THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder, 1960)

The revelation, if this indeed prove to be fact, that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was a cocaine user will further enhance his legendary status, not lower it. It is difficult to recall this now, but Kennedy’s handlers sufficiently worried about his patrician veneer, the result of both the straight back that hid a volume of deadly pain (inviting the cocaine use) and his New England accent, that even after his election they arranged for photo opportunities to help ease—I won’t say erase—the difference between him and the rest of us. For instance, Kennedy popped up, stripped to his swim trunks, on a public beach, beaming, and surrounded (by extension) by us all. The democratization of JFK was always a motive behind his presidential persona, the key to understanding his almost perpetual bare-headedness that influenced men’s fashion at the time, and so it’s no wonder that he ended as he did, utterly exposed, standing in an open car, enveloped in affection and adulation and, alas, with just enough hate out there to take him down to beneath the ground. He himself insisted on the open-air display of his vulnerability, we are told, and it makes sense that he would have interiorized the democratic mission that had been imposed on him; but I wonder. He was down in Dallas to shore up Democratic electability, including his own re-electability in vice president Lyndon Baines Johnson’s South. Kennedy’s handlers might have thought the open car all for the best. Say this about JFK: he was both “of the people” and imperial in those last images before the bullet struck. It was his special grace somehow to be able to combine the two.

Kennedy’s election more or less coincided with the appearance (less than six months earlier) of The Apartment, by far the best film to win a best picture Oscar in the 1960s. (Today, the prize would have gone to a film that couldn’t even be nominated then: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.) The wearily optimistic ending of the film is absolutely correlative to a nation’s hope for the new presidency and its promise of youthful “vigah” and a New Frontier. (There has rarely been so guarded and equivocal a campaign refrain: “I think we can do better.”) We still greatly liked and admired President Dwight David Eisenhower (despite the usual round of knowing potshots taken at his intelligence), who after all had been heroic a few years earlier in transcending his own (moderate) conservatism by sending troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce court-ordered school integration: for me, the high point of his presidency, and a standard of presidential lawfulness against which his Watergated vice president’s future presidential behavior and general character would seem especially shabby. (Richard Milhous Nixon went so far as to borrow official integrity and public affection by having a dying, bedridden Eisenhower appear before TV cameras on behalf of his second presidential bid in 1968.) But Eisenhower’s second term, despite his abiding personal popularity, had also taken a toll on national resilience. The Soviets, who in 1957 had put the first satellite, Sputnik I, into space, seemed to be winning the Cold War; in May 1960, one month before The Apartment’s N.Y.C./L.A. release, the U2 incident demoralized us. (The Soviets had shot down an American spy plane and imprisoned the pilot, Francis Gary Powers). Americans, wary, were poised for the refreshment of a new beginning—a complex feeling precisely conveyed by the The Apartment’s tentative romantic conclusion: an ending, in fact, into which the entire film steadily pours.

The name of the film’s protagonist earmarks him for success: Calvin Clifford Baxter. That’s a mouthful, so at work he is called “C.C.” Baxter. Baxter’s nickname, Bud, earmarks him as an Everyman beneath the programmed mask of his success drive. (It’s also to remind us of Billy Budd, for Baxter, like Herman Melville’s orphan-sailor, is something of a prelapsarian innocent in a postlapsarian world.) There’s implicit social criticism in the fact that, despite the work success that Baxter’s complete name seems to guarantee, this success doesn’t come easily to him. Nor is his daily committed, hard work as an actuary at Consolidated Life, the New York insurance firm where he is one of a multitude of actuaries, sufficient to single him out for the ascension of the corporate ladder that he covets. Instead, he has to prostitute himself by becoming a kind of pimp. This otherwise likeable young man passes around to his superiors at Consolidated Life the key to his bachelor apartment so that they can slip into their schedule some casual sex with girls other than their wives. In the world of The Apartment—a commentary on the capitalistic rat race—it takes at least a little depravity to get ahead.

Part of the film’s appeal, and certainly a basis for the shocks of recognition it provides, is that even so likeable a person and competent a worker as Baxter feels compelled to degrade and torture himself—repeatedly he has to give up sleep so that one of his superiors can use the bed in his apartment—in his ambitious pursuit of upward career mobility. Aren’t we supposed to “get there” by hard work alone? Baxter, though, is being played by his superiors, who dangle before him (and even deliver on) promises of promotion, but also threaten him with demotion and dismissal if he fails to comply—in effect, sexual harassment by proxy.

However, the film refuses to exonerate Baxter of his complicity in the process of degradation he seems locked into. Baxter, who is shy, is secretly in love with Fran Kubelik, one of the elevator operators at Consolidated Life. She, meanwhile, is having an affair with the head of personnel, Jeff D. Sheldrake, who has gotten her this job and who keeps promising her he will leave his wife and marry her. (He has no intention of doing so until his wife discovers the affair and kicks him out.) In effect, then, Fran’s situation parallels Bud’s, and here the film refuses to portray her purely as a victim; on the contrary, Fran is burdened by guilt for intruding on a marriage. Mostly it is because she sees her relationship with Jeff as hopeless, going nowhere (which is to say, not in the direction of marriage); after Jeff has left her for the night to get back home, Fran attempts suicide by drug overdose. She does this in Bud’s apartment, leading to the moral crisis by which, with a little help from his next-door neighbors the Dreyfusses, Bud turns into a mensch—a good man rather than a highly successful one. (The film implies that, in the culture and society in which Bud finds himself, one cannot be both.) Thanks to Dr. Dreyfuss, Fran lives; eventually, Bud forsakes his career at Consolidated Life, now at its peak as symbolized by his private office and his key to the executive washroom, and packs up in order to start afresh somewhere else yet to be determined. Fran leaves Jeff for good and joins Bud just in time for a game of cards. “I love you, Miss Kubelik,” Bud tells her. “Shut up and deal.” Battle-scarred, they will have to take things one day at a time. Fran takes off her jacket. It’s Christmas Eve and a new start for two lonely persons.

The scenarists, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, have done their work well, but not so well as their Oscar for writing suggests. It’s Wilder’s direction, also Oscared, that makes the film the memorable and poignant thing that it is. Let’s begin with the film’s three major settings: the office; Baxter’s apartment; New York City locations, especially at night.

Inevitably, the office floor where Baxter toils among an army of workers, each isolated at his or her own desk, will recall the smaller insurance firm in Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity (1944). (We can scarcely divorce the two films for another reason: Fred MacMurray, who played the insurance salesman in Double Indemnity, plays Sheldrake here—and it’s pretty much the same creepy guy, only older and colder. There are echoes, too, of King Vidor’s The Crowd, 1928, and Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times, 1936.) There are shots looking down at the rows and rows of peopled desks where the distance of the camera creates a space of oppression weighing in on the actuaries, and where the neatness of these rows seems correlative to the cut-and-dried, implicitly highly unsatisfying nature of the actuarial work itself. (Endless calculations.) Moreover, this mise-en-scène, with its countless persons doing the same thing, visually implies the fragmentation of each one—each individual’s separation from his or her humanity. Of course, C.C. Baxter isn’t always doing the same thing as the others; he is constantly busy by phone arranging for others’ use of his apartment—arranging, that is, for his career advancement, and doing so to the disadvantage of his fellow workers, who are boxed in by their jobs. By contrast to all their feverish activity, including Baxter’s, the higher-ups are visually portrayed as seldom, if ever, working at all. They’re too busy arranging to get the key to Baxter’s apartment.

The office is Baxter’s “home away from home.” Few American films today take such pains to portray the drudgery of a certain kind of work—work that isn’t necessarily hard but dehumanizingly monotonous. So much of the film is set at Consolidated Life because so much of Baxter’s life—implicitly, too much—is taken up by his job, and by his ceaseless fretting about the trajectory of his career. Here is an intelligent man who, after work, instead of reading a book turns on the boob tube; after a day at the office, he scarcely has energy left to concentrate on reading something substantial in the sanctity of his apartment. He’s wired up, and the television exists primarily to ease him into sleep for the next day’s work. Thus his pastime is as monotonous—as numbing—as his work time and, in an insidious way, inseparable from it. To be sure, Baxter’s aloneness is contributory to the overwhelming part that work plays in his life, but Wilder allows us to see in Baxter’s routines the extent to which work helps impress upon Baxter this aloneness and its accompanying loneliness. Both by script and image Wilder scores a coup when, one night, Baxter excitedly anticipates watching Grand Hotel (another Oscar-winning best picture) on TV, only to turn off the set in irritation and defeat at the slew of commercials that keeps postponing the film’s start. The issue here is more than Baxter’s simple wish to see a celebrated film; the delay is correlative to the way he sees his life. When will his real life begin? Like his opportunity to see Grand Hotel, it seems always to exist in the immediate future—a future that steadily seems to be pushed farther and farther ahead, out of reach. In this scene, Wilder keeps the camera focused on C.C. Baxter; as a result we watch the deflation of each surge of his anticipation as the announcer promises the start of the film (“And now . . .”), only to interrupt himself with another commercial endorsement; and this off-screen voice seems utterly in control of Baxter, whipping him back and forth between elation and deflation. With his remote control, Baxter tries to assert his own control over the situation, flipping channels, hoping to miss the commercial and to return to the show when the film actually starts, but each time he goes back to Grand Hotel the same thing occurs: the promise that the film will start; the dashing of hope with the next commercial. Early on, then, through a seemingly trivial (and quite funny) event we get this glimpse of a man’s sense of the nature of his life and of the world in which that life doesn’t quite seem capable of unfolding.*

In this way, Baxter’s apartment is really an extension of his workplace; it’s an extension of his exhaustion from work, if you will, where rest and relaxation only exist so that he can perform the next day’s work. Underscoring this relationship between the two places is the fact that he is further exhausted because people from work—superiors—are continually usurping his apartment, in some cases, putting him out onto the street, purely for their own sexual gratification, leaving him more exhausted for the next day’s work rather than revitalized and refreshed. It seems no hour is too late for someone to phone, and even when he is sick with a cold he feels (for the sake of his career) compelled to turn over his apartment. I find this exhaustion and sleeplessness of his a strong metaphor for the feelings of countless workers who do get to occupy their own beds each night. They, too, feel a dispiriting absence of control over their own lives.

But all of this doesn’t begin to suggest the beauty of Wilder’s achievement with C.C. Baxter’s apartment—owing to its design by Austro-Hungarian-born Alexandre Trauner (accounting for another Oscar), one of the most engrossing and mysterious sets ever devised. (Among this master art director’s other credits are Marcel Carné’s 1945 Children of Paradise and Orson Welles’s 1952 Othello.) Altogether, The Apartment is Wilder’s most visually sophisticated and sensitive film, and Baxter’s domain accounts for a good deal of its being so. What ever happened to the Wilder of the film noirs, sometimes people ask; but, greatly assisted by black-and-white cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (who won an Oscar for Otto Preminger’s Laura, 1944), the Wilder of Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard (1950)—his two greatest works—is right there in C.C. Baxter’s apartment, whose voluminous, convoluted darkness the camera seemingly unravels, lighting one feature after another before consigning each anew to an omnipresent blackness—a (for us) palpable danger lying in wait to swallow up objects, air and people. Turn off the wisecracking soundtrack, and there are scenes in the apartment nearly as brooding and menacing as ones in Psycho. This dark complexion of the place, moreover, helps redefine what would otherwise pass for purely comical activities performed there, such as Baxter’s use of a tennis racket as a spaghetti strainer, which though humorous and resourceful, as Baxter invariably is, finally admits a subtle accent of desperation. (This, too, relates to the gulf between Baxter’s aspiration and making do with what he has.) And, of course, the occurrence of Fran’s suicide attempt in this apartment makes visual sense that shores up the scenarists’ and the actress’s shaky ability to muster the psychological sense. There is always some unfathomable element to suicide, and this unfathomability is precisely what the profound darkness of the apartment expressionistically conveys.

The darkness of the apartment, moreover, visually links it to the night scenes of the city outdoors. Wilder and LaShelle do a superlative job of conjuring there a forlorn, pitch-black vastness, as when, having given up his apartment late at night to a Consolidated Life superior, Baxter occupies a park bench, the angle of the composition disclosing a seemingly infinite expanse of benches, the others empty as correlative to Baxter’s feelings of emptiness, aloneness and loneliness.

The heartache of Adolph Deutsch’s lush score is another contributor to the film’s achievement. The acting of two of the principals is yet another. Jack Lemmon gives the performance of his career as C.C. Baxter. Here, those anxious tics and mannerisms of Lemmon’s truly seem to belong to the character; they are more sparely and lightly dispensed than they would be thirty years hence. For me, though, the most amazing thing about Lemmon in this role is that Baxter’s growth is discernible. Despite his earlier career ambition and agitation, Baxter is utterly convincing when he tosses away that career as easily as he tosses to Sheldrake the key to the executive washroom. Lemmon makes irresistible the possibility that Bud’s love for Fran, and Bud’s enlarged human sympathy, trump the moral and emotional doldrums into which his personality had dropped. Lemmon won the British Academy Award as best actor. Good, too, is Jack Kruschen as the moral, responsible Dr. Dreyfuss, who mistakes his next-door neighbor as a profligate—a name that the two Jewish authors of the script could scarcely have assigned lightly to a character. (Perhaps the different spelling marks their caution.) Like so many Wilder characters, Dreyfuss dips into stereotype; the man, frankly idealized, represents European Jewish humanism, what the Holocaust had sought to eradicate along with massive numbers of Jews. This is, for the Vienna-born Wilder, as patriotic as he would allow himself to be in film; an American immigrant himself, he is implicitly expressing gratitude through Dreyfuss for the haven that America has sometimes offered Jews and others.

Shirley MacLaine, who plays Fran, is, of course, a matter of taste. Let’s frankly admit that Wilder and Diamond in no way provided Fran with the kind of social and psychological detail with which they provided C.C. Baxter. Let’s also admit that Fran’s suicide attempt seems to come out of the blue (no pun intended). MacLaine does what she can; the unreality of her pixie-ish early acting style is something that Wilder manages to use to the film’s advantage (Fran’s naivité makes palatable, I suppose, the sordidness of her existence), much as he used Gloria Swanson’s flamboyant self-caricature to the advantage of Sunset Boulevard. But, much as we were compelled there to focus on William Holden, here we focus on Lemmon. MacLaine, at least, doesn’t get too much in our way. She brings a delicate quality to her most famous role; as she was in Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), MacLaine in The Apartment is deft as well as daft. She was named best actress at Venice.

Another cast member took me by surprise when I recently re-viewed The Apartment. I had recalled as blunt Edie Adams’s performance as the former mistress of Sheldrake’s who rats out this boss of hers, who has just fired her, to his wife regarding Kubelik. Adams is, in fact, fine and nuanced, and she gives the film a bit of pizzazz that androgynous MacLaine could not hope to muster. Adams is the sexual knockout here that usually the lead actress is in a Wilder film.

In the canon of Wilder comedies, where do I place The Apartment? At least two are probably superior: the postwar Berlin comedies A Foreign Affair (1948) and One, Two, Three (1961). At least one is certainly as good: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). And at least four are nearly as good: The Major and the Minor (1942), Sabrina (1954—my mother’s favorite film), Some Like It Hot (1959) and Avanti! (1972). Add to these the dramas Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and—I suppose it’s a dramedy—Fedora (1979), and at least patches of his Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (1945) such as the episode of D.T.s phantasmagoria, and you realize what an outstanding body of work Wilder created. (I know: I’ve left out 1951’s Ace in the Hole, or The Big Carnival—a favorite of others more than it’s a favorite of mine.) Recall, too, that Wilder was one of the authors of the brilliant script for Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), the radiant romantic comedy and gently anti-Soviet satire in which Greta Garbo, cinema’s most sublime tragedienne, proved herself also its most sublime comedienne. It is Wilder, no one should forget, either, who drew from our greatest American-born film actress her most phenomenal performance: Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.

Appreciation of Billy Wilder comes as easily as one, two, three.

* A friend, Mindy Aloff, has pointed out the following to me: “Of course, Grand Hotel is a[n] . . . extension, by fantasy, of the operation that Baxter is running himself.”

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