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The film begins with voice-over commentary by Jack Lemmon, as "C. C. `Buddy' Baxter," who describes the vastness of New York and the large, impersonal nature of the Consolidated Life Insurance Company. The picture involves a running gag in which Buddy affects the executives' jargon by adding "wise" to the end of numerous words. This form of slang, which was popular at the time, was also used in the film's advertising. The last line of The Apartment, "Shut up and deal," has gained the status of one of the cinema's iconic lines. The character of "The blonde," played by Joyce Jameson, is referred to in the film as "a Marilyn Monroe lookalike" and imitates that actress' voice and mannerisms.
Contemporary sources note that associate producer I. A. L. Diamond and producer-director Billy Wilder wrote The Apartment specifically for Lemmon, just after filming finished on Some Like It Hot (1959, see below). Wilder stated in a modern interview that he was inspired by the character of the man who lends his apartment to the lovers in Brief Encounter, the 1945 David Lean film (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). Wilder described his story note as reading, "Movie about the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers." The 1960 New York Times article stated that Wilder had originally planned the story as a play, but upon realizing that the important office set could not be shown to full effect on a stage, he and Diamond reconceived it as a film. Diamond asserted in the article that the film comments on "the mores of the American business community."
Although Hollywood Reporter announced in August 1959 that Paul Douglas was cast as "J. D. 'Jeff' Sheldrake," he suffered a fatal heart attack on September 11, 1959 and Fred MacMurray was offered the role. In interviews, MacMurray stated that he was initially reluctant to portray such a nefarious character when the public associated him with roles such as the father in the popular television comedy My Three Sons, but that he reconsidered after thinking about his successful role as a murderer in Wilder's 1944 film noir classic Double Indemnity (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1940-51).
According to a feature on Wilder in New York Times in January 1960, the script for The Apartment was only half-finished when shooting began, a customary practice of Wilder's that allowed him to tailor the roles to the actors after they were cast. Press materials note that exterior shooting all took place at night in New York City, including locations such as Central Park, the Majestic Theatre lobby and Columbus Avenue. The rest of the film was shot at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Los Angeles. There, the filmmakers constructed the huge interior set of the insurance office, designed to represent the demoralizing, impersonal nature of the corporate environment.
According to press notes, the set was made of glass and metal and covered more than 25,000 square feet. In a modern interview, Wilder described the techniques they used to create the vast office space, including forced perspective with progressively smaller sized desks that recede into cardboard cutouts. Although Wilder claimed in a modern interview that he placed progressively smaller actors at the desks, finally casting dwarves, art director Alexander Trauner has stated that the actors in the back rows were children. Hollywood Reporter reported in December 1959 that the set included nearly $4 million worth of loaned office equipment, attended to by operators supplied by the IBM corporation.
Press materials add that the artwork seen in the office of Sheldrake, including paintings by Massimo Campigli and Paul Klee, were from the personal collection of Wilder, a well-known art collector, and that the bed in Buddy's apartment was owned by Wilder, who had previously used the prop as Audrey Hepburn's childhood bed in Sabrina (see below). Edie Adams and Hope Holiday made their feature film debuts in The Apartment. Although December 1959 and January 1960 Hollywood Reporter news items add the following actors to the cast, their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed: Edith Simmons, Shirley Adams, Elaine Walker, Diana Green, Lynn Cartier, Darlene Hendricks, Dorothy Partington, Charna Haven, Italo De Nubila, Nona Carver, Beverly Ravel, June Smaney and Anita King. A modern source adds David Macklin, Dorothy Abbott and Mason Curry to the cast and credits Angelo Laiacona as assistant director.
As noted in the Variety review, Charles Williams' song "Jealous Lover" was retitled "Theme from The Apartment" for its popular commercial release. The film's Los Angeles premiere on June 21, 1960 benefitted the Vista Del March Child Guidance Foundation. The film was chosen as the official U.S. entry in the Venice Film Festival, 24 August-September 7, 1960. Reviews of the picture were strong, with the New York Times reviewer stating that Lemmon "takes precedence as our top comedian by virtue of his work in this film." The Apartment marked the beginning of a transition for Lemmon from purely comedic roles to dramatic ones, culminating with his portrayal of an alcoholic in 1962's The Days of Wine and Roses (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70). He went on to make more five more features with Wilder, including 1963's Irma La Douce (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70) and The Front Page in 1974. Despite references in modern sources to tension between MacLaine and Wilder, she also went on to work with him as the title character in Irma La Douce, for which she won an Academy Award nomination.
The Apartment won many honors, including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Art Direction (Alexander Trauner and Edward G. Boyle) and Editing (Daniel Mandell). In addition, Lemmon, MacLaine, Jack Kruschen, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle and sound director Gordon E. Sawyer received Oscar nominations. (The Apartment marked the last completely black-and-white film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, although the majority of 1993's winner, Schindler's List, was shot in black-and-white.) The film garnered Golden Globe awards for Best Picture, Actor and Actress; the Grammy for Best Soundtrack; the Directors Guild of America Award for Wilder; and the picture won the British Film Academy Award for Best Film. More recently, The Apartment was ranked number 93 on AFI's 100 Best Films in 100 Years list.
The musical Promises, Promises, which was based on The Apartment, opened on Broadway on December 1, 1968. The play, which starred Jerry Orbach, was produced by David Merrick and was written by Neil Simon with a score by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David. A January 1969 Daily Variety news item stated that United Artists retained first rights to the purchase of the musical's film rights. Although some modern sources state that the 2000 film Loser, directed by Amy Heckerling and starring Jason Biggs, was based on The Apartment, as Heckerling asserted in a July 2000 Daily Variety article, the similarities are coincidental.