Blog Directory CineVerse: When life hands you a raw deal, just watch The Apartment

When life hands you a raw deal, just watch The Apartment

Friday, March 18, 2022

Receiving mixed reviews during its initial run in 1960, The Apartment, perhaps Billy Wilder’s finest moment in motion pictures and a darling at the 1961 Academy Awards (winning Best Picture), has grown in stature and popularity over the past six decades, serving as one of the finest examples of a finely tuned black comedy that ever came out of Hollywood. Our task as CineVerse members last week was to figure out what made this picture tick, and here’s what we concluded (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What about The Apartment impressed, intrigued, entertained, or disappointed you in any way?

  • The widescreen compositions were superbly arranged, featuring great depth of field and brilliant framing that often symbolically singles Baxter out from his surrounding environment. Consider, for example, how he is center stage in a massive office with neatly lined rows of automaton-like minions that stretch as far back as the eye can see; or how pathetic a solitary figure he cuts sitting along a ridiculously long row of park benches; or how empty the dark New York City street appears behind him as he walks or paces the block.
  • Billy Wilder again demonstrates his genius command of delicate and intricate multi-tonality, balancing scenes that teeter-totter between funny and melancholy, light and dark, farce and pathos. Cases in point: the sequence where Baxter comically tries to rush Mrs. Margie MacDougal out of his apartment so that he can tend to a suicidal Fran in his back bedroom; or the earlier scene where Baxter has to abscond to the shadows beyond his apartment building doorway so that Dobisch and his intoxicated paramour floozy can enter his home without noticing him.
    • Scott Tobias, a film critic for The Guardian, wrote: “The tonal wizardry of The Apartment is often miraculous, like the Christmas party where Fran’s heartbreak over hearing of Sheldrake’s past dalliances contrasts directly with Bud goofing around in a new bowler hat like Charlie Chaplin. Most films define themselves as one genre or another, but this one can be several of them at once. But that sort of high-level plate-spinning is true of the screenplay in general, which is immensely satisfying in the way it keeps planting and paying off turns of the plot.”
  • The ending of the picture is a masterclass in sublime screenwriting. A less talented filmmaker might choose to close the film showing Fran running back to Baxter and the two embracing, scored with soul-stirring strings, followed immediately by the end credits. But Wilder and company interrupt her blissful trot up the staircase to Baxter with a jarring noise that implies a gunshot-- harkening back to his earlier mention to Fran about a failed suicide attempt by handgun. We are quickly shown that the noise was merely a champagne bottle uncorking. And when Fran sits down with Baxter and he professes his romantic feelings for her, instead of reciprocating she insists that they return to the game of gin rummy they played a week earlier.

Major themes

  • Some people take, and some people get took. This story sympathizes with the latter but depicts a painfully realistic dynamic among those with power and those willing to be exploited in the hope of happiness or a better life. While funny on its surface, the movie is making a wider social commentary about the way the business world is run and how those with clout and money can manipulate those below them on the corporate ladder.
  • Toxic masculinity and the dark underbelly of “the boys club.” Baxter caters to a quintet of privileged upper management white men who each have a key to the executive washroom and can exert pressure and influence on employees, particularly attractive females, to abide by their selfish wishes. They’re willing to lie, cheat on their spouses, and take advantage of human beings in lower stations to get what they want. Sadly, the only member of the boys club who gets his comeuppance by the end of the story is Sheldrake.
  • Be careful what you wish for. The Apartment is a cautionary morality tale that teaches us that sacrificing self-respect for an opportunity to advance isn’t worth it. Baxter is willing to be continually inconvenienced and put upon for a chance at promotion, just as Fran is yearning to start a new life with a wealthier older man and lie to herself that he’s not lying to her. But both come to realize that this debasement isn’t sustainable or acceptable.
  • The irony of being lonely and alienated in a bustling metropolis and crowded workplace. Time and again, we see Baxter as a solitary, sad figure—often alone in a wide and deep shot devoid of other human beings. Baxter could benefit from companionship or a romantic relationship, which would seem easy to achieve working for the Consolidated Life of New York insurance company, where a culture of office flings, womanizing, and employee camaraderie is evident. We see how others can show interest in him, such as Margie. But eventually, his heart is set on Fran, whom he believes is unattainable once he realizes that she is Sheldrake’s mistress and suicidal over her feelings for Sheldrake.
  • Well-rounded positive relationships require nurturing. Baxter compassionately nurses Fran as she recovers from her suicide attempt, even though this is a platonic effort—unlike Dobisch, Kirkeby, and Sheldrake, who don’t put any real work into the trysts they have with female coworkers who are thought of as mere sex objects. It’s fitting that, once Fran returns to Baxter with romantic inclinations, she tells him to “Shut up and deal” after he confesses his love and adoration for her; she’s sending the message that she’s going to take it slow with Baxter and require more nurturing and assurance.
  • When life deals you a lousy hand, ask for a fresh round of cards. Baxter’s insistence that Fran play gin rummy with him is an attempt to distract her from her depression, but the fact that he keeps beating her with every hand suggests that her bad luck in life hasn’t changed. Later, when she rushes back to Baxter and tells him to “Shut up and deal,” we can have more confidence that he’s taught her how to play the game of love more effectively and that starting over with a new hand of cards should yield better results for her.
  • Becoming a mensch—a human being who looks out for his fellow human beings.
  • The importance of having a work/life balance. Baxter essentially brings his work home with him every day by agreeing to pimp out his apartment, and he brings his home life to work regularly by furtively scheduling apartment-lending slots and door key exchanges with his higher-ups.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Jake Cole wrote: “Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond sketch a bleak vision of corporate servitude where a work-life balance hasn’t been upended so much as irrevocably perverted.”

Similar works

  • Brief Encounter
  • The Graduate
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Barefoot in the Park
  • Annie Hall
  • Wicker Park
  • Mad Men

Other films directed by Billy Wilder

  • Double Indemnity
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Stalag 17
  • Sabrina
  • Ace in the Hole
  • Some Like it Hot
  • Witness for the Prosecution

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