In a 1995 interview packaged as part of Arrow Academy’s new restoration of The Apartment, Billy Wilder remembers a scene from David Lean’s Brief Encounter, a ‘black and white, very simple’ movie that he considers one of that director’s greatest. He and I have very different memories of it. In my head, which has never dreamed up even one great movie, handsome doctor Alec borrows the use of a friend’s flat in order to continue meeting the married Laura in secret— meetings which form part of a solely emotional, chaste affair. Alec’s friend then embarrasses the couple by returning home, albeit before they are anywhere near to consummating their relationship, if indeed they ever intended to.
Wilder, no stranger to layering his movies with innuendo in order to evade the censorious strictures of the Hays Code, shows a corresponding ability to reverse innuendo: in his mind, Brief Encounter is the story of a ‘married woman’ whose ‘lover lives in London. She would come and see him, and he would use a friend’s apartment for his trysts’. The middle-class British reserve of the original story suddenly seems naive, even dishonest: what did you think they were doing together all that time? Brief Encounter is a marvellous film, but it’s not a particularly frank exploration of extra-marital affairs.
Nevertheless, Wilder’s fascination with the potentially sleazy, sad existence of the friend, who he imagined dejectedly shut out of his own home while the two lovers conducted their affair upstairs, would persist for more than a decade. Initially thinking the material too racy for Hollywood, he planned it as a stage-play. The version of Brief Encounter he had in his head probably took on its lurid dimensions when, in the early 1950s, a scandal erupted after the husband of actress Joan Bennett shot her talent agent. Wilder was particularly taken with the detail that the agent had made use of his own employee’s apartment for his liaisons with Bennett— gone was the bourgeois chumminess of the source material, replaced by a subversive and disillusioning relationship of sordid exploitation. And so The Apartment was born, the product of a marriage between British fiction and Hollywood gossip, with a director at the helm whose irreverent attitude towards fussy decorum and prudish moralising would elevate the material— much to the chagrin of some contemporary critics.
But that new-born idea was nothing without a leading man who could live up to it. A somewhat pigeonholed comic actor who always harboured ambitions of transcending genre restrictions, Jack Lemmon’s starring role as C.C. Baxter was the answer to all his prayers. As the ‘nebbish’ insurance company careerist who is pressured by his superiors into renting out his apartment for their extra-marital affairs, Lemmon underplays his own goofy charm until his every gesture seems totally natural. In a sense, his performance argues that goofiness is natural; in the workplace he may connive and kowtow, but he can’t help wearing his heart on his sleeve, and his sweaty sincerity leaks from every pore. He isn’t built for the nightmarish mise en abyme of the Consolidated Life building’s 19th floor, where he is one man in a bureaucracy of thirty thousand employees— a statistic brought to life by art director Alexandre Trauner’s extraordinary forced-perspective set design, with rows of increasingly smaller desks (and smaller people, from adults to children and mannequins) stretching on seemingly to infinity.
The spiritually sapping stiffness of that environment coalesces in the figure of Baxter’s boss, Jeff Sheldrake, the second time Wilder cast dependable ‘nice guy’ character actor Fred MacMurray against type as a philandering insurance man. The portrait is even less flattering than in Double Indemnity, all that conspiratorial charm and amiability exposed as both a front for his manipulation of a series of vulnerable women, and a strategy for recruiting men to cover for him. It’s a performance that served as inspiration for, among others, Don Draper in Mad Men, but it shouldn’t be seen as a ‘60s throwback. This flat, disconcertingly neat portrayal of an abuser leveraging his power over those under him could not be more starkly contemporary.
Two people talking about The Apartment could seem to be discussing entirely separate movies. Does the previous paragraph square with the fact that this is, equally, a romantic comedy set over Christmas and the new year? And yet it flirts with the best, and the worst, that the holidays and their romances have to offer. In glorious cinemascope, Wilder puts human warmth through a strainer and sifts through the dregs: Baxter, dancing past closing time at the local dive bar with the only soul as lonely as he is, while the bartender sweeps an alcoholic Santa Claus out of the establishment. What a Christmas tableau! And yet Hope Holiday, as his dancing partner, has perhaps the funniest minor role in the film. The accretion of details, the way quirky casual chatter reveals, drip by drip, a character’s deepest desires (‘do you like Castro?’) is the film’s structure, its strategy, in microcosm. But it also attests to the film’s heart: its love and care for lonely people even at their worst, especially women who are repeatedly let down by the men they are stuck with.
None of this would make an impression without Shirley MacLaine as ‘elevator girl’ Fran Kubelik, not so much a romantic interest for Baxter as a woman with her own emancipatory battle to fight; indeed, Wilder described The Apartment as the story of ‘two people who were being emancipated’. If Baxter is fighting a battle to assert his privacy, even his basic right to his own living space, in the face of his superiors’ demands on his time, Kubelik is engaged in a more complex struggle. First, there’s the everyday harassment she experiences in her job; as she tells Baxter, ’something happens to men in elevators, must be the change of altitude’. Then there’s the emotionally manipulative affair with Sheldrake, who lures her with cynical promises of divorcing his wife. And if Baxter’s apartment seems alternately too lonely and too crowded, spare a thought for her home life, which she must share with her sister and the controlling tough-guy brother in law who eventually blunders in and upsets her convalescence.
I’m tiptoeing around exactly why she is convalescing. In fact, it’s rather difficult to talk about the greatness of The Apartment without discussing in detail the plot’s gut-punch lurches into pathos. These moments succeed because Wilder is committed to treating the most serious and the most trivial of life’s miseries with as much gravity or frivolity as they deserve. And his characters don’t stop being themselves just because they are confronted by tragedy. Billy Wilder often compared screenwriting to building a house, and The Apartment is one of his and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond’s greatest architectural marvels; no matter how it twists and warps, how nimbly it plays with clashing styles, it not only endures but coheres. It becomes apparent, when examined as a whole, that what seemed like ugly ornaments or incongruous features are harmonious. Trivial details, forgotten on first glance, turn out to be load-bearing pillars, perfectly placed. It’s not built just to impress; I’m thinking, for example, of the ‘executive washroom key’, a brief mix-up gag in the film’s opening act that later punctuates the film’s most stirring moment of rebellion. Billy Wilder depended on collaborators like Lemmon and Diamond to supply his movies with their sweeter grace notes. He may have been a cynic or at least a hard-bitten realist. But that only makes The Apartment’s small victories for romance and rebellion feel all the more well-earned.