Of Morals and Men: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment


This is an archival post that was first published in 2013.

“Be a mensch. You know what that means? A mensch! A human being!”

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is many things. A beautiful dark romance, a bitter office comedy, a biting social satire. Above all though, it’s a plea for humans to act more, well, human. Wilder, a bruised romantic who looked at life through a skewed and cynical lens, was inspired to make the film after watching Brief Encounter. He got to wondering about the logistics of adultery. How does one conduct oneself? Where does one go? What happens in the peripheries?

These questions led Wilder to the story of C.C. Baxter, a low-level clerk at insurance company Consolidated Life; Fran Kubelik, an elevator girl he’s in love with; Jeff Sheldrake, the married executive she’s having an affair with; and the titular apartment, which Baxter loans out to Sheldrake and other execs at the company to enable their extramarital activities. The Apartmentis Wilder’s best movie and my favourite movie of all time. Here’s why…

C.C. Baxter
Baxter is the heart of The Apartment and a surprisingly unpleasant character to anchor what is ostensibly a romantic comedy. A weasely little man whose devious ambitions belie his happy-go-lucky demeanour, Baxter grasps to his thin sliver of power to climb the corporate ladder at Consolidated Life, never considering the collateral damage he helps inflict on the families of his bosses. Why should he? That doesn’t affect him. All he has to give up is a few nights sleep here and there and pretty soon he’ll have a nicer office, a better job and a bigger pay packet. The perks are plenty, the drawbacks few, so he’s prepared to work around them.

In a scene early in the film, he re-organises his diary to accommodate three of the most important executives. He has a cold and needs to use his apartment to recover. So he calls the exec who has the apartment booked in. He agrees to move, but only if he can have the apartment on another night. Problem is, another exec has it then, so Baxter has to call that exec to make sure the night the first exec wants is free. He, however, also wants a night that’s booked. And so on and so on…This cycle continues until finally, Baxter finds a free night and he can at long last get his apartment back. It’s an awful lot to go through to get to sleep in your own bed, but a promotion’s a promotion.

As the film progresses though, Baxter earns the promotion he’s been hoping for and he proves less accommodating to the quartet. The execs come to see him in his office and Baxter stands up to them, quickly refusing to let them use the apartment. They’ve given him what he wants – why help them out anymore? Later in this scene, Sheldrake also asks to use the apartment and Baxter’s mood shifts again. The front he’d shown to the other execs disappears, replaced by the eager-to-please sycophant who’d been so welcoming to the other execs. Sheldrake is the director of Consolidated Life and Baxter knows that it’s him he now needs to impress. So, the only hint of resistance he puts up is a passive-aggressive joke that cements his immorality. “Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife,” Sheldrake tells him. “Now I ask you, is that fair?” “No, sir, it’s very unfair,” comes Baxter’s reply. “Especially to your wife.” Baxter knows he’s doing wrong, but does nothing to stop it.

Despite all this, Baxter remains a fundamentally likeable, charming and engaging character. We never turn against him – if anything we root for him. Bad writing? Masterful casting, more like. In his second turn in a Wilder film, Jack Lemmon gives arguably the best performance of his career. Funny, sad and a little frayed around the edges, he imbues in Baxter a central decency that means even as he descends into a moral black hole, there’s something human and sympathetic about him.

Wilder knows on this (why else would he cast Lemmon over the less innocent likes of, say, Tony Curtis or Walter Matthau?) and enhances his lead’s everyman qualities. The first time we see him inside his apartment, he does what all bachelors do. He puts his tea on (a shove-it-in-the-oven, pre-prepared affair) and sits down to watch TV. Grand Hotel is on! But some ads spoil the fun. He flicks over and then back to Grand Hotel. Finally it’s starting…”after these messages from our secondary sponsor”. Baxter turns the TV off and the scene ends.

We’ve all been there, and Wilder’s use of such a scenario is brilliant in its cunning. He wants us to identify with Baxter; he wants us to overlook all his flaws, manipulation and cunning, as we overlook our own. It’s a tactic the director used time and time again during his career and here it produces a characters who is a neat foil to the typical depictions of American everyman masculinity – the type James Stewart portrayed for Frank Capra. Those films are aspirational; they show us how we wish we could be. Wilder’s are a little more realistic; they show us how we really are: flawed, troubled and deeply human.

Disconnection and alienation
The Apartment opens with shots of New York City, but this isn’t Woody Allen’s romantic view of the Big Apple, forever bathed in warming monochrome glow. The city of Wilder’s camera is a plain, rather ugly place shot with a cold and distancing helicopter shot.

Accompanying it is a Baxter monologue, in which our lead tells us who he is and what he does for a living:

“On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company – Consolidated Life of New York. We’re one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees, which is more than the entire population of uhh… Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861.”

Welcome to the world of The Apartment, where people are numbers and everyone knows their place. Yet the fierce regimentation of Wilder’s world doesn’t bring its occupants closer together; it tears them apart. The film touches on many subjects, but its core theme is disconnection and alienation – it is, after all, a film about men who’d rather indulge in cheap affairs and tawdry flings than the love of their wives.

Once Wilder has shown us the city, he introduces us to Baxter in one of the film’s defining images – that of Baxter sitting in an office of endless desks. The long shot and depth of field combine to give the audience a sense of isolation among a massive crowd. We hear his voice, but at this stage, we don’t see Baxter. As he tells Kubelik later in the film, he’s “Robinson Crusoe…shipwrecked among eight million people”.

When Wilder finally introduces us to his character properly, we see him from a low angle that subtly looks up towards him. But our gaze is far from reverent. Wilder is not showing us Baxter from this angle to subjugate us, but to subjugate him. In the distance, we see the ceiling, a suffocating hatch keeping our characters safely locked in, and all around there’s an ocean of people, stifling our lead even more.

Wilder further emphasizes Baxter’s smallness a few scenes later. Having been turfed out of his apartment, we find Baxter trying to find comfort on a park bench – Wilder again employing a heightened depth of field to echo the alienating scope of the office. This scene then dissolves back to the office, where Wilder’s camera tracks from the clock that hangs above the foyer to the masses arriving at the building. Such is the amount of people, the camera has to pluck Baxter out from the crowd. Baxter is just a another person, a number at a desk. “19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861.” The film’s drama comes from his struggle to escape this drudgery.

The apartment
Wilder reverses his shooting style to create the world of the apartment, though the effect is similarly isolating. If the office is hellish due to its lack of space, the apartment is nightmarish due to a surplus of it. Wilder shoots many of the scenes in the apartment with big long shots and a heightened depth of field, always keeping the doors of the bedroom and kitchen open so we get a sense of the size of this bachelor pad. Even Baxter’s trip up his building’s stairs is lonely, Wilder laboriously drawing out Lemmon’s steps with a long take rather than cutting directly from one floor to the next.

The takes are similarly long inside, Wilder’s camera dwelling on the characters and their problems. When Baxter’s in there, the lack of edits highlights the emptiness and his loneliness; when Sheldrake and Kubelik are in there it emphasizes the lack of connection between the two. Three characters all connected by their separateness.

The above image also neatly highlights Wilder’s use of blank space. The Apartment represents its characters’ spiritual and moral isolation by placing them off-centre in the frame. This can be seen in the image of Baxter eating that I’ve used at the start of this post and in the images below. These are skewed characters in a skewed world.

The bedroom
As I’ve mentioned, Baxter’s bedroom can be seen in almost every scene based in the apartment. It’s one of Wilder’s most brilliant and subtle visual tricks. He uses it as both a serious statement on society’s warped sexual mores (sex is a universal fact of human existence, yet we avoid talking about it) and a sadly ironic comment on the state of the characters – here is the symbol of emotional and physical connection and the only people who are not using it are the only ones who are connecting in a meaningful way.

This finally changes once Kubelik attempts suicide. At this moment, Baxter and Kubelik’s relationship takes a significant turn – and the film with it. Suddenly, The Apartment (and the apartment) folds into the bedroom. The location that never left the peripheries of the drama, now becomes the centre of it and the rest of the building fades into insignificance. Note in the images below that the apartment beyond the bedroom door is either out of frame or out of focus. For the first time, our concern shouldn’t be with the location, or what it represents, but the people inside it.

In these shots, the framing is comfortable and neat – we’re seeing characters’ faces in cozy medium shots and Wilder is using the standard shot/reverse shot technique to cover the dialogue. Finally, the world has returned to normal. For a time at least.

Business and the individual
Now we come to the secondary theme of The Apartment, as Wilder posits the dream of a successful career against the dream of a happy life. Can you have both and if so which would you choose? Wilder makes it clear that the answer to the first question is no, and doesn’t leave much doubt with regards to the second issue either.

The third act of the film begins with Sheldrake’s wife learning of his affair with Kubelik. She promptly divorces him, leaving him free to, in his own words, “take Kubelik off Baxter’s hands”. After all that’s happened, Baxter, who at this point has realised where his heart truly lies, is alone again. But he won’t be entirely without reward. Sheldrake has made him his assistant – he’s finally earned the kind of position he’s been aiming for since the start of the film. Of course, he no longer wants it and as the news is broken, Wilder uses close-ups to isolate Sheldrake and Baxter, highlighting their new-found separateness.

Sheldrake ushers Baxter into his new office, and the skewed framing returns, with much of the right hand side of the frame filled by emptiness. Sheldrake leaves and the camera slowly moves in on Baxter, trapping him within in. Wilder then brilliantly cuts from Baxter to the notice board in the building’s foyer. Baxter’s name is being added to the roster of executives and Wilder’s dissolve visually traps him within the case. Be careful what you wish for…

Of course, that’s not how the film ends. Baxter rejects the job and decides to find a new life, away from his office and the apartment. Wilder reflects his choice to become, in the words of his neighbour, a “mensch, a human being” with a commanding high-angle shot. He’s finally taken control.

Kubelik does the same, realising Baxter’s feelings for her and shunning Sheldrake on New Year’s Eve to run to Baxter’s apartment. It’s here that Wilder creates one of the most memorable closing shots in movie history. The pair share a bottle of champagne, take a seat and resume the game of gin they had started while Kubelik was recovering from her suicide attempt. “You hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you,” says Baxter. “Shut up and deal,” comes the iconic response.

Wilder shoots this final scene with a static camera, perfectly framing the characters in an almost symmetrical two-shot. Gone are the skewed angles and warped morals of earlier scenes, replaced by two characters who have found love and emotional connection in each other. In Wilder films, this is the only victory there is. You can’t change the world – it doesn’t want to be changed and it doesn’t deserve to be – you can only change yourself.