Director: Billy Wilder
Writer: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
DP: Joseph LaShelle
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Score: Adolph Deutsch
Producer: Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred McMurray, Jack Kruschen
Distribution: United Artists
Length: 2 hrs. 5 min.
Billy Wilder's The Apartment stands out from other romantic comedies for its marked lack of romance. C.C. Baxter, the put-upon underdog played by Jack Lemmon, has feelings that are never necessarily reciprocated, and the only couple with a major role in the film have a broken, one-sided relationship. For characters to act altruistically, they must divorce themselves from the system that governs their entire world, leaving them with no stable support. But it's because of this lack of romance, not in spite of it, that The Apartment works so well; it's a harsh rebuke of self-entitlement that insists on the importance of recognizing people as individuals, and it has the mettle to say that that there's no reward for doing that, but you should do it anyway - it's simply the right thing to do.
The film's title refers to C.C. Baxter's apartment. He lives alone in New York, working for an insurance company. In exchange for building up his reputation, Baxter allows his bosses to use his apartment as a safe haven for their extramarital affairs, which frequently puts him out until late at night (a situation allegedly inspired by a similar real-life story Billy Wilder had heard). He's infatuated with Fran Kubelik, an elevator attendant played by Shirley MacLaine, but lacks the confidence to tell her.
Baxter's is not just a man who lacks confidence, he's a man with a history of real loneliness; it eventually becomes clear that he really has no one in his life. This is how he was convinced to loan out his apartment. He lacks the fortitude to refuse his bosses, even when it comes at great inconvenience to him; they treat him with familiarity, but they speak in tones that constantly threaten to take that familiarity away. The film is clear he's ultimately playing into a dehumanizing system; the extent to which Baxter values himself correlates directly with his status, and as a consequence he fails to comprehend when people are thinking by other standards. The Apartment is no film noir, but Billy Wilder made many films in that genre, and his films noir often feature a protagonist who pursues status and botches his relationships.
This all manifests in the film's dialogue, in the ways the characters talk over or interrupt each other, the ways characters will repeat the same lines in different contexts, and in the lines themselves. The dehumanizing effect of Baxter's position is reflected in how he tends to compare or equate people to objects, while his inability to understand the world in non-hierarchical terms is reflected in the way he interrupts or even ignores people, and in the resentment he shows them when he feels they haven't treated him as he deserves. We see an example of this near the beginning of the film, when he tells Fran Kubelik that he knows her height, weight, hometown, medical history, and social security number because he looked up her insurance file. It doesn't occur to him that she might consider that invasive; he's simply trying to express his interest in her in a way that emphasizes his knowledge of the system that governs both of their livelihoods.
Though Baxter's bosses are hardly portrayed sympathetically in Wilder's film, we can understand them to an extent through Baxter himself. We can see how his attempts to climb the ladder threaten to turn him into an unsympathetic figure, and we can guess that his bosses have been through the same process. It's especially apparent when we see the deference with which they treat their own superiors. Also, their rehearsed methods of attracting women mirror Baxter's own routine, systematic approach to ingratiating himself to his bosses.
Late in the film, Fran becomes ill in Baxter's apartment due to the manipulations of one of Baxter's superiors, and Baxter is charged with nursing her back to health. This is where he faces a dilemma; normally, he'd defend his position in the company, which is determined by how well he can please his superiors. To maintain his boss's reputation, and in turn his own reputation, he must keep Fran's presence in his apartment a secret. But how can he justify this when that kind of manipulation is what hurt Fran in the first place?
The characters' loneliness is emphasized by setting them against empty backgrounds and long lines that recede into them. This in turn becomes something that marks Baxter's attachment to his work environment; the spaces at his workplace are often crowded, sparing him some loneliness, but they're also characterized by rigid angles and repeated shapes. Wilder guides the viewer's eye with a clever combination of lighting and contrasts of luminance, often to emphasize the characters' lack of awareness of their surroundings. The camera is mostly distant from the actors, letting them perform with their whole bodies, and every central performer brings pauses and small gestures to their role, evoking the characters' inner lives at a remarkable level of detail. Side characters that could easily have been interchangeable are given personality by unique affectations.
There's a scene that takes place while Fran is recovering in Baxter's apartment that reveals the former's plight. They play a few hands of gin rummy (she doesn't feel like it, but he insists), and Fran loses each one. She starts telling Baxter about the string of bad luck she's had in her life; people who said they cared about her were only ever acting out of entitlement, rather than any regard for her as a person. She tried to remain optimistic in spite of this, giving most people the benefit of the doubt, but asking humanity of them only drove them away. She was left alone and disappointed, with no one outside her family she could depend on. Baxter finds himself unsure of how to respond, saying only: "Better win a hand, you're on a blitz." She's in a game that she has no choice but to play, and she's not having good luck.
The Apartment may be a love story with no resolution, but it does define what love is - Baxter loves Fran, but he finds that demands something from him that doesn't mesh with the system of thought that affords him success, confidence, and a small relief from loneliness. Obsession with status may be dehumanizing, but status is much simpler than dealing with people, and offers a purer, easier satisfaction. Baxter knows the population of New York City and their physical proportions, but has no idea how to respond to Fran Kubelik - especially when he's brought to consider that his love may never be reciprocated.
Still, it's as Baxter's neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss, tells him: "Be a mensch! You know what that means? A mensch, a human being!" The Apartment is a film about people with bad luck in a system that will only support them if they prostrate themselves before it to gain status. When they rebel, it cuts them down and leaves them destitute, and the small victories they win against it are ultimately inconsequential. Still, at least one person ends up better off; The Apartment suggests that's worth it.