Great Films: The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960, USA)

Alfred Hitchcock once said that there are three key ingredients to make a great film: “The script, the script and the script”. This reflects his notoriously low opinion of the role of actors as agents in the creation of a film, and it is certainly not always the case. But there is something to be said about the importance of the screenplay to the end product of the filmmaking process. To my mind, there is no greater demonstration of this than Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which, despite the great performances and tight direction, owes its brilliance to Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond’s razor-sharp screenplay.

The film is essentially a satire on office sexual politics; central character C.C. Baxter works on the 19th floor at insurance firm Consolidated Life, one of 31,259 employees – more people than the population of Natchez, Mississippi as Baxter’s overly-informative opening narration tells us. Accompanying this rather frightening statistic is a wide-angle shot of the office floor, with its seemingly endless rows of desks and clerks, immediately telling us that Baxter is an insignificant cog in the company’s machine. He does, however, have a plan to rise up from his lowly position the 19th floor; he had been letting his colleagues use his uptown apartment to have illicit liasons with women other than their wives, in exchange for favours allowing him to work his way up the metaphorical greasy pole.

The film then immediately presents us with a rather morally questionable central character; he is perfectly happy to accept these promotions and favours from his co-workers, and seems to laugh off any doubts he may have about what he is facilitating. Yet Baxter seems very likeable, affable character, a typically nice Jack Lemmon everyman. He does not appear to be a Machiavellian shark, doing anything he can to rise to the top of the pile; at times he seems stuck in the position he has created for himself, unable to stop for fear of sliding back down the company hierachy. He appears resigned to his fate, reluctant to continue bending over backwards for his colleagues, but still forced to spend cold nights freezing outside on benches while they use his facilities.

Baxter is clearly a loner, emphasised in the film by the times when he does actually get to live in his apartment; TV dinners and TV films appear to be the order of the day. He does have eyes for one lady: one of Consolidated Life’s lift operators, Fran Kubelik, with whom he regularly shares idle chit-chat, but she apparently never reciprocates any flirtation from her many admirers in the building. This is because, as we find out, she is secretly having an affair with Sheldrake, the ‘happily married’ boss of the company, though this has been off the boil for several months now. She, too, is morally ambiguous; we later find out that she has had such affairs before with higher-ups in businesses: is she a gold-digger, or trapped in a destructive cycle just like Baxter?

One of the many joys of The Apartment is the use of dramatic irony; none of the characters know the entirity of what is going on between the others, and frequently they know nothing. Baxter doesn’t know Kubelik is seeing Sheldrake, Kubelik doesn’t know Sheldrake is using Baxter’s apartment, Sheldrake doesn’t know Baxter asked out Kubelik on a date, all until the various pennies drop and they realise how their lives are all intertwined. This seems like a rather artificial construct, but during the course of the film, this all unfolds perfectly naturally, Billy Wilder’s unobtrusive direction allowing the viewer to see the characters’ discoveries.

That almost all of the relationships between the characters are based on some form of lie or deception only adds to the film’s satirical bite; but great satire must not only be funny, but also have an element of danger. Certainly The Apartment is a very funny film, but there is also a great deal of darkness there too. Marital infidelity, while at first shown in a rather comedic light in the earlier scenes, is shown to also be destructive; Sheldrake phones Baxter’s apartment from his home on Christmas Day, a seemingly happy home where his children are playing with their newly-opened presents, but one which he betraying with his continued affair with Kubelik. Suicide is also a recurring motif, somewhat reflective of the despair and loneliness of the characters. The film occurs over the Christmas period, and the contrast between Sheldrake’s festively-decked home and Baxter’s sparse, empty apartment underline his isolation. He does not even appear to have family to be with at this time of year.

Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter is a complex character, certainly not the straighforward everyman role he is usually associated with; it would have been easy for him to rest on his laurels after the success of his previous Wilder collaboration, Some Like it Hot, but The Apartment marked an important career transition for him, a move into darker roles explemplified by his next film Days of Wine and Roses. The film was also a landmark for Shirley MacLaine, her tough-but-fragile performance as Fran Kubelik propelling her to Hollywood superstardom. I had always thought Fred MacMurray was ill cast and too wooden as Jeff Sheldrake, but after several watches I now feel he is perfect: slippery, slimy, ungainly, almost the antithesis of Lemmon’s Baxter, which is important in making us sympathise with the latter.

Ultimately, the film is a miracle of construction, and deservedly won Wilder and Diamond a screenwriting Oscar in 1960. But aside from this rather technical perfection, the film is a richly comic yet surprisingly dark satire about the deceptions and game-playing involved in the world of big business and office sexual politics. And despite Billy Wilder’s trademark cynicism, it is a reminder that there are more important things in life than money making, and success at work: in the famous advice to Baxter by Jack Kruschen’s Dr. Dreyfuss, “Be a mensch!”.

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