Acclaimed writer/director Billy Wilder strikes again with another humorous and romantic comedy in “The Apartment.” But more important than another triangular love story from the “Some Like It Hot” creator is the actor he brought along with him: Jack Lemmon. Though “Hot” was his breaking out party, “The Apartment” really boasts the range of the funny, neurotic and charismatic Lemmon.
In this film, Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a lowly insurance worker hoping to climb the corporate ladder by “leasing” his primely located Manhattan apartment to four different company executives so they can entertain their mistresses. Baxter himself claims to be a humble bachelor, but his eye for the attractive elevator operator Fran (Shirley MacLaine) in his building tells us otherwise. Problem is, Fran’s still in love with another man and that other man happens to be Baxter’s boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
Lemmon defines lovable protagonist as Baxter. From his goofy nasal voice early in the film as he tries to satisfy all his “clients” whilst carrying a cold to his fast-talking enthusiasm as he courageously asks out Fran. It’s almost too much when we see him alone in his apartment dancing from excitement or cleverly taking a hit to his reputation by letting his neighbors assume he’s a playboy. Watching him play second fiddle to Fran and Sheldrake’s unsettled affair through much of the film is almost difficult because we want him to be the one finding love.
MacLaine is marvelous as the down-on-herself, lovestruck Fran, the very beginning of what of course became a long and fruitful career. MacMurray is excellent too, playing a strong lead for so late in his career.
But it’s Lemmon’s performance and Wilder’s lovable story that make “The Apartment” such a classic. By 1960, no one could keep audiences from knowing that the two leads would fall in love, but the key was finding a different way to get them there. Wilder also pokes fun at a what was a touchy subject in the era of the “perfect American family” in rich married men going on dates with younger women. It’s that creative and light sense of humor hovering over all the drama that makes Wilder comedies so good.