In The Apartment (1960), writer/director Billy Wilder takes a decidedly melancholic approach to the pains of navigating the corporate workplace, extramarital affairs and suffering loneliness and heartbreak.
C.C. ‘Bud’ Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is an everyman, an insurance analyst seemingly doomed to function as another cog in an endless factory line of drab, impersonal cubicles. But Bud has an advantage over his immediate colleagues: he is single with an apartment and has the capacity to stifle his apprehension long enough to hand over the keys to his superiors. Exploiting Bud’s ambitions, the company’s managers routinely ask Bud to vacate his premises to allow them quality time with their mistresses, writing flattering performance reports in exchange.
Personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) takes note of the enthusiastic reviews and discovers the arrangement, blackmailing Bud into allowing him to join this exclusive club of cheaters. Sheldrake needs the apartment to seduce his off-again mistress Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator at the office who shares an easy friendship and burgeoning romance with Bud.
Trusting, energetic and obsequious, Bud is sucked into a dirty American Dream, alternatively resisting and succumbing to the allure and safety of advancement within the company and, as a result, feeling compelled to enable acts of infidelity.
Wilder was a masterful and diverse director (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, to name a few) and The Apartment is his most humanistic and compassionate work. Although neither his most ambitious nor best remembered film, I find it to be emotionally powerful, relevant and complex. It is maybe Wilder’s most grounded, modest creation, relishing the beauty in Fran’s grief and in Bud’s loneliness and eager attempts at meaningful connections. For all of his bombastic loquacity, Bud is not immune to the occasional concise one-liner, explaining to Fran in one of his more romantic moods, “I used to live like Robinson Crusoe; I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were.”
We meet Bud and Fran at a time when they’re both exhausted with their situations but not entirely resigned to being limited or coerced into their prescribed roles as another “buddy-boy” mid-level executive and an understanding, compliant mistress. Fran tells Bud “some people take, and some get took. And they know they’re getting took and there’s nothing they can do about it”. The honesty in her simple statement, suggesting her exhaustion, uncertainty and humiliation, is one of many quietly resonant exchanges in The Apartment.
Although touching on some extreme instances of moral turpitude—surprising subject matter for a film released in 1960—there is no titillation or romance to these salacious affairs, or the ‘payoff’ to Bud’s promotion. Indeed, during the one scene in which Bud attempts to bask in his newly-minted status—involving a “junior executive model” and a broken mirror—his shallow enthusiasm is grounded by Fran’s despondency after a revealing conversation about the state of her relationship with Sheldrake. The Apartment presents situations in which fleeting exuberance and hope co-exist alongside heartbreak, where sadness needn’t be depressing or act as a catalyst for drastic change but rather an experience of the keenest of human emotions.
Few directors create such multi-faceted and entertaining films as Billy Wilder, and encountering The Apartment was a revelation. This film refuses to be limited by genre or its (often momentary) treatment of controversial issues. It’s a pleasure to watch, immersing Bud, Fran, and the audience in the absurd, hopeful, bitter, poignant pain of the everyday.
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