The Apartment (1960) Director: Billy Wilder
With the benefit of a supremely well-constructed script, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is a film that has continued to stick with me long after seeing it for the first time. I have been ruminating on it quite a bit lately, especially Billy Wilder’s injunction to “show, don’t tell” and to allow the audience to participate in the film by piecing together the plot (by adding “2+2” together for a satisfying conclusion). Unspoken subtext is key here. The effect is only bolstered by his use of wide-angled anamorphic lens shots by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle. Billy Wilder’s style allows us to bear witness to rich, layered depth in both the fore and backgrounds from scene to scene –taking us along a vast and geometrically proportioned line of cubicles in an insurance office, and then into an intimately confined and cluttered apartment. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1960, The Apartment was directed by Hollywood legend Billy Wilder, whose incredible repertoire includes Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Some Like It Hot (1959), and many others. The Apartment was unique in that it won Billy Wilder the first ever string of Oscars for Best Director, Producer, Screenwriter, and Picture –quite a feat!
The Apartment is about a mid-level insurance clerk named “Bud” Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon) who begins offering his Manhattan apartment to senior leaders at his company in exchange for preferential treatment and advancement opportunities at work. The executives use Baxter’s apartment for romantic liaisons -so much so, in fact, that Baxter’s neighbors suspect Baxter of being an insatiable playboy. White collar work necessitates a certain degree of groupthink and turning a blind eye (scenes of the vast rows of desks in the office is a clear nod to King Vidor’s The Crowd from 1928). At work, Baxter attempts to pursue an elevator girl named Fran (played by Shirley Maclaine) but unbeknownst to anyone she is having a secret affair with one of the corporate executives, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) –at Baxter’s very apartment! She grows depressed at the affair and Baxter is shocked one night to find her lying in his bed after attempting to overdose on sleeping pills. Baxter rouses his neighbor who is a doctor (and who has grown increasingly suspicious of Baxter), a man who plays a surprisingly pivotal role in the film as he provides Baxter with a sense of old world, Jewish values. Baxter cares for Fran and offers to play cards with her. Eventually she leaves the apartment and Baxter keeps quiet about the incident at work which earns him a promotion, but he soon decides to quit this toxic work environment. We are led to believe that Baxter and Fran end up together in the end when she returns to his apartment to play cards. At least, Baxter musters the courage to confess his love for Fran.
In some respects, The Apartment is a traditional story –Bud Baxter is essentially an innocent, humble, and noble hero who strives to “become a mensch,” but in order to appease his career goals he compromises his values and allows his shady corporate executives to use his personal apartment like a brothel. Baxter’s chief flaw is that he is too tender, and that he lacks courage. However, after being strung along on this emotional roller coaster, which eventually grants him his desired promotion at work, Baxter suddenly realizes the folly of this whole corporate world and he decides to walk away. Only then does he get the girl (or at least in theory). Despite this replication of the hero’s journey, The Apartment is still a cynical comedy. Getting ahead in the workplace is still only accomplished by appeasing a cabal of a-moral superiors. When trapped in this cold and immoral world, discovering the right thing is impossibly difficult, and often competing values clash. Even in the end, we question the extent to which Fran truly intends to pursue an honest romance with Baxter –does she actually return his love? Or merely pity him? Does she prefer a cynical, conniving womanizer like Mr. Sheldrake. The world seems to offer little recourse for a kind and gentle person like Baxter. Despite being a good person he still must choose between conflicting notions of what is right: to either pursue his own career advancement, or else find some inner courage and stand up for himself.