Tuesday, April 19, 2022

A Key to “The Apartment”

 It’s a curious fact that The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning dark comedy from 1960, was inspired by David Lean’s 1945 English weepie, Brief Encounter. When Wilder first saw Brief Encounter, he didn’t focus on the two veddy straitlaced Brits who—though married to suitable spouses—fall passionately in love after a chance meeting in an English train station. There’s a scene in the film where, uncharacteristically, they dare to meet at a friend’s flat for a secret tryst.  Wilder found himself fascinated not by the lovers but by the friend. Who was this person willing to absent himself from his own home so that others could fulfill their sexual longings in his bed?

 Apparently Wilder realized in 1945 that a film about someone enabling adultery would not pass muster in the Hollywood of the production code era. It took 15 years for him and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond to create a hero whose role in life is to lend out his apartment for the sexual escapades of others. Casting Jack Lemmon (a Wilder favorite following his breakthrough role in Some Like It Hot) as a lovable shnook, the writers created a sharp commentary on Manhattan business culture, while also providing an up-to-date romance involving Lemmon’s C.C. “Bud” Baxter and a young woman (Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik) who is no stranger to sexual exploitation.

 This is a film that is all about power relationships. Though in some respects it is dated (Bud’s nifty one-bedroom flat, in the Upper Sixties just off Central Park West, rents for a mere $85 a month), his relationship to the higher-ups who borrow his place for a quickie with a willing secretary seems all too current. Bud puts up with the indignity of being left out in the cold while his bosses canoodle because he sees in their gratitude a chance to move up the corporate ladder at the soulless insurance company where he’s employed.  In a place where most of the low-level employees remain near-anonymous, the much-coveted key to Bud’s apartment gives him status, and the hope of promotion.  For a while it works, until love enters the picture—in the form of a perky “elevator girl” whose dream is to marry the über-boss (a slick Fred MacMurray, in Double Indemnity mode), a heel who promises he’ll leave his wife and kids for her.

 Though The Apartment is often hilariously funny, with the Wilder/Diamond wit on fine display, this is a film that doesn’t shy away from dark moments--like a near suicide—and from a generally downbeat look at American corporate culture. Watching it recently, I realized how closely it connects with the skewed morality of TV’s Mad Men (2007-2015), in which upwardly mobile advertising execs try to claw their way to the top of the heap. That series is even set in pretty much the same era as the one in which The Apartment was made, when corporate types were developing their own lingo, vocabulary-wise, as well as their own lifestyle, morality-wise. A big difference, though. Whereas Lemmon’s C. C. Baxter is the guy on the outside, looking in, Mad Men’s Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is in the thick of things, finessing his way through the ad world with only the occasional moral qualm. Then there’s Peggy Olson, as played by Elisabeth Moss. She starts out as eager and innocent as Fran Kubelik, but it doesn’t stick. Her smarts and her ambition make her want to beat the boys at their own game. By the end, she’s as soulless as the rest, but the key to the executive washroom is in her grasp.






  1. Hello! A delightful, harmonically constructed, STRONG essay (at least in my head while reading it). I liked your ability to clearly stress the morality chocking reality of the cruel corporate world of the ‘60’s (when I started working there and then protested my heart and soul out to change it. I failed at both). For some reason ( I’ll check why with my therapist next time)) I didn’t detest McMurray in Double Indemnity but I sure did here. AND, I never watched him again after he double-crossed his fellow mutineers on The Caine. What a coward. Best,Bob. PS After The Godfather I thought Duvall deserved an Oscar as Conway’s father in Santini,he was flawless.

  2. Always glad to please. I think you didn't detest MacMurray in Double Indemnity because he was, when all is said and done, a dupe. So it was not difficult to feel sorry for him. I agree with you completely on Duvall's performance in The Great Santini, far more memorable for me than his Oscar-winning role.