Billy Wilder's 'The Apartment'

Essential Viewing

A romantic comedy About suicide, philandering and opportunism: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment

Rowan Hand

A Romantic Comedy About Suicide, Philandering and Opportunism: Billy Wilder’s *The Apartment *

In an era where nearly everyone watching films is more familiar first-hand with New Hollywood (post-Easy Rider (1969) and Chinatown (1974)), there exists a strange disinclination to explore Old Hollywood. There are probably a couple of reasons for this: first, the hideous fallacy that we somehow “know better” than people back then did and can therefore ignore their contributions [[1]]; second, the perhaps outsized importance of directors has overshadowed the importance of stars and producers in the old Hollywood machine.

The Apartment provides us with an interesting bridge between Old Hollywood and new: it is the work of a writer/director who was enmeshed in the studio system yet distinctive enough to be known as something of an auteur, who knew how to wield star power to the advantage of his films, and, perhaps best of all, as an immigrant, never shied away from skewering the ridiculousness of American society. Let us not forget that this “small movie” brought home the 1960 Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, and for good reason.

Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond were fresh off of one of the epically hilarious (to this day) Some Like It Hot. Traditionally, Wilder, who was expert at both, would make a drama film immediately after a comedy. Maybe Some Like It Hot was just too funny and that bled over into The Apartment. What we end up with is a very dark, emotionally wrenching romantic comedy that fearlessly skewers the blatant hypocrisy and sexism of its era.

In retrospect, it’s surprising that a comedy so cutting was actually successful; we are used to films like this perhaps finding an audience over time, if ever. The criticism that Wilder was able to levy, despite 1960’s relative oppression of expression, begs the question of how much we in fact censor ourselves in this purportedly more modern era.

With all this in mind, let’s go back in time 60 years to watch a movie that “plays by the rules” and gives the patriarchy a swift kick in the balls.

The Story – Partie une

The story revolves around nebbish C.C. Baxter, a nobody functionary in a massive New York insurance company. His superpowers are negligible: a good disposition, a crush on the attractive elevator operator, Fran (Shirley MacLaine), and a well-placed studio flat that he lends to his suburbanite superiors for their city-based trysts. Despite being thrown on the street at night, leading to a lack of sleep and cultivation of illness, Baxter refuses to say no because these superiors alternately dangle advancement before him or threaten him with negative reports should he fail to comply.

This comes to a head when his superiors’ superior, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), gets wind of Baxter’s apartment key floating around. At first, Baxter is convinced his goose is cooked. Sheldrake, however, has other plans: he would like exclusive use of the apartment for his own ongoing tryst. With…Fran the elevator operator.

Baxter’s advancement under Sheldrake’s protection is swift and decisive. Sheldrake promises Fran that he will leave his wife and marry her. However, when reality comes knocking, this turns out to be a hollow promise; upon this stark realization, Fran ends up alone in Baxter’s apartment with an entire bottle of sleeping pills to keep her company.

Thankfully, Baxter comes home fairly quickly, but he faces quite a mess: now he must pay the piper for his rapid advancement, if, of course, he can keep Fran alive through the night.

The Concept

Few films could dream of the level of dramatic irony that Wilder achieves in his simple concept. Ultimately, for a concept to function well, we need to have some idea of what the main character will do and what conflicts she will face just from a simple elevator pitch. The problem is that this doesn’t normally land on the nose very well because it doesn’t necessitate action from the main character.

Yet try this one: “A people-pleasing functionary lets out his apartment for his superiors’ trysts, only to discover that the vice-president is using his apartment to sleep with the woman he has a crush on.” At this point, our people-pleasing functionary has a choice between pleasing fewer people or continuing to be trodden upon by his superiors. How he deals with this will, of course, be the ultimate story of the movie.

The seed for Wilder’s idea is absolutely brilliant. Upon watching David Lean’s Brief Encounter, wherein the said encounter (briefly) occurs [[2]] in the flat of a man who is a friend of the protagonist, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), Wilder, ever curious, wondered to himself whom such a friend might be.

Nearly fifteen years later, this idea came to fruition as the seed of The Apartment.

The Story – Partie deux

The Apartment is in many ways a product of Old Hollywood. If we try to map a normal Campbellian hero’s journey structure to it, it comes out a bit lumpy and undefined: the moments aren’t finely articulated, as we would expect in a modern film.

Rather, they form beautiful, inseparable clusters rather than the loud, obvious plot points we expect today [[3]]. At the midpoint, through the mechanism of the broken mirror passing between hands, Baxter realises that Fran is Sheldrake’s paramour. At the same time, Fran learns that Sheldrake has carried on with numerous women in his office and promised them all that he would leave his wife. Then, Fran and Sheldrake go back to the apartment where Sheldrake gives her $100 as a Christmas present and she offers him sex “because [he] already paid for it.” Following this, when Sheldrake leaves, Fran eats half a bottle of sleeping pills. All of this adds up to the midpoint, but it would be pointless and reductive to say “Fran’s suicide attempt is the midpoint” even if that would be the modern analysis.

In the second half of the second act, Baxter must keep Fran in his home while she recuperates, lying to everyone possible, putting the blame on himself to keep the situation under wraps. This leads to the low point, where the apartment keeps getting invaded: first, by one of Baxter’s old bosses interrupting a meal between Fran and Baxter, and finally, by Fran’s brother-in-law, who collects her and punches Baxter for his trouble. The punch, of course, is the technical Low Point, complete with a “light at the end of the tunnel” when Fran kisses Baxter on the forehead while he’s crumpled on the ground.

The climax, then, comes as a result of Sheldrake’s hand being forced: his secretary, herself a jilted former lover, tips Sheldrake’s wife off as to his extracurriculars. With his wife filing for divorce, Sheldrake realises that he can in fact run off with Fran for good. When he tries to use Baxter’s apartment again, Baxter refuses. He goes home and begins packing to leave the Apartment for good. When Sheldrake complains to Fran about Baxter quitting, Fran makes a decision.

Fran’s Agency

An interesting thing to note about this film is that while Baxter occasionally takes action to move the plot along, he is actually more of a victim of circumstance than the “active” or (God help me) “likeable” protagonist that today’s tired screenwriting advice insists upon. Look at it this way: the man is loaning out his apartment to people he knows are cheating on their wives to get work favours, and he’s too weak to stand up to them in any meaningful way. We sympathise with the guy because he is an underdog, not because he is a decent person. He is not a decent person; note that the theme of the film is Baxter learning to become a mensch (see subsection below).

Those aching to be offended might read this as “Baxter becomes a mensch and receives Fran as his ‘reward.’” It would benefit the cynical reader to consider that Fran has much better boundaries than Baxter (with the obvious exception of all things Sheldrake). If she were in it for the money or social prestige, sticking it out with a firm offer from Sheldrake would make a lot more sense; however, she has known all along that Sheldrake is a hard-on and she has finally developed the courage to do something about it.

It doesn’t track that she goes to Baxter at the end of the movie for any unnatural reason or plot contrivance, even if picking Baxter is hardly how the situation would play out in real life. That is, realistically, many if not most people would choose to stay with Sheldrake when push comes to shove. The non-realism of the ending did not go unnoticed at the time; the film received a derisive notice from The Saturday Review calling it a “dirty fairy tale.”

Nevertheless, the morality-play aspect of the ending is hardly a contrived Hollywood Ending. Rather, Wilder is showing us in a clever, funny, and sweet way, how to be better people. To wit: Fran is making up her own mind and has made a heartwarming decision: the young lady realises that what she needs in her life is not a philandering, age-inappropriate creep but rather a newly-minted mensch.

Big Lies, Little Lies, and Hypocrisy

The Apartment is a caustic examination of how lies grease wheels and make the world go around. Baxter’s little lies are sniffed out by the big fat liar Sheldrake; in a beautifully tense scene, we watch Sheldrake make Baxter dance before coming out with his proposition about the key. It’s rather clear that Sheldrake appreciates Baxter’s dubious relationship to the truth and rewards him accordingly.

Sheldrake is a scoundrel, as are the superiors who would take Baxter’s apartment for their own trysts. Yet Baxter clearly lies and dissembles to get ahead. We might see him being taken advantage of, but soon enough it is clear that he allows this at least partially for his own gain. It is only his position as the underdog that lets us have sympathy for him; note how he gambles with this cultivated sympathy as, upon his promotion, he refuses his superiors' use of the apartment. Baxter happily bites the hands that fed him, and it is not a flattering look.

Baxter lies to Dr. Dreyfus (Jack Kruschen) and others to keep up the charade surrounding what is happening in his apartment, and this continues even when Dreyfus has to help him deal with Fran’s overdose. Dreyfus himself knows that something is wrong but he goes along with it, enabling Baxter’s bad behaviour and grudgingly tolerating all the noise coming from the apartment.

To highlight this, we have the perspective of the one innocent, Fran. Fran is entirely distinct from the rest of the cast for one specific, technical reason: Shirley MacLaine stands out as raw and authentic in a way that only someone from her Method-inspired generation could. From what I understand, MacLaine earned her chops on Broadway rather than at the Actors’ Studio, but the generational divide between her and her co-stars is astoundingly clear.

This contrast might have seemed out of place in the hands of a lesser director, but Wilder uses it to his advantage. MacLaine pops off the screen, her sadness and grief three-dimensional in a way that contrasts Lemmon’s congenial mugging or MacMurray’s unctuous suaveness [[4]]. Watch both on full display in tense scenes–long by today’s standards–where Fran and Sheldrake interact. Fran spends most of a scene in the restaurant near tears from dealing with more of Sheldrake’s bullshit. MacLaine’s trenchant sadness is only bested by Wilder’s naturalistic dialogue. Witness MacLaine cueing up an on-the-nose line, then swallowing it entirely to stare at the prawn in her cocktail: “They don’t make these shrimp like they used to.”

We learn through the course of the film and Baxter’s deepening relationship with Fran that he is, in fact, a reformed innocent himself and a fellow survivor of a suicide attempt. In this, we see that Lemmon, too, is capable of rather nuanced acting, if not quite showing the vivid emotional palette that MacLaine offers. Baxter even explicitly mentions how different he and Fran are from all the callous people surrounding them. It sounds like overwrought romantic comedy claptrap until you realise that he’s absolutely right: these are two people who take life harder than most. Things hurt them that would be ignored or brushed off by others. These people really did find each other in a crowd, but the world may well crush them before they can take advantage of this fact.

The Apartment sets us the heartbreaking challenge of watching two innocents interact with modern society’s web of normalised sociopathy. He chooses to play along until he can no longer stomach it, while she decides that it is all too much to handle. Wilder, thankfully, is able to give us a better proposal.

Cuck vs. Mensch

If you look up “cuck” in the dictionary, you see a photograph of C.C. Baxter.

While I acknowledge that the terms “cuck” and “Beta” and the like are, in fact, wildly offensive, it is interesting how we have a keen and immediate understanding of the type of person that such a pejorative describes [[5]]. It isn’t a pretty picture. So, at a loss to come up with a sanitized word [[6]] for our present exposition, let’s roll with what we have.

To wit, the cuck is the frustrating person who exhibits the most morally bankrupt of Middle Class behaviours: lying rather than saying “no,” ignoring inconvenient questions, refusing to accept sovereignty over one’s life and actions [[7]]. In short, this person displays the sort of behaviour that makes the socially capable among us fantasise about punching him into enlightenment.

If human beings are pack animals, cucks are naturally the Alpha’s wheel-greasers and sycophants. They are shirkers upon the battlefield. Given authority, they are always eager to punch down: look how distasteful Baxter becomes as he begins to throw weight around with his superiors. Most importantly to our story, however, a cuck with an advantage, yet lacking the knowledge or fortitude to implement it, sends off a signal to higher-ranking dogs: he is ripe for exploitation, to become what Intelligence describes as a useful idiot.

It is trivial to contrast this type of character with a full-fledged, Sheldrake-level dickhead; Wilder understands this and rightly suggests a middle ground. Note that as far as regards their own volition, the most sympathetic characters in the film are the Jewish community in Baxter’s apartment building: Dr. Dreyfuss, his wife, and the landlady Mrs. Lieberman (Frances Weintraub Lax).

Thematically, the film is very straightforward, almost painfully so. The theme of this film is: be a mensch. From my admittedly goyische understanding [[8]], the concept of a mensch is quite a lot more than just “a nice guy.” It rather has to do with someone who gives back, stands up for what is right, provides service and care, and attempts to be a better person.

One thing I must clarify: this is not appropriation. Witness how Baxter’s neighbours implore him to understand the concept of Menschlichkeit, to take it on board. They are keen to share this philosophy for Baxter’s benefit. Reducing the level of noise emanating from his apartment is, we come to understand, more of a fringe benefit. This cross-cultural philosophical pollination is the key point of the film: “You know what that means? A mensch: a human being.”

Wilder and Diamond, both immigrants from Jewish families (although Diamond arrived in the US as a child rather than an adult, as Wilder did; Diamond often corrected Wilder’s German-sounding English) would have been steeped in this concept. True mensches aren’t common. There isn’t a ceremony where Menschlichkeit is placed upon your shoulders like a knighthood.

Rather, to be a mensch is a lifelong practice. It depends on good actions, care for others, and attempting to do the right thing consistently and thoughtfully. Crucially, this means that someone can reform to become a mensch, and slip-ups from time to time are understood. It’s not supposed to be easy; that’s why it’s a practice.

In today’s culture that would pillory any fellow traveler who might unwisely step out of line (or, even better, did so once or twice ten years ago), the idea that Menschlichkeit is a process, and one that admits failure at that, may strike as anathema [[9]]. And yet this is Wilder’s argument: the concept of Menschlichkeit, as a practice provides, a clear, achievable middle ground between Baxterian cuckery and flat-out Sheldrakeian fuckery.

This brings us back to the idea of the “dirty fairy tale.” Actually, it’s not a bad analysis of the film; perhaps the story is, to some degree, unrealistic. To wit, Wilder himself said that while he might have ended the film with Fran and Baxter together, he never expected that they would actually stay together. Wilder, however, is playing a larger game; he is making an argument for a better way to live, love, and interact with others.

Just be a mensch, Wilder implores. Or at least try.

A “Small Movie”

In Mark Cousins’ introduction to the Faber edition of the Wilder and Diamond screenplay, Cousins expounds on The Apartment’s reputation for being a “small movie.” He offers several theories as to why this is the case: perhaps because most people have only seen it on a small screen [[10]], or because much of the film is cramped interiors, the fact that it is a story about small people, small lies, and small wins or even due to it being in black-and-white.

There may be a certain truth in this idea: Baxter’s voiceover explains to us how he is one employee among 31,259 in a huge building in New York. He has a desk that is situated in an open-plan office, but not any office: one that stretches on for what seems to be infinity. This was actually a choice of the set designer Alexandre Trauner, created in a V-shape with smaller and smaller furniture (and smaller people, even using children in the distance) to create a sense of nearly-infinite perspective. Further to this, Baxter crunches numbers as a junior accountant at a huge insurance firm. He deals with huge numbers all day long, and we have to consider those numbers impersonally. After all, they are just data.

Yet, after everything, given the vastness of the company, the building, and Baxter’s work, we narrow in on the small life of the small man in question, Baxter, and his small apartment. The sense of perspective in the images, the story, and the writing focus us squarely on the humanity of the situation: in the eyes of a monolithic company we may be little more than data, yet this is not an excuse to deny our own humanity, or, more importantly, to treat others inhumanely.

Perhaps there is not as much difference between 1960 and now as we would like to think. To huge corporations, we are worth only the data that comes off of us like fumes, used to build a digital voodoo doll-version of each one of us that determines what advertisements we see, what comes up in a normal search, what sort of rates we get for healthcare or a mortgage, and yes, even whether we are enemies of the state. Prosaic details such as our dreams, hopes, ability to love and care for one another are totally irrelevant or, perhaps worse, be “approximated.”

This above all is why the message of The Apartment rings true today: when the world literally conspires to make us less human, it is up to each and every one of us to respect and champion our own humanity as well as that of others.

As Dr. Dreyfus implores Baxter, be a mensch!


[1] And yet… know better about what, precisely? We live in a world intent upon throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Fools and assholes have always existed, as have clever, decent, switched-on people. As it turns out, some of those people were making films. Yes, there might be artistic, emotional, and (gasp!) even moral value to be gleaned from the work of people who were unfortunate enough to have been born in a less-enlightened time.

[2] Saying little for Alec Harvey’s prowess in the sack, I’m afraid.

[3] Aunt and Uncle barbecued? End of First Act. Tractor beam? This must be the Midpoint.

[4] This is not to knock MacMurray’s range: witness his roles as a bumbling dad in Disney live-action fare such as The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. In fact, MacMurray was reluctant to take the role of Sheldrake for fear of jeopardizing his meal ticket, so credit to him for doing so.

[5] Credit where credit is due: the alt-right, for all of their insanity and depravity, come up with some cracking terminology.

[6] Arguably, any word that refers to this person would be damning, but let’s have a few standards and keep to ones that aren’t direct references to the female anatomy. The derivation of “cuck” from “cuckold” has its own questionable origins, but the two terms are now taken to mean different things (and bear in mind that “cuckolding” is a hugely common Scene in the fetish world, so it can’t be all bad…).

[7] Baxter is only missing passive aggression, but he’s American so we can give him a pass on that one.

[8] And please forgive me if reductive or incorrect.

[9] For those unconvinced, it might be worth asking Danton and Robespierre how the Revolution worked out for them.

[10] Even going so far as to suggest it plays better on a small screen. Eek.


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