Billy Wilder began the 1950s with a masterpiece, Sunset Blvd., and he ended it with one, 1959’s Some Like it Hot. It’s tempting to call The Apartment, astonishingly released only one year later, a victory lap. It’s tempting, but Wilder won’t let us. The Apartment is often considered his most sentimental film, but merely seeing the sentiment does a disservice to a film clearly assembled with love and care, an indomitable spirit, and best of all, a real humanity mixed up in Wilder’s customary bitter humor and acid tongue. There are films that may be more telling about the human condition, but for pure cinematic entertainment that knows just how far to push the envelope and to leave to suggestion, few films match The Apartment.
The Apartment is ultimately a film about character. Like the director’s masterpiece, Sunset Blvd., it’s towered over by the nuance with which the two central characters are developed. And like Sunset Blvd., this film has as its cornerstone one of the greatest relationships in any film. CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) on the surface is the kind of mild-mannered nobody we pity on the surface but deep down see in ourselves. He’s standoffish and awkward but is deeply interested in the kind of human interaction he can’t seem to find any luck in. It’s hard not to think of him as meek, but there’s something deceptively, deliciously controlling about his character here. As a side business, the kind which doesn’t formally pay but which allows him to rise through the ranks of his day-job, he rents out his apartment to his bosses for one-note affairs. It helps him advance, but we get a sense of something else too. Throughout the film he keeps commenting on how he wants to be left alone, but we see in his interactions with his patrons a sensation of joy in controlling them, in having some information about them he can use. It’s never explicitly stated, but we get the sense that he’s doing this because he has no one else in his home life, no one to talk to, and no friends. It gives him something, anything, to control and gives people, especially those in power, reason to speak to him. It’s something simultaneously empowering, as we might want to be empowered in having dirty secrets about our bosses, and deeply, profoundly lonely.
Fran (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator girl, has her own personal demons: a struggling affair with her boss and melancholy depression most forthright among them. She’s deeply lonely, and like CC Baxter she tries to find what joy she can in an un-fulfilling life. Most of all, this takes the form of affairs with married co-workers. The boss man, as he is with CC, is abusing her, and because she is a female and the abuse is romantic, he has more social agency to assert power over her, to use and abuse her and let her go. In these two characters, alone, we have two fine, complicated dramas with surprising depth and an edge. Although it doesn’t explore the depths of humanity like Sunset Blvd., The Apartment is shockingly ahead of it’s time for 1960 and the kind of film which is still prescient today.
However, it so happens that the two figures work together in the same insurance agency, and that they become involved in a relationship that spans the gamut of human emotion, from the bitterness of being left out to the joy of a truly aching personal connection. The way they get to know each other feels real and human, as they slowly develop an unstated joy around each other’s company even when they make fun of each other, trading the kind of barbs Wilder writes in his sleep. There’s a sense of development here, that their coming to know each other is not the product of a screenwriter but real life– they don’t just fall in love upon seeing each other but take time to get to understand each other. And it’s given added depth because we’ve come to understand them as lonely individuals in their own right. We see their burgeoning relationship not as romance but more a friendship rooted in their shared loneliness. There are many movie romances, both bad and great, but too few films about friendship, especially between the sexes. They aren’t in love with each other because they find each other sexually attractive, but because they see something of themselves in the other. It’s their one opportunity to overcome their shared cynicism and depression, or at least to bond over it.
It’s perhaps relieving to report that the subject matter belies the deft, often comic touch with which Wilder develops the two characters and their central relationship. Make no mistake, this is a film about lost souls, but the customarily cynical Wilder has here created one of the great humanist visions of the cinema, filled with biting, sardonic satire played with a lighter touch than usual and genuine pathos. It would be unfair to accuse the film of being sentimental, but many of the best aspects of sentiment, the kind which drove a masterpiece like City Lights to magisterial heights, are on display here. This is a funny, touching film, the kind whose edge is all the stronger and more subversive because it’s presented with such lightness.
Throughout, the film does approximate comedy – it’s a dark one, for sure, but it’s not absent a good laugh. Early on, the wonderfully droll script explores CC’s loneliness with a sense of wry despair – people use and abuse him, and Wilder isn’t afraid to find humor in his passivity. Elsewhere, the film mocks corporate culture by having CC’s bosses feign a certain cultural efficiency on the surface only to contradict their own moral monologuing immediately afterwards. Wilder also displays his ample gift for witty visuals in his use of crowds and empty space. Throughout, he routinely contrasts a location filled to the point of barely, and comically, organized chaos with the same image completely barren of people. He pokes at the loneliness of CC through these scenes, sure, but also the constant dehumanizing rush and superficiality of corporate culture and the emptiness of modern life. Especially effective are scenes capturing the oppressive symmetry of CC’s work floor, filled with hundreds of desks organized to the point of mindlessness. Here, and elsewhere, Wilder uses deep-focus camerawork to phenomenal effect in conveying the sheer cavernous depth of soul-crushing work in the big city, seeing CC walk to and from the screen in an unending clinical hell and highlighting just how small and insignificant it makes him. There’s also a none-too-subtle visual jab at Marilyn Monroe, the women Wilder had made a star in his previous films.
The film is also notable for its presentation of gender – comic depictions of minor female characters excepted. Fran is depicted as a strong woman torn down by the men around her and left with no option but to think the worst in herself and others. The film’s tragedy is predicated on the lies of men, and the film moves from light gabs at family values and gender double standards (early on, when a man has an affair with an unmarried woman and she asks him if he has any other lovers, his response is a golden “of course not, I’m a happily married man”) to more serious commentary on the nature of male abuse and the games they play to convince women of their desire for them.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said of The Apartment is that it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking it. It’s dark enough for those who deride overly phony romances but light and ebullient enough for someone who just wants to have a good time at the movies. It’s not Wilder’s best film, but it is perhaps his greatest trick: any other writer-director would have turned a story like this into the fluffiest, frothiest romance ever. In fact, they would have had no excuse not to. But in Wilder’s hand, he turns it into a bittersweet ode to lonely human beings; for all its romantic gestures, this is a thoroughly unsentimental motion picture. It’s also one of the finest films ever made, a true gem of the cinema and one of the purest joys to be found.