There’s a line in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment that reveals so much about the film and its director. ‘Why do people have to love people anyway?’ laments elevator operator Fran Kubelik (played by Shirley MacLaine). Her despondence follows the breakdown of an affair with Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), a married man who’s also her boss. There’s a double-edged irony to Kubelik’s situation: sceptical of happy endings, she’s been lied to before – yet she’s still sucked into Sheldrake’s promises, believing that he just might leave his wife for her. This is the kind of sardonic satirical comedy, undercut with a dash of romantic realism, that Wilder excelled at. In fact – by his own admission – The Apartment was probably the best on-screen realisation of his vision.
Released in 1960, The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon (appearing in his second of seven Wilder-directed film) as CC Baxter, an ambitious office worker who lends out his one-bedroom New York apartment to his philandering bosses, enabling their romantic trysts. But his eagerness to climb the corporate ladder is to his own detriment – he spends hours wandering the streets to the city, waiting to be granted admittance to his own flat. Baxter is flawed (he plunders social security files to glean information about his colleagues, for example), but he’s likeable. Similarly Miss Kubelik, who is willing to sleep with the boss if it allows her to get ahead, no matter the cost to her own wellbeing. These perfectly imperfect characters exist in the anonymity of the big city and a vast corporation, two vast stages on which small lives play out with surprising depth – if anyone should care to notice.
Above all, this is a film about discovering where you fit in, and who should fit in to your story with you. Baxter spends little time in his apartment, but it never fully seems his. The posters of paintings – inspired by masters including Picasso and Mondrian – speak of a cultural sophistication that goes far beyond the low-paid office worker. When he’s finally admitted to his apartment, he spends most of his time taking out his bosses’ trash and re-stocking the drinks trolley. He doesn’t fit into his surrounds because he’s tried too hard to create one that doesn’t suit him. Always striving for something more, he works hard to ‘get ahead’, but he remains a nameless face in the crowd (many of his co-workers don’t call him by his full name, instead opting for the generic ‘buddy boy’). He is a slave to and a product of ‘the system’, and it’s only his love for Miss Kubelik (he always calls her ‘Miss’: a term that provides deference and distance) that he’s able to break free – both from his career ambitions and his own ideas of ‘who’ he needs to be seen to be.
Miss Kubelik thinks that the big boss, Sheldrake fits into her story. When she discovers he has no intention of leaving his wife (and has in fact previously made the same promises to other women in her position), the consequences are almost tragic. Never over-wrought, MacClaine’s performance is by turns low-key, truthful and instinctive. Surely the sexually-active, modern-working girl would’ve been a refreshing character in 1960, but it’s testament to Wilder, long-term screenwriting collaborator IAL Diamond and MacClaine that the part still feels fresh today. There’s something universally appealing in Fran Kubelik’s vulnerability and betrayal, her new hair, new start approach to life that reaches out across the decades. Her allure too, is subtle and underplayed, she’s no ditzy dame, but a good-hearted realist who wants to be in the right place at the right time. She chooses Sheldrake, mistakenly thinking that he’s her ticket to something better. Much of the charm (and authenticity) of The Apartment comes from how long it takes Baxter and Kubelik to get together. And even by the end, you’re not sure if this is a relationship that’s going to go the distance. In a series of interviews with Cameron Crowe, Wilder revealed that, fresh from Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe had sent out feelers for the part. But according to Wilder: ‘It would not be real… Everyone in the whole company would be after the elevator girl’.
By choosing to shoot in black and white to capture the drab repetitiveness of city and office life, Wilder infused the entire film with a sense of melancholy. The story might be set over the festive period, but there’s no joviality to be found here, only lies, deceit and half-baked dreams. The Apartment is a deeply affecting film, but Wilder’s deft direction and the thoughtful characterisation prevents it from seeping into soap-opera sentimentality. Much of the first half deals with people who get deluded into exploitation, who sacrifice personal happiness for a bigger idea that’s always sold short. The second half? The realistic consequences. Thankfully, Wilder didn’t opt for the ‘love heals all evils’ angle, which would’ve short-changed both the plot and moviegoers. The ending is inevitable, but the twisting road to it is refreshing for a modern audience so often conned with easy or contrived romance.
In fact the closing line (‘shut up and deal’, reference to a long-running gin rummy game that Baxter and Kubelik are engaged in) is less about the lovers final ‘getting together’, more that they’ve finally both stood up against Sheldrake and embraced what they believe will make them happy. Masters of their own destiny, if you will. This discovery of self-respect is much more powerful than love, and Wilder knew it.
Is The Apartment Wilder’s best film? Contemporaries showered him with love (the film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing Story and Screenplay) but many still prefer the comic perfection of Some Like It Hot or the introspective pathos of Sunset Boulevard. Personally, I remain divided. If it’s proof of Wilder’s visionary genius that’s needed then CC Baxter is the go-to tale. Consider that The Apartment was filmed (and released) eight months before Kennedy took office. The Sixties, and what we now understand them to represent, were yet to begin. In many ways, the movie is the perfect bridge between the Mad Men era of wealth and prosperity and the Big Business disillusionment it created. What happened to the ‘little’ people caught up in the glamour? Wilder didn’t have all the answers, but he was willing to think about what they might be, that ultimately it was about human emotion and happiness. IAL Diamond once claimed Wilder was a blend of ‘the sweet and the sour’, and that’s certainly an apt description for The Apartment, which deftly juxtaposes corporate blandness and cynical career climbing with friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. It’s the ultimate happy-sad picture, and it’s unlikely that anyone other than Wilder could’ve made it work.