There's a scene in David Lean's 1945 masterpiece "Brief Encounter" where the two main characters--who have fallen in love with each other despite both being married to other people--meet up at a friend's apartment to finally consummate their romance. While watching this scene, Billy Wilder decided he was more interested in the man who would loan out his residence for such an illicit meet-up than he was in the two people having the actual affair. The questions that arose were endless. Why would he do this? Did he know what his place was being used for? Did he expect to gain something in return? What would he do to pass the time when he couldn't go home? So goes the story of how Wilder first got the idea for his 1960 masterpiece "The Apartment".
Representing the romantic comedy genre at it's least sentimental, "The Apartment" tells the story of C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an employee of Consolidated Life of New York. He works on the 19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861. And since his job can be described like that, it's nearly impossible for him to get noticed and move up the corporate ladder. But he's happened upon a solution to remedy this problem. He's been loaning out his apartment to a few company executives so they can have a place to take their dates where their wives would never find them. For this, they promise to keep him in mind when a promotion becomes available. When director of personnel J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) gets wind of this situation, he gives Baxter the promotion, but only on the condition that Sheldrake gets exclusive access to the apartment. Baxter also has a bit of a crush on elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). She likes him, thinks he's a nice guy and all, but it turns out she's the girl who Sheldrake is taking to Baxter's place for a little romance on the side. That's all the plot description you'll get out of me. But rest assured, from that point on the story takes some fairly surprising--and surprisingly dark--turns.
Bringing the three main characters to life are a trio of actors who couldn't be more perfectly suited to the task. Jack Lemmon was--in my own personal opinion--one of film's greatest leading men. As good as anyone ever was at shifting between comedy and drama. He was supposedly the only actor who Wilder ever let improvise in his films. He makes so many lines funnier than they otherwise would have been with unique readings and comedic body language. Shirley MacLaine, with her short red hair and elfin features, probably would've been a Zooey Deschanel style darling of the indie scene had she been born forty years later. But she's no manic pixie dream girl here. Fred MacMurray was known more for playing clean cut father figure types in family films, but Wilder loved to cast him against type (see also: "Double Indemnity"). In a film filled with morally compromised characters, none seem more irredeemable than him. The fact the Lemmon and MacLaine have such an effortless chemistry in their witty banter, while MacMurray and MacLaine have none to speak of, makes you root just that much harder for her to come to her senses and end up with Lemmon.
The screenplay--by Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond--is one that should be studied by any and all aspiring screenwriters. Loaded to the brink with setups and payoffs. And featuring some of the snappiest dialogue you'll ever hear. Despite most of the drama centering around three characters, Wilder and Diamond manage to populate the film with numerous supporting characters with their own quirks and mannerisms that stick in your mind. There's Mr. Kirkeby (David Lewis), one of the philandering executives, with his habit of attaching the suffix "wise" to the end of whatever he says ("Premium-wise and billing-wise, we are eighteen percent ahead of last year, October-wise"). Margie McDougall (Hope Holiday), a boozy broad who Baxter picks up in a moment of despair. She's holding a grudge against Fidel Castro for imprisoning her jockey husband. And Baxter's neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), who at first is just there to comment on things with that typically Jewish observational wit, then later turns into something of a mentor for Baxter in a time of crisis (more on that later). These and many other characters manage to feel completely defined no matter how little screen time they have. It's a master class in economical characterization.
Since the dialogue and characters grab your attention so easily, it would be very tempting to describe this as more of a writer's film than a director's. But this film is also loaded with images that speak as loudly as the words. Classically composed widescreen shots with multiple points of focus and frames within frames. As a director, Wilder was a practitioner of the Old Hollywood philosophy of "invisible craft." He doesn't indulge in pretty shots for the sake of pretty shots. Doesn't move the camera or cut into a closeup unless he's got a very specific reason to do it. But when he wants to, he sure knows how to make a shot sing. The introduction of Baxter in a seemingly endless row of desks, in an impossibly large office room, says more about his role as a cog in the corporate machine than any words could. And when Fran reaches her breaking point with Sheldrake as he carelessly hands her a $100 bill for a Christmas present, the look on her face, with the money framed in the shot with her, tells you all you need to know about her own sense of self-worth at that moment.
For Billy Wilder this film was a continuation of his career-long fascination with institutional hypocrisy. He'd already explored marriage and the unspoken cultural acceptance of male infidelity a few years earlier with "The Seven Year Itch" (1955). And with "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) he exposed the way the Hollywood system uses up and discards it's stars, leaving them with nothing to cling to but past accolades and the memory that they were once big. In "The Apartment" he married these two ideas. It would be a stretch to call this an anti-capitalist film--it most certainly is not meant as a polemic of any kind--but you definitely get a sense of how those with money and power are able to use the system to exploit those without either by stringing them along and offering them a piece of the good life they'll never really get to live. In one of the film's best scenes Dr. Dreyfuss scolds Baxter, telling him "why don't you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means? ... A mensch - a human being!" And that was the problem for both him and Fran the whole time. In their searches for what they wanted--Baxter's professional advancement, and Fran's romantic fulfillment--they'd both forgotten to value themselves people. Human beings whose lives are worth something.