Originally branded "a dirty fairy tale," Billy Wilder's The Apartment combines irony, burlesque, soap opera, and truth into a morality play whose message is "be a mensch," a Yiddish term for a human being. Filmed in black-and-white, Wilder's story expresses the moral ambiguities facing a hero and heroine who are neither innocent nor evil, just human. By dealing with pandering, adultery, and suicide in an often poignant, yet entertaining way, Wilder created one of the most sophisticated Hollywood movies of its time. The innovativeness of The Apartment, however, is due not so much to the types of activities it portrays, but rather to the fact that Wilder allows his principal characters to sin, suffer the consequences, and yet be redeemed for a happy ending.
Wilder's sharp wit and satiric sword begin by slicing into the heart of Manhattan society's immorality and callousness as seen through the corporate world. The protagonist, C. C. (Bud) Baxter (Jack Lemmon), is a basically decent young executive with an undeveloped code of morality who finds himself reacting to, rather than shaping, the events around him. Bud begins as a night school graduate relegated to Section W, desk number 861 of the Ordinary Policy Department in the home office of Consolidated Life, an insurance company in New York. His is but one of hundreds of steel gray desks lined up row won row in a huge office filled by people with equally gray, expressionless faces. Art director Alexander Trauner and set director Edward G. Boyle exhibited their Academy Award-winning techniques in the early office scenes by enhancing the effect of a vast sea of faces with the use of tiny desks with dwarfs in the rear of the set, followed by even tinier desks with cut-out figures operated by wires.
Bud has learned that in an organization with more than 31,000 employees, a person has to have something more to offer than training, industry, and dedication. Bud stumbled onto his key to success—his apartment. Though small and rather dreary, the apartment has quickly become the favorite love nest shared by four of Bud's bosses. In exchange for providing a bed and catering service, Bud has been rewarded with glowing performance evaluations which will lead to promotions and one of the coveted glass-enclosed cubicles along the office's sidewall. Though less than enthusiastic about this arrangement, Bud is pliable whenever the fruits of society, measured in money, status, and sex, are dangled in front of him.
Throughout the first half of the movie, Bud's objections to the services he is providing are based on personal inconvenience rather than moral conviction. Lonely Bud, instead of spending his evenings eating TV dinners, watching old movies, and reading the men's fashion section of Playboy, often ends up spending the night in the cold, damp park, while one of his bosses shares his bed with the latest office ingenue. Wilder and Lemmon skillfully milk the laughs out of Bud's predicament as he catches an awful cold one night and then sniffles his way around the office the next day, alternating his attention between a handkerchief, nasal spray, and a thermometer.
It is on this day that Bud comes to the attention of Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the Director of Personnel, who, after delivering a sermon on morality, offers to trade two tickets to The Music Man and a future promotion for exclusive rights to Bud's apartment. As Bud's reluctance turns to elation, he finds the courage to invite the girl of his dreams, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator in the building, to join him at the theater. She hesitatingly agrees to meet him at 8:30 in the lobby. That night, while Bud waits for her at the theater, Mr. Sheldrake is busy convincing Fran that if she will resume their affair, he will divorce his wife. Sheldrake prevails and Bud gets stood-up.
Throughout the next month, on Mondays and Thursdays the apartment is reserved for Mr. Sheldrake, and true to his word, he promotes Bud to one of the glass-enclosed cubicles. It is now December 24, and the wild office Christmas party serves as a dividing point in the movie. Wilder helped to capture the true spirit of office parties, where everyone forgets his inhibitions in a swirl of booze, music, and laughter, by actually shooting the scene on December 23. Until now the movie has concentrated on Bud's culpability and ambitiousness, and on his bosses' lechery. At this point, however, the human consequences begin.
During the Christmas party both Fran and Bud have their illusions shat-tered. First a drunken Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), Mr. Sheldrake's secretary, taunts Fran about the number of conquests, herself included, which Mr.Sheldrake has scattered throughout the building. Then, when Bud asks her opinion of his new derby, Fran lets him look at himself in her compact's cracked mirror. Startled, Bud recognizes it as the compact he had found in his apartment and returned to Mr. Sheldrake a few weeks before.
While the disillusioned Bud drowns his sorrows in martinis at the local bar, Fran confronts Sheldrake at the apartment. Realizing that he regards her only as a mistress and not as his future wife, the despondent Fran happens to find a bottle of sleeping pills in the bathroom. Wilder uses the mirrors in the bathroom and her compact to symbolize the identity crisis with which she is suffering. Unable to cope with the reflection she sees in the glass, Fran takes the pills.
When Bud returns home, he finds Fran unconscious with the bottle of pills in her hand. He quickly summons his neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), who pumps out her stomach, and, believing Bud to be responsible for her suicide attempt, delivers a lecture on being a mensch. Dr. Dreyfuss, an honest, straightforward human being, presents Bud with an alternative role model to the corporate connivers he has been trying to emulate. It has become clear that in the world presented in The Apartment, corporate success and integrity cannot coexist, and Bud will soon be forced to make a choice. Wilder, however, manages to keep the suicide attempt and the moral dilemma from becoming too bleak through the use of plenty of deft comedy.
Fran and Bud spend the next two days swapping hard luck stories and playing gin rummy while she recovers enough strength to go home. Here Wilder mixes sentimentality and light-hearted buffoonery in a classic scene where Bud dexterously uses his tennis racquet to drain their spaghetti dinner.
In the meantime, Sheldrake fires Miss Olsen, who in turn informs Mrs. Sheldrake of his philandering habits. Sheldrake, who has been more concerned with preventing a scandal than in caring for Fran, rewards Bud with a promotion to Assistant Personnel Director and the key to the executive washroom. Though still willing to accept the rewards, Bud is no longer willing to play the game. He has fallen in love with Fran and is dismayed to hear that Sheldrake, who was thrown out by his wife, now intends to marry her—eventually, but not just yet.
On New Year's Eve day, when Sheldrake asks for the apartment key, Bud symbolically renounces corporate success and becomes a mensch by giving Sheldrake the key to the executive washroom instead. That night at dinner Sheldrake recounts Bud's inexplicable action to Fran, who realizes that Bud really loves her. Leaving Sheldrake sitting in the restaurant, she rushes off to Bud's apartment, where they welcome in the New Year with a game of gin rummy.
The happy ending was met with surprise by some critics who did not feel that protagonists who transgressed sexually deserved to find happiness. But Wilder has created human beings, not stereotypes, and they are capable of developing some self-recognition and capacity for growth. The question the movie does not successfully answer is why five supposedly well-paid executives are so totally dependent upon using Bud's rather dingy little flat.
The performances are universally good. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine make an appealing couple, capable of evoking both tenderness and humor. Ultimately, however, it is Lemmon's performance which gives the film the vitality to remain entertaining in the face of some pessimistic assessments of the human character.
The Apartment won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1960 and is one of the best achievements in Wilder's illustrious career.