8 DAYS TO CHRISTMAS: ‘The Apartment’

8. The Apartment (1960)

Like most of Billy Wilder’s films, The Apartment has a voice over narration from our loveable hero, C. C. Baxter, or Buddy-Boy as his superiors like to call him. But are they really superior to him? Does a job title imply social status? Is there more to life than social status? At the heart of The Apartment is a harsh critique of the American dream and a bit of a feminist notion. Like Die Hard or It’s a Wonderful Life, The Apartment is not an explicitly Christmas movie, but Christmas enters the film at a significant moment and helps define the tone of the film. While it may not be considered a Christmas classic, this masterpiece of cinema remains one of my all-time favorites that is great any time of year, Christmas especially.

C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a typical, middle class insurance worker that is one of over thirty-two thousand in his building alone. He lets upper management men use his apartment to conduct their affairs. The complications come about when he gets a promotion and tries to get a girl (Shirley MaClaine) on his own. The movie plays with the simplicity of its character by using the notion of extreme stereotypes to its advantage. Baxter is clearly average, his neighbor is clearly a conservative doctor, and his boss is clearly the figurehead of authority. There is one character that defies stereotypical expectations, Fran. Fran is an elevator girl who does what she wants when she wants and doesn’t let anyone tell her what to do. This makes her perfect for the push-over Baxter. Or in terms of Wilder dialogue, she is a “taker” and he is one who “gets took.”

Having one character that defies the expectations of a tightly woven society throws everything off. Together Fran and Baxter break the rules and face the consequence of the world they live in. To them, the boss is like a god. Baxter can be engaged in an aggravated conversation very adamantly and totally forget what angered him if a promotion is mentioned. The workplace comes first, even before love. The film questions the American dream and how to get it as also implied by the cheating nature of all upper-level employees. Corruption and twisted morals plague the place that is supposed to be the safe haven, the goal of a good education. What then is poor Baxter and the other thirty-two thousand employees supposed to seek?

Per typical Billy Wilder, social critique is innate part of his film. But what it is really about is the characters and the dialogue they exchange. With The Apartment, the key word is “wise.” Although its use is most common as an extension (i. e. character-wise, otherwise-wise). Only once is it actually used to mean just “wise,” as Baxter says, “that is very wise.” This is a moment in the film when things aren’t exactly going his way and perhaps serves as a turning point for him. He understands what he wants, but he doesn’t know how to attain it with the society he leaves in. This is how Fran has felt her whole life. The two have a connection but it takes wisdom on both ends for them to see that they must break the rules of their little world and learn to understand the concept of superiority. A better job title does not make a better person.

Billy Wilder is my favorite filmmaker, but he is really a writer at heart. While many of his films, The Apartment included, are visually accomplished as well, the real art is in the words. Wilder, by his own admission, only became a director for the sake of protecting his scripts. This is a valid reason, particularly given the studio system he worked in. But The Apartment still contains several great shots, my favorite of which involves Baxter, locked out of his apartment, sitting on a park bench.

Technically, the film is spectacular. On top of Wilder being an alarmingly good director, the cinematography and editing produce beautiful imagery and wonderful timing, Adolph Deutsch’s compositions for the film are among the most memorable and most affecting scores of the 1960s. It perfectly complements the film and sticks in your head for weeks after a single viewing.

The Apartment won the academy award for Best Picture and Best Director among others. I would’ve given it the top five awards at a minimum. But it’s not about awards (Wilder had 26 total Oscar nominations), it transcends that. This is a great film, one of Wilder’s very finest. If you haven’t seen it, this Christmas is the perfect time to start. You won’t regret it.

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