“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36)
The above verse has very often been used to describe the Citizen Kane’s and Great Gatsby’s of this world – people who have climbed and clawed their way to the top and found little happiness at the peak. But as The Apartment shows, that verse is perhaps more applicable and powerful to those of us still on the lower rungs looking for ways to claw our way up.
Billy Wilder, so often the master of acerbically comedic wit, trains his eyes in The Apartment to corporate America and, by extension, to the ultimately hollow promises of the American dream. In a cavernous corporate office on the 19th floor of an insurance company we meet C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) or “Bud” as his bosses and coworkers impersonally call him. By his own description he is one of over thirty thousand employees. He is no more than a wheel in a cog of a massive machine, with his position officially described not by his name but rather by his desk number (“Section W, desk 861”). Amongst the sea of desks and the incessant clattering of typewriters the implication is clear, Baxter is much more likely to be disposable than he is irreplaceable to corporate. And outside of the office, he has little to no existence, with no lover, no family, and nothing but a commercial-filled television station to keep him company at night.
His hopes for advancement in his career based on merit alone is slim but fortunately he has one ace up his sleeve. His downtown apartment has become a known quantity amongst four mid-level managers who have taken it upon themselves to borrow his apartment periodically in order to carry out their illicit affairs far away from their wives’ prying eyes. Their use of his apartment leaves Baxter with no place to stay which means he works later than most of his fellow employees or ends up wandering the streets of Manhattan while waiting for his “guests” to clear out.
The tradeoff for this unusual relationship is that the bosses have implicitly promised that they will “put in a good word” to upper management for him and there is something poetically sad that he willingly is handing off his own apartment key to people who are basically strangers all in order to receive a key to the executive bathroom. Even then it is not immediately obvious if this promise of a promotion is good enough reward for the hassle he has to go through. His arrangement needs to be treated with the utmost discretion and as a result all his neighbours assume he is a boorish boozer and womanizer which is particularly grating for an all-around decent man who would rather sit and enjoy a TV movie in the evening than wile away the hours in empty affairs. It is also clear that the special arrangement is proving detrimental to his own health as a particularly callous boss leaves Baxter locked out of his apartment and with a feverish cold as a result. His own attempts to get his apartment back just for one night in order to rest and recover involve him calling various bosses for twenty minutes to reschedule their sexual dalliances.
However it finally pays off as the call finally comes in from above that he is getting promoted from his desk job. And it is at this point that the two other important people of this story get properly introduced. The first is elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) with whom Baxter has had innocent flirty rapport with on his rides up and down from the 19th floor. She is funny, sweet, and also seemingly smart enough to navigate the more lecherous advances of management. As Baxter receives news of the promotion he has craved for so long she responds generously saying it couldn’t happen to a nice guy and even giving him her corsage to make him look more presentable to the boss. And with his imminent promotion, Baxter decides to make the leap to deepen his flirtatious relationship with her by asking her out on a date.
But before any of that can be fulfilled the third character needs to be introduced to muddy the waters, namely the personnel director Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). And his introduction cements just how perfectly Wilder cast the movie. MacMurray perfectly conveys the mix of confident suave and sleaze necessary to sell his duplicitous charm. Sheldrake offers Baxter his promotion but with one caveat: Baxter needs to continue the special arrangement with his apartment, but exclusively to Sheldrake. The fact that being forced to hand over his apartment twice a week to one man sounds better to Baxter than his previous arrangement signals how Stockholm Syndrome has taken hold of him in corporate America.
Unfortunately it is also at this point that it all starts to unravel for Baxter. He is stood up by Fran in front of Broadway theatre because unbeknownst to him, Fran is the object of Sheldrake’s desire and Baxter has unwittingly given them the key – literally and figuratively – to continuing their affair. And Fran herself is trapped by a man who is unwilling to leave his wife to be with her and also unwilling to let Fran go.
This leads Baxter and Fran to the most devastating office Christmas party ever put onscreen. Baxter invites Fran over to his office to check out his new bowler hat, his effervescence seemingly making him unaware to Fran’s own pain. Moments before Fran had been confronted by Sheldrake’s secretary who reveals to her that she is merely one in a string of affairs Sheldrake has had, confirming that he is never going to leave his wife. When Baxter asks for a mirror to check out how he looks she hands him her broken mirror-case – the very same case that he found in his apartment and returned to Sheldrake just a few days before. In one fell swoop two broken people are formed, and the movie moves from lighthearted romantic comedy into something more poignant.
Billy Wilder has throughout his career been someone who made absurdly funny stories like Some Like It Hot and more biting dramatic fare like Ace in the Hole or Sunset Boulevard. But The Apartment is unique in that it combines both to powerfully gut-punching effect. In this case he trains his barbs so firmly at the seeming emptiness of corporate America and capitalism in general that it is a small wonder that he was never under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. But perhaps this is because Wilder so skillfully wraps his deep criticism of the dehumanizing effect of capitalism in the bubbly and cheery personalities of Lemmon and MacLaine.
Lemmon and MacLaine hardly seem like the front lines of an assault of the American dream, but this is precisely why they are effective in this movie. One can’t help but feel their heart break when you see someone like Lemmon as Baxter, an all-round decent kind of guy who finds himself just trying to stay afloat and get ahead (like any good American should) to the detriment of his own sanity and health only to find that at the moment he’s achieved everything American capitalism has asked him to do the one thing he truly wants eludes him: to love and be loved in return. Meanwhile the true tragedy of this story belongs to Fran, who suffers from the brutish nature of capitalism but in a much more dehumanizing way because she is ultimately a commodity to the boss who uses her, only as special as the last girl he used, and to be discarded as soon as the newest model comes around.
What is remarkable about The Apartment’s critique of capitalism is that it is extremely easy for us in 2018 to be critical when we are in the throes of late capitalism, the gig economy, and disparity between the ultra rich and ultra poor has never been greater. But Billy Wilder chose to draw out the hollow soul of capitalism during what is arguably American capitalism’s greatest height in 1960. This is an era in which the term “organization man” was still a badge of honour and the promise of the American dream seemed infinitely less illusory than it does today. By attacking the cultural institution of American commerce Wilder ensured that, like Hitchcock’s Psycho, the movie would receive a tepid response upon initial release. But Wilder’s prophetic view of capitalism’s dark side has only become more and more relevant with each passing year as the sheen has increasingly come off the American dream. Coincidentally I think this critique of the dehumanizing power of capitalism is the reason why the movie has eventually shifted from being called a comedy to drama during the ensuing decades. That and the fact that this movie deals with infidelity, suicide, depression, potential prostitution, and exploitation among other things.
Of course being a Billy Wilder movie, The Apartment also features some of the funniest and cutting one-liners ever written and his script is instrumental in illustrating how Baxter and Fran have been groomed and held captive by the corporate culture they have adopted, and thus kept apart from one another. When Baxter’s neighbour Dr. Dreyfuss shows up at his apartment for an emergency involving Fran, Dr. Dreyfuss naturally assumes that Baxter is to blame and lectures him to grow up and “Be a mensch!”. The words are so cutting because even though Dr. Dreyfuss is mistaken about his impressions of Baxter, he is nonetheless prescient in pointing out that Baxter has some blame in the whole affair because of his adherence to a corporate culture built around the commodification of people. Similarly Fran has allowed her self-worth to be dictated by the value Sheldrake, and other men before her, have placed in her. And the brilliance of this movie is that unlike romantic comedies in the past, Wilder makes it clear that their salvation will come not in finding each other but by buying out of their current value systems.
This is why the movie’s ending is perfect. It features no romantic embrace, no drawn out kiss, no shotgun wedding. We do not leave Fran and Baxter at the culmination of their romantic relationship, but instead are invited to leave just as it is truly beginning and only after they have realized that their previous paths to happiness were futile. There is no certainty that Fran and Baxter will make it as a couple; there is still a lot of work for the two of them to do. But that is their work and not ours, it is enough for us to know that at some level these two lonely souls have found each other. Now we are free to show ourselves out the door so that Baxter can finally, as Fran implores, “Shut up and deal”.
The Hall of Fame is for movies that have appeared in multiple “Best Lists” and are considered exemplary enough to be “retired” from future lists.
Lists appeared in:
Best Classic Films (For People Who Think Black & White Films are Boring)
Best Christmas-Adjacent Movies
Ranking Every Best Picture Winner Ever (#25-1)