The Apartment

It’s been hard to collect my thoughts about Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Lately, I’ve been drawn to movies that seem like real life. People are complicated, and though it’s fun from time to time to watch sci-fi or action adventures, real life isn’t usually about “adventures.” It’s about dealing with mundane, but important, things. I was listening to Looking Sideways yesterday, and I really couldn’t get into Pascal Anson’s project, Ordinary Made Extraordinary. The ordinary is fine just the way it is, as far as I’m concerned.

There is a certain sense of comfort in driving a car that looks like every other car, rather than a contact paper “masterpiece.” It may be a clever joke to cover one in contact paper, but having grown up in a bit of a “ghetto” where people often customized their cars with stickers that peel and fade, in an effort to give them personality, this art project seems forced and faux—faux rebellion, rather than introspective evaluation of our day to day habits and routines. It’s those routines, and deviations from them, that make The Apartment such a magical film.

Some of the most meaningful commentary on the magic I’ve found is from writer and comedian  Hallie Cantor. She begins by discussing the writing of Christmas episodes for TV, and the quality found in the film:

It’s hard to put into abstract descriptive terms this very specific way in which The Apartment, the last day of classes, and Christmas episodes make me feel happy. It’s something to do with the sense of being stuck in a group with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose, but feeling a part of something anyway. Something to do with a good, cheerful kind of sadness, the sense of romance and coziness and hopefulness this movie lends to mundane crappy nights spent eating frozen pizza and watching TV alone. A satisfaction that even if your heart has been broken and you’re walking home in the dark from the library and it’s a ridiculously early hour for it to be dark out, it’s all going to be okay because good things will happen and for now you can just enjoy being romantically sad in the snow and twinkly lights.

I hadn’t really thought that much about the “film within the film” where Jack Lemmon sits alone in the apartment, eating chicken and attempting to watch TV while being constantly interrupted by commercials. It’s details like that which hold the brilliance of Billy Wilder’s satire. Yes, it’s sad—but it’s also okay. The same could be said for those tired moments at the desk at the office, brought on not by overwork but because he had surrendered his apartment to his superiors at work—it’s sad, yes— but it’s also okay if he gets what he wants out of the arrangement: a promotion.

The moment when it becomes “not okay” is when Jack Lemmon becomes a mensch. And he becomes a mensch when Fran Kubelik is no longer an elevator operator in her uniform, but a real person. The setting matters, and not simply the office set that I described previously, but the “home” space, the apartment at the center of the film. Hallie Cantor puts it precisely:

There’s a location in the film that’s even more impersonal than the office with its rows of desks and crowds streaming into elevators: the apartment itself. It may look homier than the office, but no one is special to anyone there. Lovers are interchangeable (“Before me there was Miss Rossi in Auditing, and after me there was Miss Koch in Disability, and right before you there was Miss, um, oh, What’s-Her-Name on the twenty-fifth floor”). You have an affair with someone and then you send them a fruitcake every Christmas.

The fantasy of this movie, and of thousands of romantic comedies that are less romantic and less funny, is that you will be special to someone. You will be singular and adorable and the only one out of 31,259 people that somebody wants to love.

Everyone in this film is being traded or sold in one way or another, frequently to mutual advantage. The settings, and the people, are brought to life by the use of tiny details. Fran Kubelik is an elevator operator because she failed the typing test—she couldn’t spell. I immediately empathised with this myself. I’ve always had a love of literature, but my mechanical writing skills came to me late in life, in my late 30s as a matter of fact. I was hopelessly inept. This detail, and other little details make the film memorable.

A non-standard feature of the apartment kitchen was the tennis racket. Just as contact paper would make a crappy surface for a car, a tennis racket isn’t a very good colander:

The Apartment Jack Lemmon

The apartment kitchen is interesting on a couple of levels. Like a typical apartment or Frankfurt kitchen, it doesn’t really hold two people. It’s a solitary space, echoing a solitary lifestyle. Fran can really only stick her head in, while Mr. Baxter is working. And he works with abandon, with joy, in putting together their meal. The choice of the tennis racket is idiosyncratic, but it doesn’t come across as a “forced” rebellion in the same sense as strangely decorated commonplace objects—it’s a pragmatic choice to reuse a piece of sports equipment. The plot doesn’t suggest that Mr. Baxter has many opportunities for tennis, so why not put the racket to use?

Returning to Ms. Kubelik, it’s worth noting that she isn’t simply a drone at the mercy of those with power over her, it’s not so much a case of succumbing to the power of Mr. Sheldrake (as is the case, with C.C. Baxter) but believing in the fantasy that he will leave his wife. Billy Wilder accentuates this with the curious detail of a paper crown:

This is the scene when Fran decides to keep her date with Mr. Baxter, when she decides to give up on her fantasy. She removes the crown. As she leaves the restaurant, she is spotted by Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary, reinforcing the idea that the danger of public spaces is surveillance. This disclosure, confirmation of their intimacy, is significant. From this moment on, the illusions are shattered.   Shirley MacLaine recalls that this was the most difficult scene for her to get right, to meet Billy Wilder’s expectations.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”


That’s the terse Austrian temper that I’ve grown used to in Adolf Loos. The critique offered isn’t candy-coated, it’s served up like a sharp shot of battery acid. MacLaine, as she tells the story, withstood the pressure:

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

That scene grounds the later disclosure, at the Christmas party, that Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary is aware of what has gone on; she puts Fran in her place by the litany of others who had also succumbed to his fantasy. The mechanism driving the plot is systematically furthered, but with healthy touches of humanity—and the ultimate in human frailty, the suicide attempt.

Elsewhere in the interview, MacLaine remarks on the scientific precision that Wilder brought to the pacing of these scenes, while at the same time it’s clear that he kept his approach to the film “loose” in the sense of incorporating ideas from the actors, and details from their real lives. The gin game, for example:

“I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

The power of observation Billy Wilder brought to bear on human frailty is astounding, and the proof is in the details— even the smallest of details, like hats.

Work places

Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK
Amazon warehouse workers, Peterboro UK

Constructions of the workplace vary, but one thing that is critical is the “moral” component that people often take for granted. The open floor plan, dominant during the twentieth and even twenty-first century lends itself well to surveillance. By itself, this isn’t new, but the sheer scale of it is becoming more and more mind-boggling. William S. Burroughs once quipped that the US was a “nation of finks” and I suspect he was essentially correct.

But there is more to it than that. Let’s not forget “shame” as a motivator. A recent story on the BBC repeats a Bloomberg report that Amazon is going to extremes of shaming to reduce shrinkage. The gist of it is that they are posting videos of employees caught stealing on large screen tvs, with faces blurred, as a warning for potential criminals.

“Lost stock is a massive issue affecting all retailers regardless of whether they are online or store-based,” commented Bryan Roberts from the shopping consultancy TCC Global.

“There are lots of measures in place, such as searches to make sure that stuff doesn’t go missing. But this perhaps does sound slightly extreme.”

Another expert was more critical, saying Amazon’s practices appeared to be “profoundly emotionally unintelligent”.

“What sort of an organisation has got to the point that it thinks this is a satisfactory or commendable way to be behaving?” asked Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today.

“It reminds me of Ben Hur with them standing over the rowers with a whip.

“I find it extraordinary that its relationships with its workforce have reached such a low point that it would do something like that.”

I find it interesting that in the U.K., where public surveillance operates more openly and is more accepted than perhaps anywhere in the globe, workplace shaming is a bridge too far. In America, the reporting doesn’t quite take the same moral tone:

Former managers in Amazon’s loss-prevention department say the use of theft stories was widespread during their tenure. Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Many of the workers say the screens aren’t a top concern compared with wages or workload. “Only people that would have something to say about it is people that’s doing wrong,” says Maurice Jones, a warehouse worker who left Amazon in February. “It’s just letting people know that you’re being watched.”

Yet the tales of theft and punishment are hard for workers to ignore—like a car crash, Jones says. “It could be one lane that’s blocked, but all the traffic slows down because everyone wants to look at it,” he says. “Like, ‘Who was stupid this time?’ ”

For some of the workers, the practice carries a whiff of prison. “That’s a weird way to go about scaring people,” says James McCracken, who, like Jones, used to work at Amazon’s warehouse in San Bernardino, Calif. “I think that’s offensive.”

. . .

Antitheft tactics have advanced with technology, Murphy says. In the 1980s retailers tried embedding subliminal messages in the music played in their stores to deter customers from stealing. Today, break-room warning posters and anonymous hotlines are commonplace. “The types of methods used by warehouses and fulfillment centers are only limited by your imagination,” Murphy says, “and whatever the law allows.”

Ground zero, perhaps, for this is the creation of large-scale high rise workplaces in the middle of the twentieth century. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment establishes its setting there. It’s issue isn’t workplace theft, but immorality of a different sort.

In order to achieve the sort of scale he was looking for, Wilder constructed a set that shrank the further back it went to exaggerate the receding horizon. The script details how the elevators and shifts were timed, to allow all 31,259 people to enter and leave the building without encountering bottlenecks in the elevators. Technology, while not featured in the story, provides a backdrop which situates things. The behavior of the worker drones is fiercely regulated in ten minute intervals, while the upper echelon receives the ultimate reward: the private office with more flexible scheduling.

In exchange for a promotion, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) allows the executives access to his apartment to conduct sexual affairs, often with the female staff of the corporation. Everyone, ultimately, is trying to negotiate their way free from surveillance and achieve privacy. Baxter respects that, and never asks for details regarding who or what is introduced into his home, now an extension of the workplace.

larkin-soap-companyThe scale of workplaces, even in the mid twentieth century, was massive. Watching Ken Burns’s documentary from 1998 on Frank Lloyd Wright, not long after watching The Apartment, I was struck by similarity in the office spaces betwen Wilder’s imagined space, and Wright’s Larkin office building:

inside-larking-adminThe primary difference between Wright’s office and a New York high rise is the lack of a low ceiling, which transforms this office into a different sort of moral space—a church. In an interesting Orwellian twist, Wright’s office also features slogans to motivate the workers:

Workplaces were, and are, moral spaces. The morality is dictated, both by design and by the desires of management. The cathedral atmosphere is disquieting, especially when you try to figure out just what god they honor.

In a way, but not in every way

Shirley MacLaine and Hugh Bonneville
Shirley MacLaine and Hugh Bonneville

Martha Levinson, the American relative, doesn’t get much mention in the final episode of Downton Abbey. There’s a telegram: “I am sorry that I could not be with you. Although we pray for those at peril on the sea, I am too old to be one of them.” Lord Grantham replies: “In a way, I’m sorry she’s not here.” Her daughter, Lady Grantham quips: “In a way, but not in every way.” Of course, the intrusion of the brash loud-mouthed American isn’t always welcome, but isn’t made to feel unwelcome thanks to the nuances of wit. The center of Downton Abbey is English manners, not American ones.

Just as a mental exercise, I began to wonder: how old would Adolf Loos be in comparison to the characters on Downton Abbey? Turns out, utilizing the detective work of the Downton fans out there, that he would have been just a bit younger that Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham. Robert was born in 1866, Adolf Loos in 1870. The newspaper articles I’ve been reading were written by a man in his late 20s, an Austrian who had lived in America for about three years, from 1893-1896. Curious about his life history, I finally looked into his biography.

Wikipedia references these bits from a book review by Thomas Muirhead, reviewing Adolf Loos: Works & Projects by Ralf Bock:

Bock provides harrowing details of Loos’ tortured existence. Born in 1870, his stonemason father died when he was only nine. A rebellious, disorientated boy, he failed in various attempts to get through architecture school. Contracting syphilis in the brothels of Vienna, by 21 he was sterile, and in 1893 his mother disowned him.

He went to America and for three years did odd jobs in New York, somehow finding himself in that process which, alas, Bock fails to explain. By his return to Vienna in 1896, he was “an autodidact who had neither completed a degree nor possessed any other apprenticeship training”, yet who had somehow become a man of taste and intellectual refinement.

He immediately entered a brilliant Viennese intelligentsia that included Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schoenberg and Karl Kraus, quickly establishing himself as the favourite architect of Vienna’s cultured bourgeoisie.

Diagnosed with cancer in 1918, his stomach, appendix and part of his intestine were removed, and by the time he was 50, he was almost completely deaf. Then in 1928, he was disgraced by a paedophilia scandal, and at his death in 1933, at the age of 63, he was penniless.

The paedophilia scandal is particularly disturbing, apparently the girls were 8-10 years old, and during the trial Loos was suffering from dementia. So, as the line goes, I’m interested in Adolf Loos, but not in every way.

Billy Wilder and Shirley MacLaine
Billy Wilder and Shirley MacLaine on the set of The Apartment

tumblr_nmko4kJufk1tlho7xo1_500Lately, I’ve rekindled my interest in Billy Wilder. Learning more about Austria, oddly enough, has provoked it. Revisiting The Apartment (1960) after so many years, I find the depth of the satire amazing. I didn’t realize until now that he was Austrian. Following the “what age would they be, relatively?” game Billy Wilder would be about four years younger than Lady Rose Aldridge, who returned from New York for the finale of Downton Abbey.

Joan_Bennett_1938Wilder offers a gentle critique of America, embracing it but with reservations, similar to Adolf Loos. His appraisal of our customs is far more nuanced than I’d really given him credit for. Watching the extras for The Apartment revealed that the concept of the film came from an odd question of morals. Joan Bennett, wife of producer William Wanger, was involved in a scandal, which On Sunset Boulevard summarizes in this fashion:

In 1951, producer Walter Wanger discovered that his wife, Joan Bennett, was having an affair with the agent Jennings Lang. Their encounters were brief and frequent. When Lang and Bennett weren’t meeting clandestinely at vacation spots like New Orleans and the West Indies, they were back in L.A. enjoying weekday quickies at a Beverly Hills apartment otherwise occupied by one of Lang’s underlings at the agency. When Wanger found proof of the affair, he did what any crazed cuckold would do: he shot Lang in the balls.

It wasn’t the murder that caught Billy Wilder’s attention, but the question: “what sort of guy allows other people to use his apartment for immoral purposes?” Casting Jack Lemmon as a sort of “everyman” in the corporate machine, pressed into compromising his morals down the slippery slope, was genius. Ramping up from the runaway success of Some Like it Hot, The Apartment isn’t simply a comedy or drama— it falls somewhere in between: it’s complicated, much like life.

The beauty of an outsider, particularly from an outsider from another country, asking the difficult questions about what makes us “civilized” is an abiding interest for me just now. Lemmon’s character, Calvin Clifford (C. C.) “Bud” Baxter, is likeable, but morally flawed, as is the female lead, Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine.

There is much to be said about The Apartment, as satire of mid-century American capitalist morality, but I fear this is stretching out too long.

Perhaps it’s best to leave this with the words of Martha Levinson, as conceived by Julian Fellowes and played by Shirley MacLaine, from season 4 episode 9 of Downton Abbey, addressed to Violet,  the dowager countess played by Maggie Smith:

You see, I have no wish to be a Great Lady.

No, a decision that must be reinforced whenever you look in the glass.

Violet, I don’t mind looking in the mirror, because what I see is a woman who’s not afraid of the future. My world is coming nearer and your world? It’s slipping further and further away. Goodnight.