I was still in grade school when I saw “The Apartment” in Brooklyn’s Loew’s Metropolitan, and I didn’t like it. Or rather, it confused me, and wasn’t funny like Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” the year before.
My recent viewing makes clear the brilliant satire I missed at age 9, and I laughed a number of times. But, as happens with satire, the “fun” is often cruel; it made me wince.
The story is simple enough, and a sparse summary is all that’s needed. Jack Lemmon is C.C. “Bud” Baxter, a low-level bookkeeper in a New York company. He sits at an open desk with seemingly hundreds of others, all painfully transcribing data. But he has an edge: he lends his apartment to married executives, who use it for trysts with their girlfriends. In return, they promise to ease his way up the corporate ladder.
The rom-com angle is beautifully simple. Shirley MacLaine plays Fran, an elevator operator he has a crush on, and who is encouragingly sweet when they chat. But she puts off dating him, without giving a reason. It seems that she is in love with a married exec, Fred Macmurray, and they make love in Bud’s apartment, although she doesn’t know it’s his at the time (Bud’s routine is to sit and shiver on a bench until the exec is finished).
Eventually Macmurray dumps her, as executive rats are prone to do. But didn’t he promise me he’d leave his wife? She is aghast! But later, after her shame and humiliation sink in, she decides to “end it all”, which she tries by overdose in the apartment. But Bud finds her in time and, in the course of her recovery, she falls in love with him. The final scene has Bud confessing his love over a gin rummy game, and the film ends with her coy command to “shut up and deal” (doesn’t quite rival “Well, nobody’s perfect”).
The film is painfully dated. Although considered frank about sex at the time, it is strangely un-erotic. The girlfriends – mostly telephone operators of the company – seem either bored or hostile to the execs they sleep with, as if it’s only for overtime pay. Fran’s genuine love for her abuser is the exception. And Lemmon’s Bud is presented as simply weak and shallow, and stays that way. His conversion at the end, when he mans up to Macmurray and quits in huffy self-righteousness, is not credible after seeing him as a shameless toady for the entire film.
And yet, the satire remains pungent, but in a very odd. and uniquely Billy Wilder way. Its connection to American life at all is barely there. Of course, the location is New York…not to be confused with the rest of the country. But even that is timid. You see street scenes of Central Park and brownstones in the West eighties, but there’s no sense of people actually living there. It’s just a movie location.
Likewise, the references to our culture have little bite. Bud is given tickets for “The Music Man”, but we only see a marquee. As for television, the joke is that every channel has cowboys brawling in saloons. But, in a key moment, we see that Bud wants to see a certain movie, but, predictably, the endless commercials prevent him.
The movie is “Grand Hotel”, and that sums up Wilder’s perspective perfectly. Wilder is an Austrian Jew, and his cultural reference point is fixated as European. This is a continental, and rigidly bourgeois view of sexual relations. Instead of actual sex, much less nudity, we see women in cafes, dressed in mag-layout clothes who have cocktails with older guys in business attire, and, when tipsy enough, get dragged up to an empty apartment. Everybody talks in banal, stage-bound cliches, as if told to act “natural”, but it’s painfully phony. Nothing in the fashion, hairstyling or decor bears resemblance to American culture. When Bud gets a new hat to look more “exec”, he picks out a bowler. This in 1960 New York!
And yet, you feel that Wilder has given us exactly what he intended. The corporate culture satirized is devoid of any moral compass. Both men and women know it’s a game, but put themselves through it with little emotion. The formula is completed by the outrage of the “normal” characters, so the movie-going public can identify. Fran’s brother-in-law gets to punch Bud out, but he’s only a thug. No, the real judgment must come from – who else – the Jewish neighbors, which are a doctor and his wife. Their accents are as thick as borscht, hinting that they fled the Nazis. Now that’s moral authority.
Although not as dated as the aforementioned “Grand Hotel”, the film holds to a deep Hollywood tradition of anti-bourgeois high-comedy that was the staple of European auteurs who came here for the big money. Many of those films are only superficially American, but the continental disdain for the moneyed class is where the rage comes from. And like those films, “The Apartment” rests on European attitudes that had flourished since the late nineteenth century. With very little change in dialogue, fashion or decor, the same film could have been set in 1930 Berlin, spoken in German, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, as adapted from a play by Schnitzler. And that’s high praise!
Dated as the film is, the core perspective of the satire remains relevant. With all of today’s talk of liberation, women continue to aspire to become objects of male sexual appetites, and to judge themselves by that standard. If a woman becomes CEO of a major business today, she’ll likely be seen as no different from Fran, who operated an elevator in 1960. Is this a permanent part of our culture – that is, something basic to our character – or a problem that we, as humans, will evolve away from?