toward door)
You’re on your way up, Buddy-boy.
And you’re practically out of liquor.

I know.  Mr. Eichelberger — in the
Mortgage Loan Department — last
night he had a little Halloween
party here —

Well, lay in some vodka and some
vermouth — and put my name on it.

Yes, Mr. Kirkeby.  You still owe me
for the last two bottles —

I’ll pay you on Friday.
(in the open doorway)
And whatever happened to those
little cheese crackers you used to
have around?

Got it? Bud is looking to advance his career from desk schlub to executive by selling his home. So Kirkeby leaves and Bud cleans up, dumping the empty bottles that used to hold his booze,  cleaning their mess up, and finally fixing a TV dinner (in the oven, no microwaves yet). He settles in front of the TV (probably black-and-white like the movie), sticking his fork in the foil of the TV dinner, a great moment that shows some of the emotion Bud usually swallows. He gets no satisfaction from the TV. He takes a sleeping pill and climbs into bed. He unwraps a brand new Playboy and leafs through it. He unfolds the centerfold, the refolds it and starts reading an article about what young executives should wear. He imagines himself in a bowler hat. Then the phone rings, an exec wanting to use his place for just a little while. Bud says No, but the exec reminds him that he’s writing up efficiency reports and if Bud wants to be classed as efficient… So Bud leaves his place and collapses on a park bench where he goes to sleep. Continue reading