*. For younger people living in the third decade of the twenty-first century it may be hard to understand how big a deal television once was. In the 1950s it was conquering the world, much like the Internet would do fifty years later. A switchboard operator in The Apartment doesn’t want a date that will interfere with her watching The Untouchables. That’s how much it meant. Colour broadcasting, however, wouldn’t start taking over until the mid-1960s, which meant that movies were still giving audiences something most people couldn’t see at home. Though this didn’t always mean colour, as it didn’t in this case, or in Psycho, released the same year.
*. Television is both a direct and indirect presence in The Apartment. According to Bruce Block on the DVD commentary Billy Wilder hated television, and once said that the only time he watched it was when they were showing a movie by a director he couldn’t stand, since it would then be the perfect medium. Hence the joke of Jack Lemmon’s C. C. Baxter doing the usual lonely-guy routine of frozen dinner while channel surfing on the couch, but never getting to actually watch Grand Hotel because of all the words from our sponsors. That’s no way to see a movie!
*. But then Baxter and Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) are small-screen types. When she’s recovering at his place Baxter offers to move the TV into the bedroom for her. That’s being a gent. And there’s Fred MacMurray in a very dark turn. David Thomson thought Sheldrake “would shock a new age used to MacMurray’s benevolence on TV in My Three Sons,” but in 1960 he’d already played a heel in Double Indemnity and My Three Sons hadn’t started yet. Also, Block notes how all of the supporting cast here were well-known television actors.
*. I mentioned Psycho for the use of black-and-white, but it was also a movie shot as a TV production, with Hitch using most of his crew from his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And both films make something out of the incongruity between the new family hearth and decidedly transgressive subject matter.
*. Nobody gets killed in a shower in The Apartment, but while it’s a step down from Sunset Boulevard (ten years earlier) it was still breaking norms. I think it marks the end of Wilder’s great run of movies that were fresh and shocking then and can still capture an audience today.
*. First and foremost there are the two leads. Sure their work environment is toxic. Wilder even thought of the story primarily as that of two people becoming emancipated from the office, which is full of male predators whose casual cruelty would make one of the Mad Men cringe. But are Baxter and Kubelik any better?
*. They’re both young people on the rise, immoral and unscrupulous. Nor are they much angels outside of the office. Baxter has no qualms about sleeping with the married woman he picks up in a bar. Kubelik does go back to Sheldrake after all (as does Baxter). You could say either that they’re redeemed at the end or that they just suit each other. Will they stay together or are they more likely to bounce at the first opportunity to move up a level?
*. Roger Ebert: “while Baxter and Miss Kubelik may indeed like each other — may feel genuine feelings of the sort that lead to true love — they are both slaves to the company’s value system. He wants to be the boss’ assistant, she wants to be the boss’ wife, and both of them are so blinded by the concept of ‘boss’ that they can’t see Mr. Sheldrake for an untrustworthy rat.”
*. The studio was worried that Baxter might be too unlikeable, and it was suggested that they give him a limp or some kind of disability. I’m glad they kept him as just a weasel, and Lemmon plays the part perfectly. I’ve always thought there was more to Lemmon than just comedy and Wilder was able to bring it out. Meanwhile, MacLaine does a great job of balancing “sexy, funny, and sad” (screenwriter Izzy Diamond). But how dumb is she? She can’t spell well enough to be a secretary and the only job she can get is as an elevator operator. She also can’t see that Sheldrake is playing her. I know nobody is stupid all the time, but that’s pretty thick.
*. Dealing with suicide was tricky, but it’s nicely balanced out with the echoing scenes where they the two lovebirds mistakenly think the other has gone all the way. Overall it’s a beautifully plotted movie (I’m not as fond of the dialogue), with all sorts of cues that have to be stored away to be picked up later. Diamond, who had also written Some Like It Hot, was obviously still on top of his game.
*. Also worth praising is the set design by Alexandre Trauner. The office and apartment sets are perfect complements, and expressive of both theme and character. To return to the movie/television blending I started off talking about, the wide-open spaces of the office are big-screen, the cluttered apartment small.
*. It’s testimony to how ahead of his time Wilder was that while this movie shows some lightening of his darker vision it’s still has twice the bite of today’s rom-coms, whose plots were often derived from the same “wrong guy vs. the right guy” formula. I’m not a fan of rom-coms, but that may be because my favourite examples of the genre all go back half a century or more. Progress in the arts is a mirage.