The Apartment ★★★★★

“The mirror...it’s broken.” “Yes, I know. I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel.”

The Apartment should be broken. It shouldn’t work. There’s an obviousness to the setup that should be off-putting and a trickiness to the balancing of various tones that should be unmanageable. We quickly realize that C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) will end up together, but that first Baxter will have to learn to stand up to Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) and the other officious executives at Consolidated Life and that Miss Kubelik will have to learn to appreciate Baxter’s ordinary schmo more than Sheldrake’s oily womanizer. We see the film veer between light comedy and dark drama and back again, with dialogue bordering on overly cute and characters bordering on caricature. We see a satire plagued by ordinariness and a character study plagued by over-stylized language. Like Fran’s mirrored compact, it should be broken. Maybe it is. And yet we like it that way.

However precariously, The Apartment manages to hold together, and it holds together beautifully. As is often the case with Billy Wilder's movies, a large share of the credit goes to the screenplay, with Wilder and his frequent co-writer I.A.L. Diamond offering up their usual witty, cynical dialogue. But Wilder’s assuredness as a director shines here, too. Effortlessly, Wilder manages to mix the humor of Baxter’s constant displacement for his executives’ dalliances with the bleakness of Baxter’s lonely existence and Kubelik’s suicide attempt. What should feel like an awkward tonal shift instead feels like a natural progression—even the lightest moments are tinged with despair and even the darkest moments are leavened by banter, making everything feel of a piece.

Mostly, though, The Apartment is an actors’ showcase. Lemmon displays his great talent for both comedy and drama, finding in Baxter the right mix of downtrodden chipperness. We must believe that Baxter would be willing to prostitute himself up the corporate ladder by proxy without becoming embittered (until the very end), lonely and resigned to degrade others’ opinion of him (from his bosses to his neighbors) while holding on to a bit of hope. Lemmon’s grinning melancholy makes that belief come easy. And MacMurray has never been better. His Sheldrake is an irredeemably rotten human being, but instead of playing him as the embodiment of venality, MacMurray portrays him as callousness dappled with charm, trusting the iniquity to speak for itself. No moustache twirling, just casual indifference to humanity laced with a promise and a smile.

But the heart of The Apartment, and the key to its atmospheric mastery, is MacLaine. There’s a matter-of-factness to her Kubelik that grounds the film. She’s sweet but not ditzy; she’s hard on herself but not maudlin; she’s pragmatic but not unromantic. When Baxter tells her that he used to live like Robinson Crusoe until he saw her footprint in the sand, it’s the overwrought sentiment of a lonely man; Kubelik sticks the landing by only slightly smiling and changing the subject to dinner. When Baxter finally confesses that he loves Miss Kubelik, that he absolutely adores her, it’s the big romantic confession we’ve been anticipating; Kubelik diffuses the emotional swell by coyly smiling and telling him to shut up and deal with just the right note of dry, cheeky warmth. And involuntarily we smile back at these broken people in this broken film...well, what do you know—it’s made us look the way we feel.

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