The Lovely, Lonely World of THE APARTMENT

December 16, 2021 - 9:20am
Posted by Jim Healy

Shirley MacLaine & Jack Lemmon in THE APARTMENT

These notes on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment were written by John Bennett, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 4K DCP of The Apartment will be the Cinematheque's final feature film presentation of 2021 on Friday, December 17, 7 p.m., in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is Free!

By John Bennett

As of 2021, the Academy Award for Best Picture has been bestowed on over ninety films. Usually, these films deal with momentous topics, whether that entails historical heroism (as in Patton (1970), Gandhi (1982), Schindler’s List (1993)) or the condemnation of social ills (How Green Was My Valley (1941), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), 12 Years a Slave (2013)). They include visually dazzling epics (Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Titanic (1997)) and examinations of the entertainment industry itself (All About Eve (1950), The Artist (2011)). The Apartment, one of legendary writer/director Billy Wilder’s best films, and the winner of the 1960 Oscar for Best Picture, is notable for its depiction of normal people experiencing normal, human emotions. Of all the Best Picture Oscar winners, The Apartment may have the best understanding of ordinary people (surpassing even, yes, Ordinary People, which won the same award twenty years after The Apartment).

The film tells the story of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a cog in the vast machinery of Consolidated Life, an insurance behemoth in Manhattan. Baxter is a popular employee with some of the Consolidated Life brass, not because of his innate abilities as an insurance clerk, but rather because he allows them to use his Central-Park-adjacent apartment as a pied-à-terre for their extramarital affairs. In exchange for these accommodations, Baxter’s superiors are happy to recommend him for promotions. Though this arrangement exhausts Baxter and disturbs his kindly neighbors (who are under the humorous impression that Baxter is indulging in a parade of noisy evening jaunts), he nevertheless enjoys the professional leg-up it brings him, which puts enough wind in the timid clerk’s sails for him to pursue his longtime office crush, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacClaine). Fran initially seems charmed by Baxter, but before long it is revealed that she, too, is swept up in corporate infidelities. In fact, she is in love with Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the powerful executive who is now Baxter’s direct supervisor. It is this affair that weighs down and nearly destroys both Baxter and Fran with crushing loneliness amid the sprawl of lively Manhattan. With this love triangle in place, Wilder unspools The Apartment’s lovely, lonely story.

Throughout Wilder’s oeuvre, one can discern two tonal tendencies that are striking in their sheer contrapuntal difference. On one hand, Wilder’s films can be mischievously acerbic, as in A Foreign Affair (1948), Ace in the Hole (1951), or Kiss Me Stupid (1964). In this mode, Wilder’s stories cuttingly explore sex and deception through the schemes and shenanigans of morally compromised characters. In these films, the men are cads and the women forgo virtue both casually and opportunistically. On the other hand, Wilder’s work can exhibit an earnest, almost plaintive romanticism, as in Sabrina (1954), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), or Avanti! (1972). In this mode, Wilder’s characters are more likely to reveal their deep-seated vulnerabilities, expressing regret and/or loneliness among the turmoil of an indifferent world. All of Wilder’s films mix these two sensibilities in some fashion, but none blends them more expertly than The Apartment.

But what sets The Apartment out in Wilder’s body of work is its deployment of the romantic tone to actively comment upon, and even condemn, the cynicism that the writer/director was so skilled at conjuring. The Apartment generates sympathy for Baxter and Fran in depicting them as sincere, well-intentioned individuals cast in a pit of lecherous and egotistical vipers. Whereas Dean Martin’s excessive prurience is played for laughs in Kiss Me Stupid, the sexual impropriety of Consolidated Life’s executives is revolting to the audience because we can see how it twists more sincere characters like Baxter and Fran into miserable knots. No character represents this sliminess more than Sheldrake, who, through his syrupy vows of love to Fran and subsequent off-hand dismissal of Fran to Baxter, betrays a total disregard for basic human consideration. The ardent executives have as their counterpoint Dr. and Mrs. Dreyfuss, Baxter’s friendly neighbors who, despite the disturbances that emanate from Baxter’s apartment, treat him with parental fondness. The film’s moral core seems to be summed up at one point during the film’s climactic crisis, during which Dr. Dreyfuss, misunderstanding a near-tragic situation, admonishes Baxter to “be a mensch.” As Ed Sikov notes in his excellent biography of Wilder, “...[he] puts the world’s baseness to the service of a higher good in this film, his most genuinely sweet-tempered and generous work to date.”

Billy Wilder is perhaps remembered more for the wit of his stories and dialogue than for the formal properties of his images. Nevertheless, The Apartment boasts many beautifully composed visuals that also reinforce the film’s story and themes. The visual flair of the film is obvious from the very first shot of Baxter’s vast workplace. In this shot, Wilder positions the camera’s height and angle such that much of the ceiling and floor are visible; the office’s ceiling lights and the rows of the clerks’ desks create a grid of lines that run cleanly to a seemingly eternally distant vanishing point. The cavernous office (along with Baxter’s introductory voice over reducing large sums of people to mere statistics) establishes the idea of the anonymity that the film’s characters can use as cover for their various indiscretions. The richness of the impossibly large open plan office is explored again in the final shot of the holiday party scene after Baxter has learned of Fran’s affair with Sheldrake. The shot, which lasts nearly forty seconds, opens with the image of a company telephone operator (Joan Shawlee, who played bandleader Sweet Sue in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959)) dancing suggestively on a table as a large crowd of employees cheer her on. As Baxter dejectedly scoots by the revelers, the camera tilts down and tracks left. Kirkeby, one of his bosses, catches up to him as the camera comes to a halt. The two are now isolated in an eerily empty shot that had teemed seconds ago with carousing coworkers. Kirkeby further wounds Baxter’s pride by imploring once more for the use of his apartment. After Baxter quietly assents, the camera pans left as he recedes alone to the deceptively endless depths of the office. These three compositions, all nestled within one shot, help drive home the film’s preoccupation with lechery and loneliness. Excellent, too, are many of the compositions depicting the apartment itself. With Baxter’s bedroom and kitchen existing as offshoots of the central den, Wilder can carve out pockets of space that allow characters to secretly observe the actions of others in the foreground. Similarly strong are the visuals that transform a recurring Chinese restaurant into a dense urban jungle that affords, nominally, a degree of anonymity for unfaithful men and kept women.

It would take a monograph to adequately draw attention to all of The Apartment’s rich cinematic details. The film is full of recurring jokes, the reappearance of each taking on new emotional significance in light of new narrative information. Detail-filled, too, are the film’s many long takes, which allow the tiniest gestures to convey secrecy, solitude, desire, and power. (Note, for example, the quiet, tender care with which Baxter removes blades from a razor in the film’s second half). A book length study might also be necessary to sufficiently praise the contributions of Wilder’s collaborators, including writer I.A.L. Diamond (with whom Wilder wrote all of his subsequent films), cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, set designer Alex Trauner, and composer Adolph Deutsch–to say nothing of the three excellent lead performances by Lemmon, MacClaine, and MacMurray. Wilder masterfully marshals all of these details, all of these artistic contributions of other skilled craftspeople, into a story that understands so perceptively what it means to be lonely in the midst of so much callousness and the reserves of strength that are necessary to take a stab at overcoming these forces to find some trace of happiness.