Original release: June 15th, 1960
Running time: 125 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
When it was released in 1960, The Apartment was described by critic Hollis Alpert as “a dirty little fairy tale” and that’s a pretty accurate summation – with one proviso. Like all good fairy tales, Billy Wilder’s melancholy story of business, love and morality has a handsome prince and a dastardly dragon, but here the prince doesn’t want to slay the dragon; he wants to become one.
The prince in question is Bud Baxter, a lowly number-cruncher at a New York insurance firm who seeks to climb the corporate ladder by loaning his apartment to his adulterous superiors. He’s played by Jack Lemmon in what was the second of seven collaborations the actor had with Wilder. The quantity and quality of their partnership has rarely been seen outside of the one formed by Frank Capra and James Stewart in the 30s, and there’s an interesting comparison to be found between the two teams.
Both directors were immigrants who made classic American pictures that picked apart both the good and bad aspects of the US, and both actors embodied a certain kind of dignified American everyman masculinity. Yet, while Stewart represented the pure everyman America wished it was, Lemmon was the more grounded everyman it actually was.
This is especially true of the flawed Baxter. Lemmon imbues the character with his typical charm, but there’s a spinelessness and fear to the portrayal that makes him very real. Just look at the early scene in which Baxter’s arrangement is rumbled. He pleads his innocence, insisting that it came about by accident rather than design, but when the benefits reveal themselves and he’s promoted, he shows no such reservations; he happily, even boastfully, accepts. Wouldn’t you?
Baxter is more puppet than puppeteer though and any gains he makes are inconsequential. After his promotion, Baxter’s bosses appear to ensure that their agreement is still in place. Baxter tells them that it’s not. Again, his greed is clear, but even more evident is the power dynamic. The men threaten Baxter, reminding him that they helped make him and they can just as easily break him. Baxter the big shot is just a small fish deluded enough to think he can swim with the sharks.
Baxter’s love interest, elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), is no different. Conducting an affair with Baxter’s married boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), she too is trapped in a corporate cage and is also both victim and perpetrator. MacLaine’s winning performance keeps the character sympathetic, but Fran’s attempted suicide after being told by Sheldrake that he won’t leave his wife to be with her suggests a selfish streak. She’s so focused on her own happiness that she’s blind to the impact the affair will have on Sheldrake’s family.
As is typical of so many Wilder films, The Apartment is a tale of man’s greed, fundamental flaws and untempered desires and it depicts the tragic path those things send us down. Unlike most of his darker films, however, it offers its heroes a chance for redemption: Baxter and Kubelik can continue their destructive obsessions with corporate life and married men or separate themselves from them and, in the words of Baxter‘s Jewish neighbour, become “a Mensch…a human being”. The dilemma manifests itself in two ways.
Firstly, there’s the writing. Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s script is hailed as one of the greatest in American cinema history, and the zipping one-liners and delightful set-ups certainly bear that out. In one particularly fine scene, Sheldrake bemoans the situation he finds himself in with Kubelick:
No, sir, it’s very unfair… Especially to your wife.
More than just a great gag, this exchange gives Baxter the chance to speak out, to directly criticise his boss and make a stand. But he doesn’t. He simply delivers a joke and that cowardice makes him no better than Sheldrake. Indeed, the similarities between the two are further underlined when Baxter later learns of Sheldrake and Kubelik’s relationship and consoles himself by picking up a married woman in a bar.
The second method Wilder uses is framing. Known primarily as a great writer, Wilder is rarely credited as a visualist, but in The Apartment he smartly highlights the alienating effect his characters’ decisions are having by trapping them within structures and objects. In one scene, we see that Kubelick carries with her a cracked mirror. She looks into it – a frame within the film’s frame – and we see her face split by the crack. It’s a perfect visual symbol of the toll her love for Sheldrake and Sheldrake’s objectification of her is taking and a reminder of why she must escape.
Baxter, meanwhile, is frequently seen in large empty frames, his surroundings dwarfing and isolating him. This reaches its zenith late in the film when he sits alone in his new office, having gained his promotion but lost the girl. Wilder fades from this image to one of an office notice board on which Baxter’s name and new position is being added. The slow fade traps him within the notice board and beautifully illustrates the cost of greed and over-ambition.
If this were one of Wilder’s dramas, the characters would remain trapped, victims of their flaws, prisoners of their greed and desire – but Wilder was a shrewd director who knew what he had. The presence of the popular Lemmon and MacLaine, along with the success of his previous film, Some Like It Hot, suggested that The Apartment would find a wide audience and Wilder delivers the happily ever after such mass appeal demands: Baxter gets the girl.
However, this triumph comes laced with a certain sadness. Baxter is packing up to leave New York as he wins Kubelik’s affections; he has, in a sense, been beaten. The Apartment therefore emerges as an entryist masterpiece that conceals a satirical, somewhat downbeat look at Capitalist America with a warm, crowd-pleasing exterior.
It insists that the dirtiest fairy tale of all is a system that lies, cheats, steals and sleeps its way to the top, and reminds us that the only way to beat the dragons that perpetuate that system is to make sure we don’t become them. Instead, we must become the only worthwhile thing left in a bankrupt world: a human being…a Mensch.
Paul fell in love with cinema when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. A childhood viewing of Jurassic Park introduced him to the power and wonder of the silver screen, and after his dreams of directing were shattered by crumbling papier-mâché sets, disobedient action figure actors and a total lack of talent, he quickly turned to writing, thus proving that life does indeed find a way.
When not citing scripture from the apostle Ian Malcolm, Paul also enjoys the films of Billy Wilder, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. His favourite film is The Apartment and his favourite apartments are in films. They're much cleaner than his.