Today, not just in regard to the Supreme Court, Americans seem sharply divided about morality. Is it an absolute standard we measure our actions and policies against? Or is it a menu from which we select arguments to achieve the outcomes we desire? Should we always follow our conscience, or is it alright sometimes to cheat a little to get something we really want?
In this context one of Hollywood’s finest movies, “The Apartment” (1960), could not be more timely.
Directed by Billy Wilder, co-written with I.A.L. Diamond as a follow-up to their classic comedy “Some Like It Hot,” the film follows C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a clerk at a New York insurance company who works in a huge office where rows of faceless coworkers at identical desks recede grimly into the distance.
Baxter, however, has found a way to get the attention of his superiors. He lets executives use his flat for their extramarital trysts. They, in return, promise to help him up the corporate ladder. The philandering execs drive him crazy, demanding time slots he’s promised to others and forcing him to stand outside for hours sometimes, even in the rain, while they drink his liquor and mess up his apartment with their mistresses. He’s a decent guy, but he wants a promotion so badly that he turns a blind eye to the immorality he facilitates.
Baxter takes a shine to Fran (Shirley MacLaine), a perky elevator operator whom executives have been hitting on without success. He hopes to impress her with his upward mobility. But Fran turns out to be having an affair with Baxter’s married boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
The first part of “The Apartment” plays like bedroom farce, but don’t let the light tone fool you. For years, Wilder’s scripts had mixed humor with darker, seemingly incompatible themes. “Ninotchka,” with Greta Garbo, served up romance while satirizing communism. In “Sunset Boulevard” the deluded Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, brilliant) was ridiculous and heartbreaking all at once. Even the madcap “Some Like It Hot” began with a gangland massacre.
Great films all, but none of them switches tone as powerfully and audaciously as “The Apartment” does. By the halfway mark, a theme emerges: infidelity, in every sense. To one’s spouse, one’s conscience, even to simple logic. Like Baxter, Fran has compromised her integrity, in her case, for love. She tries to make herself believe Sheldrake’s empty promises: He’ll leave his wife, he’ll marry Fran, and they’ll live happily ever after. But it’s all a lie. In tears, with make-up running down her cheeks, she reflects: “When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.”
Then the blow falls. Sheldrake’s secretary (Edie Adams) tells Fran she’s just the latest in a string of young women her boss has seduced and discarded. The secretary was one of them herself.
Meeting Sheldrake again at Baxter’s apartment, Fran can no longer ignore his ruthless indifference to her feelings. After he leaves her with a hundred-dollar bill—a Christmas gift, but more like a slap in the face, she tries to end it all with sleeping pills.
How did we get from risqué farce to tragedy so quickly? Wilder and Diamond’s control of tone is masterful. Baxter comes home to find Fran unconscious. A shockingly realistic scene follows where he and his neighbor, a kindly Jewish doctor, shake and slap her to keep her awake and alive.
At this point the racy antics of the opening melt away, leaving us with two little lonely people whose blind rush to get ahead (him professionally, her personally) has left them both devastated. For the story’s resolution, and Sheldrake’s overdue comeuppance, I leave you to see the movie for yourself.
“The Apartment” was a hit and won five Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Art Direction, and Editing. Lemmon and MacLaine were nominated but didn’t win: a shame, since they would never top their work in this film. Lemmon is the perfect Everyman and MacLaine displays a natural, unpretentious charm not always seen in her later performances.
Fred MacMurray was reluctant to play a womanizing creep. He’d just signed a Disney contract and didn’t want to tarnish his nice guy image. But Wilder, who had convinced him to play the murderer in the superb “Double Indemnity” (1944), talked him into taking this role as well. MacMurray demonstrates, as a more sinister actor could not, how a smooth-talking scoundrel can dupe people into thinking he’s sincere. As Hamlet observed, “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
The Parts Create a Flawless Whole
“The Apartment” is about as flawless as a movie can get. Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay is a master class in story construction. Every plot twist and detail is meticulously designed for maximum effect. Even props like the apartment key and the cracked mirror in Fran’s compact wend meaningfully through the story, almost like characters themselves.
Wilder’s discreet, self-effacing direction should be a model for young filmmakers. No flashy cutting or tricky camera angles. No unnecessary close-ups or inserts when a simple two-shot (two actors facing each other in profile) serves the story better.
Comedy, pathos, farce, tragedy … the film’s disparate elements are nimbly tied together by Adolph Deutsch’s romantic, melancholy musical score. And, the art direction earned its Oscar. Notice the contrast between Baxter’s cozy apartment and the cold, impersonal expanse of the office that reduces employees to so many cogs in a machine. Also, the shadowy Chinese restaurant where vows are violated, hearts are broken, and the boozy bedlam of a New Year’s Eve party expresses the chaotic emptiness Sheldrake has brought into Fran’s life.
An adjective often applied to Wilder’s movies is “cynical.” It’s true they often turn a harsh light on human behavior, but it’s usually to make a moral point. Adultery, for example, has often been portrayed by Hollywood as romantic and sexy. Not in “The Apartment.” The sleazy executives are as repulsive as the floozies they take to Baxter’s flat.
Ever since the United States was founded in an act of rebellion against English rule, Americans have romanticized rebels, from the murderer Jesse James to Dirty Harry to our era’s gangsta rappers. Young people are bombarded with cynical stories whose heroes get what they want by being as cruel and violent as the bad guys. Morality itself is portrayed as oppressive.
“The Apartment” sets the moral equation straight. Few happy endings are more honestly and satisfyingly earned. Baxter and Fran both learn an important lesson. The Bible puts it best: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”