When old men talk about how “they don’t make movies like they used to,” they are probably talking about The Apartment. This film is a perfect example of a unique phenomenon in Hollywood. Something magical happened in the late 50s when a combination of strict censorship codes and dizzying production schedules somehow conspired to allow some phenomenal filmmakers to make their mark in an industry so tightly regulated as to make many films indistinguishable. Despite the crippling restrictions and a huge number of films being produced, a few directors managed to make supremely interesting films all their own from within the Hollywood system; directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder. While Hitchcock’s films had suspense and style and Hawks’s had grit, Billy Wilder built his dramas with a deep sadness. Even in The Apartment, a family-friendly comedy that won five Academy Awards, there is a sense of depression and foreboding that suffuses nearly every moment.
The Heights Theater
Director: Billy Wilder
Producers: I.A.L. Diamond, Doane Harrison, Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, David Lewis
US Theatrical Release: June 15, 1960
US Distributor: MGM
The film follows Mr. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an enterprising young employee at a massive, bureaucratic boys club of a New York insurance company. In order to grease his way to the top, Baxter begins loaning out his apartment to big shot executives as a place for them to bring their mistresses. This behavior is seen as so reprehensible that Baxter tries to cover it up by pretending to be a lothario—his neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (a cringe-worthy Jewish caricature) urges him to donate his body to science because of his remarkable abilities to guzzle booze and party late into the night. In truth, Baxter isn’t drinking that booze or sleeping with those women, he spends his evenings working late or eating dinner out to leave his apartment free for executives to cheat on their wives. Baxter is more of a spineless sycophant than any kind of charmer (still a shade better than these executives who seem interested in him only as far as he gives them access to a free apartment).
His desire to hide the facts of this arrangement seems a little strange in contemporary eyes—the implication is that if his landlady found out what he was up to he’d be thrown out of the building. In modern New York City, where such activity (like Airbnb) can be practiced freely for cash, it’s hard to imagine one in which loaning your apartment to someone for a few hours could get you kicked out. Here perhaps those same old men might decry contemporary moral state, but something in Wilder’s outlandish vision must have been prescient—that or the creators of Airbnb are fans of The Apartment too.
Regardless, as the film’s plot progresses and the arrangement to loan out the apartment becomes more complex, the depressing undertone deepens. Soon Baxter isn’t just standing out in the rain or working late, but he’s talking about suicide (a theme that spreads itself throughout this film) and how lonely he is. His only legitimate moments of joy seem to come from sucking up to his bosses and playing gin rummy—he has no family or friends to speak of, and no hobbies or activities. His only motivation seems to be getting promoted at work and this is a poor substitute for friendship or love. In a way, this film’s narrative is an inversion of the pre-code wonder Babyface, which tracked Barbara Stanwyck as she slept her way to the top of a New York company. (Babyface’s content was so provocative that it spawned much of the moral outrage that led to Hollywood censorship and the Hays code.) Some shots are even eerily reminiscent of Babyface, especially as Baxter is introduced to his new offices as he climbs his own corporate ladder. But instead of a Nietzschean tale of self-empowerment, Baxter’s own corporate ascent comes with guilt and self-doubt. He is bland and depressed, like everyone working as a corporate cog, but he has nothing else in his life—not even a family to call home to and brag about a promotion.
The film’s real punch of the film begins when one of the girls brought to the apartment is found unconscious—a pretty elevator attendant named Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) for whom Baxter has growing affection, is lying insensate in his bed, having downed a bottle of sleeping pills. As this is a conventional Hollywood picture, and Baxter is a conventional hero, he must decide whether to continue his climb to the top of the slimy corporate ladder or spare his conscience and take care of poor Fran Kubelik, manipulated and lied to by Baxter’s boss. As fondness grows between Baxter and Kubelik, their flirtation is awkward and stilted—it centers mostly on conversations about suicide, playing gin rummy, and the best ways to strain spaghetti (Baxter uses a tennis racket). Yet in this morbid tête-à-tête, Wilder’s script shines at its most genuine—these characters have real humanity, especially compared with the slime balls that make up the rest of the cast.
Despite being a film almost exclusively about illicit love and sex, everything remains very chaste—due in part at least to the strictures of the Hays code. But here, it works to The Apartment’s advantage, abstracting all of the sexual tension into intellectual tension and making Baxter’s desire to protect and care for Kubelik come across as all the more noble since it isn’t motivated by a rampant libido. The behavior standards for these men of means are appalling, but (hopefully) that is part of Wilder’s intent with this film. Most of these executives seem to live life in order to subjugate and exploit young women—most of whom work for them making the situation even more questionable—but Wilder’s portrayal does little to make us sympathetic to them.
The Apartment is one of Billy Wilder’s most commercially successful films and with that comes some of the saccharine flavor of Hollywood standards, but the melancholy undertone is so strong and so definitively human that it makes the whole thing enjoyable. While it may not be quite as affecting as his masterpieces—like the uproarious Some Like it Hot or the soul crushing Ace in the Hole—it is a supremely crafted diversion and certainly worth seeing on 35mm.