Take 24: The Apartment
It’s interesting when a film can transcend the time period in which it was released by exhibiting timeless truths. From the opening scene of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, we listen to CC Baxter introduce himself as he blends in amongst his colleagues pouring into the New York city high rise office building, and we immediately understand that this man is one of many identical voices and faces in the mix. We hear his voice before we see him, shouting at us above the din of employees running for elevators and shuffling papers. This feeling of drowning in masses of people who are just like you is familiar to anyone who has been a working stiff in a corporate job — insignificant when you’re doing everything right and only recognizable if you make a mistake visible enough to stand out. Finding CC amongst the endless stretches of desks is challenging, and demonstrative of why he endures as much as he does to separate himself from through some extraordinary means.
Baxter, played nearly perfectly by the lovable sap Jack Lemmon, lends out his apartment to a revolving door of company executives in order to provide them a safe place to cheat on their wives. Baxter, as a result, works late a few days a week, further separating himself from other employees. He resents the mistreatment by his superiors but also refuses to draw a line in the sand that they cannot cross, for fear of losing his job or missing out on the promotion he has been chasing since the shenanigan originated. His female counterpart, the elevator operator Fran Kublik (Shriley Maclaine), whom he lusts after with an unusually high amount of respect. She, like Baxter, is also caught between making decisions that hurt in the short term while chasing a long term fantasy.
The reveal of how their fates are interlocked is delicately set up and devastatingly executed. After Baxter catches a cold lingering outside his own apartment, waiting for it to be vacated, he is called up to Mr. Sheldrake, who is the big boss at the company. He finally receives the promotion he longed for, with a bonus pair of tickets to The Music Man, only after agreeing to allow Sheldrake exclusive access to his home.
Baxter works up the nerve to ask Fran to join him, and she agrees to meet him after she sees a man she had made a prior date with. It turns out that Sheldrake himself is the man she is meeting- and Fran is the woman he plans to bring back to Baxter’s apartment. It’s heartbreaking to watch Baxter scan the streets for Fran. In a reversal, he spends this scene he noticeably resists the stream of theatergoers pouring in the doors he cannot bring himself to enter.
When Fran learns that Sheldrake has a pattern of this behavior (seducing a young woman at work, bringing them to the same sad booth in the same dark restaurant, promising to leave his wife but never following through) she has a failed suicide attempt on Christmas Eve. The result is that Baxter cares for her while she gets better — resulting in their numerous similarities bubbling to the surface. This includes their gullible trust in the man who has given them no reason to believe in him.
They follow the breadcrumbs supposedly leading them to their greatest desires — a promotion in Baxter’s case and an exclusive relationship with the man she loves in Fran’s case. They’ve each adjusted to life in secrecy, to the promise of a better tomorrow, and they both are trapped by the people they long to satisfy. Of course, their reactions to this lifestyle vary.
Fran’s relationship with Sheldrake is shrouded in shame, not just because she’s the other woman, but because she was susceptible to being duped by him. Baxter, on the other hand, leans into his neighbor’s assessment of his virility. He is proud that they believe a man like him could be the sex pot they perceive him as, even if that perception is rooted in disdain.
At the end of the film, both Fran and Baxter leave Sheldrake and his empty promises behind, no longer lured by chasing the mirage in the desert. They find their way back to each other and it’s a sweet moment but one laced with uncertainty and some sadness.
This is Wilder’s gift. He crafts arcs that are fun to watch but undercut with just enough melancholy to make them resonate in a way that pure joy misses. This salty sweet mixture is a mainstay of contemporary comedy, to the point where it’s almost inextricable from quality sitcoms or stand up. Yet, the way Wilder executes the balance — in this film but also in Sunset Boulevard or Seven Year Itch, the sadness underpinning our tragic heroes is endearing, it’s the flaw that draws us in and helps us find forgiveness for their eccentricity. When Fran tells Baxter to “Shut up and deal” in the final line of the final scene it’s clear that they’re more authentic with each other than they would have ever could have been if they had achieved the futures they gave up so much to chase.