The Apartment is the story of a Manhattan apartment used for illicit sexual liaisons by company executives who in return give its owner, their lowly colleague C.C. Baxter, good efficiency ratings and fast track promotions. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works in the ‘Ordinary Premium Accounting’ department at a large insurance company. His desk is one of many situated in rows of hundreds in an open plan office. Those ‘using’ the apartment are all his superiors with their own offices and keys to the executive washroom, and their liaisons are with their secretaries, the switchboard girls and the elfin elevator assistant Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), with whom Baxter falls in love. Such is the insular world of this office tower block whose employees outnumber the residents of Natchez, Mississippi.
The script (co-written with regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) is so brilliantly crafted you could just sit and marvel at its perfection. It even creates its own syntax, dialogue-wise. There are a smattering of topical 1960s jokes and a few in Yiddish that might need translating but much of the humour is universal and the film is as funny now as it surely was 50 years ago.
Wilder’s films in general are so well written it is easy to credit him as a screenwriter and overlook his talent as a director. For Wilder, the screenplay came first and the other elements worked to support it - his gravestone even reads, ‘I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect’. But that doesn’t mean that mise en scène, cinematography, sound or even editing are without imagination, or that his work is any less cinematic. The editing may be classically smooth and unobtrusive but when the film cuts seamlessly from a suicide attempt to a drunken dance routine with the melodramatic death music morphing into the jukebox’s cha-cha-cha, we can see Wilder taking unobtrusiveness to another level.
The film has a great look - the cocktail bars thick with smoke and bustling with Christmas drinkers (even Santa Claus himself orders a whiskey); the open plan office with its geometric patterned ceilings. The art direction was by the great Alexander Trauner who used forced perspective to show the masses of office staff. The rows of desks were built smaller and smaller with those furthest away being peopled by children in business suits. The apartment itself is a wonderful creation, a quirky combination of thrift-store furnishings and technical innovations, including a very impressive remote control television.
In Jack Lemmon, Wilder seems to have found his perfect star. The Apartment was the second of seven films they were to make together. His C.C. Baxter is anxious, self-pitying, sickly, weak-willed but still the film’s hero. Like his Daphne in Some Like It Hot (1958), he is unable to say no to escalating requests. He is lacking in moral fibre and non-judgemental to a fault. Even Fred MacMurray’s charming philanderer Sheldrake has stronger, if skewed, sense of justice as he complains of how unfair it is for his mistresses to expect him to divorce his wife. The moral world of The Apartment is one of those who take and those who get taken, or of ‘finks’ and ‘schmucks’. Baxter is the latter.
The re-issue material seems to play up the Mad Men connection. The early 1960s inter-office politics (particularly the sexual politics) have a lot in common with Matthew Weiner’s TV show as does the drinking and smoking at work and the after-work cocktails (a Frozen Daiquiri, a Rum Collins or a dozen Martinis). Was every office worker in New York permanently sauced? However, the philanderers in The Apartment are much less classy than Don Draper - actually even less than Roger Sterling. As the switchboard girl complains, she hoped he would take her to ‘Twenty One’ but instead had to settle for ‘Hamburg Heaven and some schmuck’s apartment’. The gulf between the advertising world of Mad Men and the insurance industry of The Apartment is exemplified by Mr Dobisch can-can-ing in sock-suspenders at the Christmas party.
Perhaps more than any of his other films, The Apartment is full of Wilder’s irreverent sense of humour. Although aimed mostly at the corporate business world his scattershot approach hits a wide range of targets, from Wilder’s previous star Marilyn Monroe (a lookalike is picked up in a bar by the aforementioned Dobisch) to Fidel Castro (‘a no-good fink’), from credit card culture to television. Baxter’s enjoyment of one of cinema’s classiest moments - Grand Hotel (1932) - is destroyed by an advertiser’s question - ‘Do you have wobbly dentures?’
Male-female relationships have rarely been viewed with such relentless pessimism. The Apartment has to be the least romantic rom-com ever. However, the film’s darker comedic moments are deftly handled and Wilder side-steps the moral maze he has led us into with yet more well-timed gags. When assessing his own work Billy Wilder described The Apartment as being the film with the fewest mistakes. And he is right: it is as near to perfect as is possible.