The Apartment – Billy Wilder
Originally branded “a dirty fairy tale,” Billy Wilder’s The Apartment combines irony, burlesque, soap opera, and truth into a morality play whose message is “be a mensch,” a Yiddish term for a human being. Filmed in black-and-white, Wilder’s story expresses the moral ambiguities facing a hero and heroine who are neither innocent nor evil, just human. By dealing with pandering, adultery, and suicide in an often poignant, yet entertaining way, Wilder created one of the most sophisticated Hollywood movies of its time. The innovativeness of The Apartment, however, is due not so much to the types of activities it portrays, but rather to the fact that Wilder allows his principal characters to sin, suffer the consequences, and yet be redeemed for a happy ending.
Wilder’s sharp wit and satiric sword begin by slicing into the heart of Manhattan society’s immorality and callousness as seen through the corporate world. The protagonist, C. C. (Bud) Baxter (Jack Lemmon), is a basically decent young executive with an undeveloped code of morality who finds himself reacting to, rather than shaping, the events around him. Bud begins as a night school graduate relegated to Section W, desk number 861 of the Ordinary Policy Department in the home office of Consolidated Life, an insurance company in New York. His is but one of hundreds of steel gray desks lined up row won row in a huge office filled by people with equally gray, expressionless faces. Art director Alexander Trauner and set director Edward G. Boyle exhibited their Academy Award-winning techniques in the early office scenes by enhancing the effect of a vast sea of faces with the use of tiny desks with dwarfs in the rear of the set, followed by even tinier desks with cut-out figures operated by wires.
Bud has learned that in an organization with more than 31,000 employees, a person has to have something more to offer than training, industry, and dedication. Bud stumbled onto his key to success—his apartment. Though small and rather dreary, the apartment has quickly become the favorite love nest shared by four of Bud’s bosses. In exchange for providing a bed and catering service, Bud has been rewarded with glowing performance evaluations which will lead to promotions and one of the coveted glass-enclosed cubicles along the office’s sidewall. Though less than enthusiastic about this arrangement, Bud is pliable whenever the fruits of society, measured in money, status, and sex, are dangled in front of him.
Throughout the first half of the movie, Bud’s objections to the services he is providing are based on personal inconvenience rather than moral conviction. Lonely Bud, instead of spending his evenings eating TV dinners, watching old movies, and reading the men’s fashion section of Playboy, often ends up spending the night in the cold, damp park, while one of his bosses shares his bed with the latest office ingenue. Wilder and Lemmon skillfully milk the laughs out of Bud’s predicament as he catches an awful cold one night and then sniffles his way around the office the next day, alternating his attention between a handkerchief, nasal spray, and a thermometer.