Even in an overall sterling career it can be said Billy Wilder was on a bit of a roll in the Fifties. Starting with Ace in the Hole in 1951 he directed some of his very best films during the decade: Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Some Like It Hot (1959). Billy Wilder ended the decade with what I consider to be his greatest achievement in film: The Apartment (1960). The Apartment is not only my favourite Billy Wilder film. It is also my second favourite film of all time. In fact, I long ago lost count of just how many times I have watched it.
For those who have never seen the movie, The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon), a clerk at Consolidated Life Insurance Company in New York City. Baxter has a rather unusual problem. Quite simply, he finds himself constantly lending his apartment to his superiors for their various rendezvous. While this puts him in good with his bosses, it otherwise makes his life miserable (for instance, he can't always go straight home from work). Complicating matters even further, Baxter is carrying a torch for elevator operator Miss Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a situation which can only serve to make Baxter even more miserable.
The inspiration for the unusual premise of The Apartment stemmed from the first time Billy Wilder saw Brief Encounter, David Lean's film about an affair between two married people. At one point in the film the two lovers meet in an apartment belonging to a co-worker of the man in the affair. Billy Wilder found himself more interested in the co-worker to whom the apartment belonged than the two people having the affair.
The Apartment also took some of its inspiration from a real life Hollywood scandal. Agent Jennings Lang had an affair with actress Joan Bennett, some of their meetings taking place in an apartment belonging to one of his subordinates at his agency. Ultimately Joan Bennett's husband, producer Walter Wanger, would wind up shooting Jennings Lang in a fit of jealousy. Jennings Lang survived while Walter Wanger served four months in prison. Yet another source of inspiration for The Apartment was a story that Billy Wilder's co-writer I. A. L. Diamond heard about a woman who had committed suicide in a man's apartment as an act of revenge against him.
From the beginning Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond had intended for Jack Lemmon to play C. C. Baxter. Having worked with Jack Lemmon on Some Like It Hot (1959), Billy Wilder wanted to work with him again. Shirley MacLaine was cast in the role of Miss Kubelik. At the time Miss MacLaine was an up and coming star, having already appeared in such films as The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Matchmaker (1958), and Some Came Running (1958). She had been nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for the last film.
Originally the role of the oily chief executive of the Consolidated Life Insurance Company and the film's antagonist, Mr. Sheldrake, was planned to go to character actor Paul Douglas. Mr. Douglas appeared in such films as Angels in the Outfield (1951), Executive Suite (1954), and Beau James (1957). Sadly, Paul Douglas died of a heart attack at age 52 only shortly after completing the Twilight Zone episode "The Mighty Casey" and not long before production was set to begin on The Apartment. It was then that Fred MacMurray was cast in the role Sheldrake. Fred MacMurray was initially hesitant to take the role. Not only was he well known for having generally played nice guys over the years, but he was just beginning his long running TV sitcom My Three Sonsand he had just signed a contract with Disney to star in a series of family films. Fortunately Billy Wilder was able to persuade Fred MacMurray to take the role. Mr. Wilder had previously persuaded Fred MacMurray to play against type as the none-too-nice Walter Neff (who also happened to be in the insurance industry) in Double Indemnity (1944).
The role of Baxter's neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss, would also go to an actor other than the one Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond originally had in mind. They had originally intended for character actor Lou Jacobi to play the role. At the time Mr. Jacobi may have been best known for his work on Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank. As it turned out Lou Jacobi was already committed to another Broadway play, The Tenth Man, and its producers would not release him from his contract so he could appear in The Apartment. Jack Kruschen was then cast as Dr. Dreyfuss. Jack Kruschen was a frequent guest star on television shows in the Fifties, and he had appeared in such films as The Buccaneer (1958) and The Man Who Understood Women (1959).
Not only does The Apartment take place roughly during the holiday season, it was also shot largely during the holiday season as well--from November 1959 to February 1960. And while much of the film was shot in Hollywood, parts of it were shot on location in New York City, including scenes set at Columbus Avenue, 59th Street, and the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street. If at times the actors in The Apartment look as though they really are cold, it is probably because they are.
Many of Billy Wilder's films would begin shooting before their screenplays were even finished. This was no less true of The Apartment. When it began shooting only half the script was finished. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond finished the script as filming progressed.
The Apartment would prove to be both a critical and commercial success. The film received generally positive reviews. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther gave the film a glowing review, calling The Apartment "...a gleeful, tender and even sentimental film." Variety also gave The Apartment a positive review, opening with, "Billy Wilder has furnished The Apartment with a one-hook plot that comes out high in comedy, wide in warmth and long in running time." Given the generally positive reviews The Apartment received, it should come as no surprise that the film did well at the Academy Awards. The Apartment won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White). It also received nominations for Oscars for Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Kruschen), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), and Best Sound. The Apartment would also prove to be a hit at the box office. It made $6,700,000 and was the sixth highest grossing film for 1960. By 1970 The Apartment had grossed $25,000,000 worldwide.
Of course, this is not to say that The Apartment was not the source of some controversy. Not everyone was happy with the film, which portrayed martial infidelity as rather commonplace. Hollis Alpert of The Saturday Review referred to it as "a dirty fairy tale". Allegedly Chicago critic Ann Marsters told Billy Wilder in person that he had made a dirty film. Not only did Fred MacMurray find himself receiving hate mail for having played the smarmy Mr. Sheldrake, but he even found himself being accosted on the street by people for having made a "dirty" movie. Although tame by today's standards, The Apartment was considered racy in 1960.
Regardless of its few detractors in 1960, The Apartment would prove to have an impact on the careers of its lead actors. It established Jack Lemmon as a leading man in his own right. It was because of The Apartment that Jack Lemmon appeared as the lead in such films as The Notorious Landlady (1962), Good Neighbour Sam (1964), The Great Race (1965), and many more films throughout his career. What is more, it was following The Apartment that Jack Lemmon, a comic actor earlier in his career, began playing dramatic roles as well. The Apartment would have a similar impact on Shirley MacLaine's career. While Some Came Running established her as a major star, The Apartment more than affirmed it.
Ultimately The Apartment would become regarded as a classic. It would be the last black and white film to win Best Picture until Schindler's List (1993). It also provided the basis for the 1968 Broadway musical Promises, Promises, and the inspiration for films from the 2005 Malaysian film Salon to the 2007 Bollywood film Life in a... Metro.
As to why The Apartment was so successful upon its initial release and has since become considered one of Billy Wilder's greatest movies, it is perhaps because it is a sophisticated and complicated movie, despite its somewhat simple premise (C. C. Baxter loans out his apartment to his superiors at work). In many respects The Apartment is surprisingly dark, much darker than many of Billy Wilder's other comedies. The Apartment is not only set in a world where marital infidelity is commonplace, but where corporate executives regularly exploit their underlings for their own benefit. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to say whether The Apartment is indeed a comedy or if it is instead a realistic drama that just happens to have a good deal of humour. Regardless, The Apartment can be both deeply cynical and very serious in ways that many of Billy Wilder's comedies are not.
Of course, this is not to say that The Apartment is not a very funny film. In fact, I believe it is the funniest film Billy Wilder ever made, despite the darker and more serious themes that pervade the movie. Even more so than Some Like It Hot, The Apartment has a large number of extremely funny and very quotable lines. It also has a number of very funny, if very human and very realistic, scenes. Indeed, the film does have its share of physical humour. It then seems possible that The Apartment could be described as a dark comedy with a good deal of drama.
While The Apartment takes a very dark of view of corporate America, the film also has a sweetness to it, although it never becomes overly saccharine. At the core of The Apartment is not Baxter's predicament with his apartment or even his predicament with his superiors at work, but instead his relationship with Miss Kubelik. Unlike "playboys" Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) in The Seven Year Itch or Joe (played by Tony Curtis) in Some Like It, C. C. Baxter is not seeking merely to bed Miss Kubelik. Although neither he nor Miss Kubelik realise it, Baxter is sincerely, genuinely in love with her, and that fact propels much of the plot of the film. The Apartment is a true romantic comedy in a way few modern "romcoms" are.
The Apartment is also a treat for fans of 20th Century popular culture. Early in the film C. C. Baxter settles down to watch television only to find every single television station is showing Westerns except for one (it is showing Grand Hotel), a reference to the huge cycle towards Westerns then dominating television in the late Fifties. With regards to its reference to Grand Hotel, The Apartment is the first Best Picture winner to reference earlier Best Picture winners according to the website IMDB. The other Best Picture besides Grand Hotel referenced in The Apartment is The Lost Weekend. This is something of an in-joke, as The Lost Weekend was also directed by Billy Wilder. The Apartment also references Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Mae West, The Untouchables, and then hit Broadway musical The Music Man. In more ways than one The Apartment captured the zeitgeist of 1959.
In some respects The Apartment could be considered the quintessential Billy Wilder film. Unlike many other directors, Billy Wilder was equally adept at comedy and drama, and with The Apartment he blended them together seamlessly. The cynicism of many of his films is also blended with the sentiment he sometimes expressed in others. What is more, The Apartment features the witty dialogue and complex characters for which he was so well known. While many might point to Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Some Like It Hot (1959) as Billy Wilder's greatest masterpiece, I am convinced it is The Apartment.