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The Apartment

by Dave Gourdoux

Movies made in Hollywood between 1930 and 1968 were required to obey something called the "Motion Pictures Production Code".  The Production Code imposed ridiculously strict censoring rules on all films approved to be shown in the United States.  Any scene showing even a fully clothed man and woman in a bed together was prohibited, as was any kiss that lasted longer than three seconds.  Any discussion of "indecent" topics like homosexuality or attacks on such sacred institutions as marriage or government could only be hinted at.

These rules handcuffed any filmmakers interested in exploring serious subject matter.  Screenwriters and directors had to be uniquely creative to address mature content, oftentimes burying the real story behind symbols inserted into the main story.  More often than not, serious and personal directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and John Huston had to hide what they were really interested in behind conventional stories told in popular genres.

Comedies and westerns flourished in the production code era, primarily because they didn't require a lot of controversial subject matter.   Most westerns, for example, were simple and straight forward variations on the standard good versus evil conflict, while there was an abundance of unique and gifted comedians making inventive and broad and approachable comedies.  The Hollywood musical (I'm sorry, but 98% of which I just don't get) provided the wholesome escapism that the writers of the code thought movies should represent.  On the flip side, the film noir genre, one of the greatest and most significant artistic developments in the history of cinema, with its dark and sinister undercurrents that were always ominously hinted at, would have never existed, if not for the production code.  The makers of film noir hinted at those things the code forbid them from showing, and the films drew their power from the unseen presence of them in the shadowy darkness.

But filmmakers who were interested in creating truly personal films and exploring mature and complex themes without hiding behind an established genre were stifled, and became few and far between.  This is why, after the abolition of the production code, the late sixties and the seventies saw an explosion of talented American directors creating intensely personal masterpieces, and directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Altman created a new language of film.

Prior to 1968, foreign directors like Vittorio De Sica, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini were making bold and personal statements that American filmmakers were unable to make.   The code forced conformity, and in the 50s, at the same time that a global renaissance was occurring, American films were at their most bland and banal. 

There were, of course, still brilliant American directors making great films.  John Ford's "The Searchers" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo", "Rear Window", and especially "Psycho", bent and twisted the limits of the production code to make intimate personal statements and break new ground.  With the release and success of Stanley Kubrick's "Doctor Strangelove" and "Lolita" in 1962 and 1964, it became apparent that the days of the code were numbered.

But of all the directors from the production code era, it was Billy Wilder that most consistently and stubbornly pushed its envelope.   Wilder's career began in 1939, as co-screenwriter of the classic "Ninochtka," directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch.  By 1944, he was already directing his own scripts, making his debut with the classic film noir, "Double Indemnity", and already laying the groundwork for the iconoclastic themes that would ultimately define him.

Wilder's films can be seen as examinations of cynicism.  "Double Indemnity" is about murder and insurance fraud, "Sunset Boulevard" is about the corruption of Hollywood,  "Ace in the Hole" is about the media's exploitation of real life tragedy, and "Stalag 17" is about a group of prisoners of war and their rush to judgement in identifying an informer among their ranks.  Each of these films has, at its center, an anti-hero. Sometimes, the anti-hero finds redemption, sometimes he doesn't; in "Sunset Boulevard," for example, the amoral screenwriter played by William Holden ends up dead in Gloria Swanson's swimming pool.

Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder
The film I think that best defines Wilder's anti-hero and most deeply examines cynicism is 1960s' "The Apartment."  As C.C. Baxter, Jack Lemmon gives one of the greatest performances in the history of film as the lonely bachelor looking to get ahead in corporate America, represented here by a huge insurance company. Lemmon loans out his apartment to married managers in the company to have their affairs, in return for career advancement.  He hits the jackpot when the personnel manager, Sheldrake, a slimy monster played perfectly by the normally likable Fred MacMurray, begins using the apartment for the latest in a long string of office affairs.  MacMurray is brilliant in portraying his character as so thick and dim-witted that he has no concept of the lives he is damaging; he is almost pathological in his evil. 

Shirley MacLaine and the sociopath ... Fred MacMurray?
While MacMurray is a monster, what are we to make of Lemmon's character?  On the surface, at least, Lemmon is just as immoral as other great Wilder hucksters, like the reporter played by Kirk Douglas in "Ace in the Hole", or the screenwriter Holden plays in "Sunset Boulevard."  The difference is in "The Apartment," Wilder lets us see how desperately lonely C.C. Baxter is, and how naively he pursues his corporate ambitions.  Like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," Baxter emerges as a tragic figure, a man who invests too much in his belief of the wrong dream.

What ultimately saves Baxter, what makes him eventually stand up to Sheldrake, is love.  Baxter has been slowly and privately falling in love with the elevator operator Fran Kubley, played by Shirley MacLaine.  He then learns that the woman Sheldrake has been meeting with in his apartment is none other than Kubley.  Sheldrake drives Kubley to attempted suicide. Baxter discovers her in his apartment and revives her.  Even then, Baxter remains faithful to Sheldrake, and tries to make excuses for him, until even he finally sees the depths of Sheldrake's evil.

So Wilder gives us a petty but ambitious low level corporate employee who is willing to sell himself and even the woman he loves in return for advancement as the hero.  Why on earth would we ever care about such a weak and amoral figure? Well, I'd say it's about one third the genius of Wilder's script, and the other two thirds the genius of Lemmon's performance.

Lemmon, who at the time was known primarily as a comic actor (coming off one of the greatest comedic performances ever in Wilder's previous film, "Some Like it Hot"), makes Baxter so earnest and naive that we can't help but like him.  In portraying Baxter's loneliness, Lemmon injects a level of pathos comparable to the great Charlie Chaplin.  He wears Baxter's heart on his incredibly expressive face, and we watch him fall in love with MacLaine, we watch him gradually realize how evil MacMurray really is, and we watch and cheer him on as he eventually redeems himself. 

MacLaine is perfectly cast as the love interest.  As written byWilder, her character has some of the same flaws as Lemmon's; while she is never as naive, she still gives Sheldrake more chances than she should.  At the root of her troubles is the simple fact that she is just as lonely as Baxter.  MacLaine makes you feel her loneliness and the inner conflict that drives her to attempted suicide.

"Just shut up and deal"
"The Apartment" is, more than anything else, about two lonely people who turn to deeply cynical choices in attempted escapes from their loneliness.  That they find each other is a rare triumph in Wilder's world of love over cynicism. 

As a filmmaker, Wilder always remained a writer first.  As a director, he hated elaborate shots or fancy camera tricks, saying that they detracted from the script.   His greatest gift as a director was his handling of actors; seventeen times actors or actresses in a Wilder film were nominated for an academy award.  His films are visually lean and efficient; nothing is wasted, while the stories and the acting are always first rate.  Wilder was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award eight times, and eleven times for screen writing.

"The Apartment" was marketed as a comedy, and although there are occasional funny lines and comically awkward situations, in interviews, both Wilder and Lemmon agreed that the film is anything but.  Neither one of them ever understood how it got branded as such.

Corporate America work place circa 1960 ...  those aren't computers on all those desks
Today, it's interesting to watch "The Apartment" and compare it to the AMC series "Mad Men."  There are a lot of similarities in the two portrayals of the workplace.   It's also interesting to see the hundreds of workers crammed together in rows and rows of desks, and not see a single computer anywhere.   It's an interesting view into what the corporate workplace looked like before the digital revolution.

As far as the production code:  in "The Apartment," there is a tremendous amount of sex going on, with men and women who are not married to each other.  It all occurs offscreen, but there's no denying that its going on.  It isn't implied or hinted at; it's right there, and it's central to the film's plot.  This made "The Apartment" quite the risque movie when it was released.  It's also a tribute to Wilder's ability as a screenwriter that a direct and adult themed movie could be made that complied with the code's rules without insulting its audience's intelligence.

"The Apartment" was a critical and commercial success.  Nominated for ten academy awards, it won five, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.  Its success made it easier for more films to take chances,  and eventually helped bring about the demise of the production code.

Jack Lemmon strains the spaghetti as Shirley MacLaine looks on
It's interesting that "The Apartment" is Wilder's last great film.  As the influence of the production code waned and filmmakers were given greater freedoms, Wilder's subsequent movies seemed to lag behind, and seemed to grow further and further anachronistic.  He seemed out of touch with the times.  It's as if, spending so much of his career trying to overcome the limitations of the production code, once it was gone, he didn't know what to do with artistic freedom.

For more information, visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt0053604