Directed by Billy Wilder
While watching this film, I remarked to my roommate that it feels very modern simply because it addresses frequent marital affairs, suicide and features a certain amount of disdain for the 9-5 company man which it once seemed people aspired to post World War II. The 9-5 lifestyle (or 8:50 – 9:20 in the case of CC Baxter) represents stability, and that was once all people wanted. But in this film, that stability feels like a prison sentence, even if Baxter (Jack Lemmon) doesn’t see it that way.
So the film felt modern because it was made at a time that I imagine to be weighed down by strict Christian values and modesty. Hell, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which came out the same year, began with a scene of a young couple in bed together and from what I’ve read that was decried as immoral. Also in Psycho there is a scene of a toilet being flushed, and that was unprecedented in film. So damn, there was a lot of stuff we take for granted today (for better or worse) that just wasn’t around in old films.
And The Apartment feels very cheery and innocent, yet it covers all these topics that seem like they might have been taboo.
The story is about Baxter, a dedicated company man who lives in a modest apartment that he can afford with his modest salary, which requires him to show up to work at the same time every day, take the same elevator, make the same customary greetings, sit at the same desk and come home to watch the same commercials on tv while eating the same frozen dinners. The one difference, however, is that Baxter rents out his apartment for hours at a time to upper management folks who require it for their extramarital affairs.
Baxter is in good spirits about this arrangement because he’s either incredibly loyal to the company or just a huge pushover. My vote is on the latter. Baxter is also in line for a promotion which he ultimately receives because of the good words put it by the people who benefit from his apartment. When he does get that promotion (with a title too long and forgettable to recall), it feels a littler underwhelming to the audience, but it means a whole lot to Baxter. His four ‘friends,’ come visit him and remind him that he’s a “made man,” using mafia lingo that is both amusing and threatening.
The problem becomes when Baxter stops renting out his apartment to these men because his new boss, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who can tell why Baxter received so much praise, says that he too wants to use the apartment on occasion. Sheldrake, of course, takes priority over the other four men, as he is Baxter’s only superior, but then the others get mad.
To make matters more complicated, Baxter quickly learns that the woman he longs for, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), is the woman Sheldrake has been seeing.
On Christmas Eve, Baxter finds himself alone at a bar, feeling incredibly low. This is the first time he has stopped smiling and saying “yessir.” It’s a moment of realization that none of the job promotions or titles matter. All he wants is Fran, which, his affections for her are kind of creepy. In one scene he tells her how he knows everything about her (he’s an insurance agent and looked up her file), and she takes this in stride as if all he said was “how was your weekend” rather than telling her every last NSA-esque detail about her.
Baxter returns to his apartment that night to find that Fran is still there following her appointment with Sheldrake. She took half a bottle of sleeping pills and nearly dies, but Baxter calls on his neighbor, the doctor, to help save her life. The second half of act 2 deals with Fran’s recuperation in Baxter’s apartment. He proves himself to be a great friend and caregiver, even doling out his own painful memories to illustrate to Fran how her life is not over.
Sheldrake’s receptionist, a one time lover and now scorned professional, informs his wife about the affair, so Sheldrake, kicked out of the house, promises to marry Fran. Meanwhile, Baxter receives yet another promotion for his good work keeping Sheldrake’s name out of the papers and pretending Fran’s suicide attempt was about him and not Sheldrake.
Baxter plans on telling Sheldrake that he loves Fran, but that’s when Sheldrake informs him that he’s leaving his wife and sticking with Fran. Though this is far from welcome news, Baxter continues being a good company man, working hard, until Sheldrake asks for the key to his apartment one more time. Baxter resists and quits instead.
That night at dinner, Sheldrake repeats this story to Fran who is thrilled by Baxter’s decision. It inspires her to run to his apartment and reciprocate his affections. In a dark moment, before she reaches the apartment, Fran hears what sounds like a gunshot, paying off the story Baxter told about considering shooting himself years earlier when he was really distraught over lost love. It’s almost hilariously dark that we could consider the possibility of Baxter shooting himself, and it only turns out to be champagne.
There are a few things I want to touch on with this film. First, there’s a lot that seems to be going on (from what I’ve read and observed within the film) that I don’t know enough about to comment on. The Apartment is a comedy, but it clearly is a little edgy. I don’t know quite enough about the time to know what director Billy Wilder might have been reacting against. This film, as I mentioned at the top, feels like it discusses very taboo elements of society but does so in a neat, happy environment. It would be like taking a happy, well-lit CBS multi-cam sitcom with someone like Tim Allen and Bonnie Hunt as the parents, and making the show about a series of abortions or something that would be hard to talk about, let alone sell to advertisers.
Second, the end. It’s a happy ending of course, as you’d expect, but for a moment I thought the film was about to end when Sheldrake tells Fran about how Baxter quit without going further. There is a clear expression of joy on Fran’s face, but for a moment she doesn’t get up and run away to be with him. I think the most powerful way a film can end is simply with a look. The idea is that we have seen everything happen that needed to happen so that we know what that look means. Here are a few examples that come to mind:
In No Country For Old Men, Ed Tom Bell is worn out, recounting a dream. In Whiplash, Andrew is running on adrenaline, exhausted but fully alive, and in La La Land, Sebastian is both happy, sad, longing and thankful.
You can say so much with a good portrait, and despite all that happens in a movie, it is still most often just a portrait, whether of one character or multiple. Now, The Apartment does end with a portrait like this, but it’s a little too staged for my taste. It’s an image of Fran and Baxter seated side by side, dealing cards and smiling:
But in the scene right before this, we get a wider range of emotion (and more subtly and nuance) with this series of expressions. First these two, when Sheldrake tells her that Baxter quit…
Fran is surprised, then when Sheldrake looks away from her, she smiles to herself, and her smile says she’s both happy and a little sad. If the film were to end here, I think it would give us a wonderful feeling of both joy and sorrow, and that’s how some of the best stories should feel. Baxter has made a meaningful change in his life, not with the certainty that it will win him back Fran, but because he has finally stood up for himself. Fran recognizes this, but were the film to end here, she might also be feeling a deep sadness, recognizing that she can’t stand up for herself the way he did.
Then the band starts playing the familiar theme for the New Year, and Sheldrake turns to look at them…
I love this image. It’s moody, dark and a bit gothic. You have the slightly outrageous celebration going on in the background, the sharp silhouettes of both Fran and Sheldrake, Sheldrake looking away from her, disengaged and/or distracted, Fran playing with her necklace, and lastly Fran’s expression which seems to be one of sorrow but also of power. It’s right after this that she decides to leave, signaling that, yes, she is in power here because she’s making the decision.
And if the film were to end here, we’d have a similar feeling as if the film ended with the previous shot. This shot would just be more of a tag, informing how we should feel. It’s dark and powerful. Meaningful change has taken place, especially within Fran’s own mind, but she hasn’t yet acted on it.
I think the best endings are ones right before the character does something concrete which will end the movie, and right after we recognize that they have made the decision to do that concrete thing.
Then, finally, there is the next shot which has the following three moments…
And damn, to me that’s powerful. She’s deep in thought, she suddenly breaks out in a big smile, and just as quickly she’s back deep in thought. It’s like a volcano erupting with happiness. I would have loved if the film ended there, because it shows so vividly the change within her, the emotions, and the dilemma she is actively going through in her mind.
Endings like these make us more active viewers. We’re analyzing how Fran feels and making the connections in our head for how that should make us feel. Instead we get the concrete ending showing us very definitively that they get together and that they’re happy. In that final shot of the film, with both Fran and Baxter playing cards, I could imagined Billy Wilder just behind the camera screaming at them, “WIDER SMILES!”
So much of this film feels subversive, but not the ending. Since this is what I think was a mainstream film with a (pessimistic-ish) point of view, I imagine the ending was a double-edged sword. Wilder needed it to help market the film because people love happy endings. The only way to get this story in front of people is to give them a little of what they want.
NOTE: The ending I would have loved, with Fran going through the range of emotions but also feeling troubled, to me suggests that she is still trapped, but that she finally recognizes she’s trapped. In this version of events, Fran realizes she’s been trapped all along, and Baxter’s escape from his job shows her that it’s possible for her to escape too. I really like the image of the 9-5 grind as a prison, because I think it is incredibly intimidating and rigid, and this is during a time where people seemed to start rejecting this office culture and way of life which was so embraced following world war 2. Just look at this opening image of the film:
Nothing about this looks enticing, and yet we start with Baxter explaining how much he loves his job. This is a man who is trapped and doesn’t even know it. He fulfills his occupational duties like a robot created for that purpose and that purpose only. Baxter goes home and has nothing but commercials and frozen dinners. He’s even being taken advantage of by people with more power than him. So Baxter’s journey is him waking up, like a robot developing its own ability to think. Baxter winning back Fran is just the icing on the cake. His real journey was to wake the hell up, and he does. So then you have Fran who has similarly been playing a robotic part (as the elevator operator), going through the daily motions, clocking in, clocking out, and then pretending everything’s fine. SHE’s the one who nearly kills herself because she’s so unhappy, but the reason she’s unhappy isn’t even authentic. Fran only thinks her life is over when Sheldrake rejects her because her relationship with Sheldrake is the only thing in her life she’s able to choose, and even then she doesn’t choose it. Sheldrake is clearly presented as the guy who chooses her. She just goes along for the ride like the people in her elevator every day. So when Fran hears that Baxter broke out of this cycle and woke up, she recognizes that she needs to wake up too and leave Sheldrake. Not only that, she probably needs to (and will) find a line of work and a way of life that truly makes her happy.
Now, I don’t think that life involves Baxter because he’s a little creepy and likes her a little too much. In my version of events, we end with Fran at the table, the thoughts running through her mind, but we don’t see what she does. What’s important, though, is that we feel her coming back to life.