Becoming a Mensch: THE APARTMENT (1960)

*The following are my film study notes, from the Billy Wilder Film Study course I taught in the Fall of 2019.

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THE APARTMENT (1960), a Film Study

By Kellee Pratt

Becoming a mensch. That’s the real theme here in Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT (1960). In our last session, we screened and discussed SOME LIKE IT HOT (1958). As we’ve mentioned before, Billy followed a pattern of making comedies when he was feeling down (to lift up his mood), then making darker dramas, when he was in a happy place in his life. Clearly, he was still riding high from the success of SOME LIKE IT HOT, to make his next film which could be described as a mix: partly romantic comedy, partly drama with noir tones, and partly black comedy.

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Working again with his favorite writing partner Izzy Diamond, Billy Wilder was inspired to write THE APARTMENT from a couple sources. Initially, he got the idea from watching David Lean’s 1945 British film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER, based on Noel Coward’s 1936 play, “Still Life.” The plot centers of a couple’s extramarital affair, where they carry out their secret romance at a friend’s apartment. Billy was fascinated, not as much by the complexities of this couple’s secret relationship, but about the owner of the apartment. What was that backstory, he pondered.

By the end of the 1950s, the production code was beginning to loosen (after all, he delivered  great success with his last film, which did not pass the code due to its cross-dressing and homosexuality themes), and the time felt right to explore a film based on an apartment hosting extramarital affairs.

A real-life Hollywood scandal inspired this theme further. Noir actress Joan Bennett was married to producer Walter Wanger starting in 1940 and the two formed a profitable production company along with director Fritz Lang. A decade later, the business and Wanger’s career started to sour, just like their marriage. Bennett started an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. Wanger had his suspicions and hired a private dick follow her. One day, on December 13, 1951, as Bennett and Lang got out of her car from a rendezvous, Wanger shot Lang- a few inches below the belt. Shockingly, Lang survived, as did Bennet’s career (somewhat) and her marriage to Wanger (for another 14 years, at least.) But the apartment used for Bennet and Lang’s trysts belonged to an underling at Lang’s agency. Diamond suggested the circumstance of the borrowed apartment for extramarital affairs storyline was not motivated by generosity of friendship, but rather for ambition in business- a climb up the corporate ladder. Later in his life, Tony Curtis suggested that his many extramarital affairs, that were carried out in a similar fashion at a friend’s apartment, may have also been an additional influence.

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From the very beginning of writing this script, Billy Wilder had Jack Lemmon specifically in mind for the main lead of CC Baxter. In his truly breakout role as Daphne in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1958), Lemmon exhibited a rare combination of talents, flipping back and forth from comedic moments to dramatic, that Billy Wilder wanted to expand in this role in THE APARTMENT (1960). Lemmon also embodied a relatable, authentic everyman connection for the audience. And boy, does he deliver.

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Shirley MacLaine was a young, rapidly-rising star. At the age of 20 years old, she went from being an understudy to starring (thanks to an ankle injury) on the Broadway production of “The Pajama Game,” when Hollywood producer Hal B Wallis discovered her and signed her to Paramount Pictures. MacLaine’s film debut in Hitchcock’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955), led to a string of four more equally successful films. Her lead in SOME CAME RUNNING (1958), earned her first Oscar nomination, with the 2nd nom from her role as Fran Kubelik in THE APARTMENT (1960). In the role of Ms. Kubelik, they needed a young and attractive actress who could portray this range of comedy, sadness, darkness and drama; someone who could convince audiences she was equally bright but perhaps unwise to fall for a wolf. MacLaine fit the bill. She was a mere 25 years old when she filmed THE APARTMENT (1960), but this was not her only Wilder/Lemmon film. She reunited with the two in the 1963 romantic comedy, IRMA LA DOUCE, where she was nominated again for Best Actress Oscar.

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Paul Douglas was intended to play the role of the slimy boss, Mr. Sheldrake but right before filming was scheduled to begin, the actor suffered a fatal heart attack. Wilder then asked Fred MacMurray to step in. Fred had reservations as he had just signed a major contract with Disney to portray characters quite the opposite from unethical Sheldrake. Wilder in his persuasive methods reminded him of his range of abilities that he exhibited for him in the past, years earlier in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Following intense negative fan reactions after THE APARTMENT’s release, despite its enormous successes, MacMurray stuck only with lighter roles thereafter. His portrayal of the rotten Sheldrake was so impressive that Disney fans were horrified in watching his darker side.

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The rest of the cast is a dream team of character actors, mostly recognizable from their television roles. You’ll recognize “Sylvia,” (Joan Shawlee), from Billy’s last film, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), where she played “Sweet Sue.” For me, Jack Kruschen as Dr. Dreyfuss is a stand-out. While his resume also reflects this uncanny ability to ride the fence between drama and comedy, here he portrays the most standup, decent character in the entire cast. There is no doubt where Dr. Dreyfuss’s moral compass points. This is an important role in this story because he helps lead by example for CC Baxter, in his journey to “be a mensch.”

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This film takes a hard look at morality in American life, and who else but a foreign-born journalist-turned-storyteller to see it so insightfully? It was a bold move to showcase this grim tale of extramarital affairs and suicide, which also indicated a turning point of realism in cinema. Embracing such taboo topics could only be done as masterfully as with Billy Wilder’s brilliance.

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Some things to look for in Wilder’s showcase of dark and light themes can be explored in contrasting Baxter’s apartment (both inside and outside) vs. the office vs. Mr. Sheldrake’s home. CC Baxter’s apartment is often shone as dark, claustrophobic, cluttered in a lived-in way. This will sometimes serve as a seedy, film-noireque backdrop for immorality, as the hub of extramarital trysts, and the location where Fran attempts to end her life. But it also serves as the location where she later heals, and as such the claustrophobia turns into a homey coziness. The basement Asian restaurant where Fran secretly meets Sheldrake (and a New Year’s Eve party later) has a similar feel.

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In contrast, Jeff Sheldrake’s home is bright, spacious, opulent in higher-end living. It’s a reflection of his public face vs. his hidden life. His narcissism won’t allow the two spaces to cross. He believes he is detached and superior to his own darker reality. Additionally, the office spaces are linear, cold, modern. On one hand, this was more typical of any large office of its day, but the set was designed to showcase the endless rows of desks, with no personality nor any allowance for deviating from cultural conformity. If you’re familiar with King Vidor’s 1928 classic, ‘THE CROWD,” you’ll recognize a similar view of endless desks.

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One of the overriding themes is of the “takers” in this world, as Fran Kubelik addresses. Such selfish opportunists abound in THE APARTMENT… Mr. Sheldrake, the executive playboys, and even CC Baxter himself. We see Baxter evolve and develop into a human being by the end of the film, but initially his motivations are strictly self-serving and ambitious. But Baxter is a realistic, fascinating character because we see ourselves in him as we watch him grow and struggle in facing these moral dilemmas. We believe he is a decent guy but misguided by his aspirations in climbing the unethical corporate ladder.

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THE APARTMENT (1960) was a big success and the winner of 5 Academy Awards. Billy Wilder was the first in Academy history to win the triple crown of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (along with IAL Diamond.) Best Film Editing winner was Daniel Mandell, with the winners for Best Art Direction, Black-and-White, going to Alexandre Trauner and Edward G. Boyle. Rounding out the Oscar nominees: Jack Lemmon for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Shirley MacLaine for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Jack Kruschen for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Joseph LaShelle for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Gordon Sawyer for Best Sound.

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Comments

  1. Fascinating article, Kellee. Wilder, Lemmon, MacLaine, Fred MacMurray–I liked the bold moves by Wilder to try realism and taboos. It’s a perfect film with the perfect cast. One of his best!

    Like

  2. Ruth A Mundsack says:

    Hey Kellee! This was great! Thank you for sharing this write up of one of my favorite movies….

    Like

  3. Took me to near the end to realize I had read this one before (in class, even!). Darnit! Still a great piece, Kellee. Keep ’em coming.

    Like

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