Billy Wilder’s The Apartment might have the most perfect screenplay in movie history. It’s absolutely perfect. The script, written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, is constructed beautifully, every detail has a reason, there are no extraneous details. And the rhymes in the screenplay are never telegraphed or feel forced. If they come in danger of feeling too cutesy, a line is delivered that makes it inevitable and correct. It fits like a jigsaw puzzle with no extra pieces and when it concludes, with one of the great finishing lines in movie history, it is as satisfying as putting in the final piece.
Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, an insurance man who works his way up the ladder by allowing his superiors to use his New York apartment for their extramarital affairs. Lemmon is the perfect Wilderian leading man: exasperated, lily-livered but not a complete invertebrate; he is the ideal vehicle for Wilder’s favorite obsession, selling out. Here, Baxter prostitutes himself and his apartment to get ahead at work and he’s so willing to do so, despite his protests. His bosses stay late, forcing him to sleep in the rain, they brush off his complaints, and yet when they ask for the key, there he is, even going to great lengths to switch dates around to accommodate all the cheaters above him on the ladder. His landlady and his neighbors think he’s a sexual dynamo, bringing home a different woman every night or sometimes multiple times in one night; however, he doesn’t enjoy the attention or the complaints about noise that he gets blamed for. The irony is that he is the exact opposite of the partying playboy his co-inhabitants take him for. So lonely and devoted is this man that he even has to be told by one of his superiors to put up a Christmas tree, not for Baxter but to make his place more festive for his bosses and their mistresses. He can’t win with anyone; even his television refuses to show him what he wants to see. He’s so desperate to fit in–buying a ridiculous bowler hat that he thinks makes him look professional, for example–or going to great lengths to be liked, that he gives away all dignity and though he does eventually gain high rank because of his antics, he doesn’t gain anyone’s respect.
The elevator of the building is operated by the alluring Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the sexy charmer none of the executive philanderers has been able to crack, a fact that the smitten Baxter is all too pleased to know. What he doesn’t know is that Kubelik is in love with the smooth but slimy Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who is married and has been making the rounds of the pretty women in the office and has landed on Kubelik. When Sheldrake (which is Wilder’s favorite last name, used in three of his pictures) finds out about the scheme Baxter is running, he immediately gets in on it, a big break for Baxter professionally, but a devastating one personally as Sheldrake uses Baxter’s apartment to inappropriately romance the woman Baxter loves. MacLaine is fantastic as Kubelik, an appealing odd ball; she does a pantomime for a handsy elevator rider, suggesting she’ll cut his hand off in the door that is just wonderful. She seems very much out of her own time but can fall into what society requires of her when forced. When she finds out Sheldrake’s game (she’s aware of his marriage but not of the lengths of his womanizing), she goes blank and plays the good, silent ’60s woman, almost the prototype for Mad Men’s Betty Draper. She possesses an intelligence that suggests she’d be above Sheldrake’s maneuvering but she’s selling out too. “Why can’t I ever fall in love with somebody nice like you?” she cries to Baxter during a quiet moment. She can, but she responds to the powerful Sheldrake, not to the weaker Baxter.
Wilder is given a lot of credit as a writer and not enough as a director. It’s true, his style is very straightforward and avoids the visual flourishes of a Welles or a Scorsese, arty shots that Wilder considered pretentious and attention grabbing. But he brings a lot to the table as a visual filmmaker. As a director of noirs he is able to create startling visual moods in movies like Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Blvd. (1950); his use of shadow and light in Sunset Blvd. rivals anything in Citizen Kane. His comedies are just as rich to look at. Most of his remarkable images are products of art direction, and the set of Baxter’s office in The Apartment is a masterpiece, impressively designed by Alexandre Trauner, one of the greatest of all art directors, a man who could do anything from the elaborate richness of Children of Paradise (1945) and the spare grittiness of Rififi (1955) to his impressive creativity on Welles’ cash-strapped Othello, which looks great despite its limited resources. Here, Trauner lovingly recreates King Vidor’s The Crowd with a massive hive-like office that never seems to end (the set was a product of forced perspective, matte-paintings and children dressed in suits to make it seem like workers were farther away than they actually were). It’s a triumph of movie visuals, and it places Baxter in an open prison where the bars are everybody else competing to get out of the subterfuge; against this backdrop, it’s easy to understand why Baxter prostrates himself for a leg up. Note also the wonderful decoration of the strange Asian restaurant where Kubelik and Sheldrake have their hidden meals, a mess of tackiness and inconsistent styles. Wilder is also a keen composer of shots. Notice the way the bedroom door in Baxter’s apartment so often finds itself centrally located. It is where all the energy goes in this space; used my many, rarely by its rightful owner, it is the stage for the central drama in the film.
The sparkling dialogue is tailored perfectly to each character and his or her station. The Yiddish and word order of Baxter’s Central European neighbors contrast starkly with the corporate-speak of Baxter’s coworkers and their hilarious use of the faux suffix “-wise,” attached to everything: “manpower-wise … promotion-wise …October-wise.” The script uses the “-wise” joke almost to exhaustion (a total of 24 times) but never gets there and some of its best uses come late in the movie. Everything in the writing is connected. Establishing shots of Baxter turning on the gas and lighting it and a mix-up between the apartment key and the key to the office’s executive washroom, both introduced in the first 20 minutes of the movie and forgotten, are paid off in the movie’s final 10 minutes. Every piece of dialogue is stored away to be used as ammo in another conversation. The story was inspired by David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1946), one of the finest British films, a heartbreaking romance about a married couple having an affair. The story was far too ardent for Wilder but he found himself intrigued about the guy who gave the characters his apartment for their trysts. He sat on the idea for nearly 15 years until Hollywood’s Production Code relaxed a little and then he Diamond gave it the best treatment imaginable. It is immaculate in its construction, absolutely perfectly balanced, too clever to be spoken by real people but something the rest of us can try to live up to.
And ultimately that what’s The Apartment is about, being better people, getting free to work or love for yourself. Both Baxter and Kubelik are fighting the same enemy and have to show a little courage or self-respect to do so. It may be Wilder’s sweetest movie, though it’s still laced with his trademark cynicism and biting in-jokes (the inclusion of a doppelganger for Marilyn Monroe, a two-time Wilder actor, is a sly touch), but the movie’s suggestion of the flaws of marriage, the caddishness of men, the weakness of both sexes is largely undone by our heroes in the end. I’m sure Wilder believes they won’t make it but because it’s a perfect screenplay, he stops the show before we find out.