A tale of modern urban life, where connections are becoming increasingly hard to establish, it focuses on a few characters around a New York big insurance company (an accountant, an elevator girl, and a few others). It starts with a nod to King Vidor’s “The Crowd”, courtesy of set designer Alexander Trauner, and a narration of facts and figures, quickly establishing the dehumanisation of the workplace, just before we focus on CC Baxter, a slightly ambitious average Joe (played by Jack Lemmon). Nothing would distinguish him from the rest of the office except for two things: one, he is single (i.e. lives alone) and two, he rents a very well located apartment. Combined, these means it’s easy for he to loan his apartment to his philandering bosses.
Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is a masterclass in scriptwriting. It’s economical, character driven, true to character and funny and heartbreaking. An all-in-one example is the Christmas party sequence. In just a few shots, Lemmon’s character learns the about the mysterious identity of his boss’ lover. There’s no exposition, no big drama, just a few shots, a clue given earlier and you end with a character completely heartbroken yet unable to give away his feelings. Deservedly, it got them an Oscar for best original screenplay, which Wilder also complemented with a best director and best film – the last competitive Oscars he would get (he only got another nomination, for “The Fortune Cookie”’s script).
Of course it helps that his three lead actors (Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray) are absolutely astonishing. MacMurray plays slimmy, arrogant and self-assured with perfection: just look at the perfection of his twin scenes, with MacLaine and Lemmon, seducing one and the other (in different ways, with different goals), by telling one how much he loves her and that he will divorce his wife, and to the other, by playing macho and saying how MacLaine is just only another fling and he has no intention of divorcing his wife after all. One of the most reliable leading ladies’ leading men of the 1930s and 1940s, I always feel he was treated unfairly (e.g. not getting an Oscar nomination for this), something he contributed to by stating that only Wilder made him act. I disagree: not only was he always good fun in his Paramount years (well, at least as far as I have experienced) but in Sirk’s “There’s Always Tomorrow” he is as good as in here or in “Double Indemnity”.
Lemmon – Wilder’s Everyman – is also spot on. Funny and hurt, Full of joy and heartbroken. He handles with the same grace the Christmas sequence I mentioned above, and for instance, the spaghetti/tennis racked scene later on. Or his reaction to TV advertising – looking forward to an ever delayed showing of “Grand Hotel”.
But it is MacLaine that wins my heart. With her face alone she tells all the layers that Wilder doesn’t put into words – her barely hidden contempt when presented with the $100 bill; her confused apologies when she figures out that it’s Lemmon’s apartment; and in the final sequences, from the bar up to that brilliant line which ends the film (and Wilder and/or Diamond were so good at those) and leaves open most things to come. As for the Oscars, well, she put it best herself: "I thought I would win for The Apartment, but then Elizabeth Taylor had a tracheotomy".
The supporting cast is also brilliant, particularly the quartet of executives who use the apartment, the doctor’s wife and the telephone girl. I am less convinced by the blond girl and the doctor – although he was the one secured a nomination for best supporting actor.
I think I also need to put a word here for two of my favourite technicians in the cinema ever: set designer Alexander Trauner and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle. Both had a long career. Both became Wilder regulars afterwards (particularly Trauner, with both working in “Irma La Douce” and “Kiss me Stupid”) although Trauner had previously designed the sets for “Witness for the Prossecution”. Both have a body of work that puts them at the height of their professions, and both got Oscar nominations for this. If Trauner’s amazing apartment got him a just reward (Lemmon’s apartment is one of the most realistic sets I have ever seen, from the TV to the Ella Fitzgerald LPs), LaShelle got passed over. In a perfect world they both would have won.
As Wilder put elsewhere, nobody’s perfect. And I have a couple of issues with the film. The neighbours’ reactions being one of them – how can they be completely oblivious to the fact that Lemmon isn’t really having all those women? Nosy as they are, they should have found that out long ago. Another is the timeline of events prior to the film: MacLaine only joined the company a few months before, but there is the hint in some of the dialogue that she’s been there for years. Surely there are plenty of hints on that front. But these little quibbles don’t distract from near perfection.