Religion & Liberty Online

Resolve this New Year to visit Billy Wilder’s The Apartment

(Image credit: United Artists)

The Big City can be a great place to lose yourself among a crowd, and too often lose your soul. Only love of another can help you find yourself again.

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Christmas movies tend to be sentimental, to emphasize the struggles that define our society and our souls, but ultimately they are hopeful and even joyful. Humanity triumphs at the end of the story—for evidence, read my series of essays on The Bishop’s Wife, The Shop Around the Corner, Christmas in Connecticut, and Miracle on 34th Street. New Year’s movies are comparatively depressing; they break our hearts by insisting on our failures—they are wistful. However festive New Year’s Eve, with “Auld Lang Syne” playing, we’re haunted by our mortality.

This is especially true of the best New Year’s movie, The Apartment (1960). It was nominated for 10 Oscars and won five—three of them went to Billy Wilder: Best Screenplay, Director, and Picture—the culmination of two astonishing decades in Hollywood. He made one more great movie, One Two Three (1961), but a career was ending whose highlights we still love: Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Double Indemnity (1944), Some Like It Hot (1959) and Sabrina (1954), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957).

Wilder was a Jewish immigrant, and his success in Hollywood shows how interested in America he was and how perceptive—after all, he was a writer, he had things to say, and for a generation, the audience agreed with him. His comedies were somewhat more immoral than was usual in Hollywood at that time and his dramas somewhat more revealing of ugliness—that’s the European touch.

Wilder was wonderfully witty, and there was such joy in his comedies, but also quite a lot of cynicism, which also endeared him to American audiences. His movies admitted life ain’t great, even at the postwar peak of American confidence. The Apartment especially shows that, for the regular guy, national greatness might be a burden—the ambition to succeed in this brave new world can lead to debasement. The size of the new America dwarfs mere humans.

Jack Lemmon, the sorriest, most hangdog-looking actor ever to have achieved celebrity, plays said regular guy—C.C. Baxter, a corporate accountant who moved to New York City to work for a life insurance corporation he says is larger than the regular American city. He says there are 8,042,783 people in New York; you can imagine how lonely it gets among so many strangers. Our America, where individualism reaches extremes, is presaged in this story.

Baxter is torn between his ambition to succeed in corporate America and his love for an elevator girl at his workplace—either way, he’s trying to go up in the American hierarchy, symbolized by the skyscraper. To get a promotion, he lends his apartment to four different men above him in the corporation so they can indulge in their somewhat childish adulteries after work. So he spends his evenings alone in parks, waiting for his apartment to be available again, while his neighbors think him a playboy. He fears for his reputation, so he cannot admit he’s merely a kind of Airbnb for others’ vices. American respectability is strange, a mix of piety and vice that traps his bosses, too: America has not turned adultery into an art, unlike in Europe, where mistresses are famous.

Meanwhile, Baxter dreams of Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine, the actress who best embodied the moral irresponsibility of the ’60s—not vice, but weakness. America was becoming prosperous, mobile, and full of all sorts of freedom, one more confusing than the next. Fran is both idealistic and cynical, beautiful and depressive. Like Baxter, she’s a victim of city glamour, and of the powerful men behind it. Today she’d be a #metoo story.

Fran’s an elevator girl, which means she always sees people passing her by and takes them where they want to go. They have real jobs, something to do with their lives; she’s just company for the ride there. The helplessness of her situation enables her to see the dark side of American mobility—there’s niceness but little real virtue among strangers. This crushes idealists and romantics because they’re hardly capable of pursuing self-interest in the first place.

Enter Sheldrake, the corporate boss, played by Fred MacMurray, the champion of an immoral version of self-interest. Baxter’s promotion depends on servility to Sheldrake, as does Fran’s future. Sheldrake has seduced Fran, although he’s married. Baxter can enjoy his promotion by giving his apartment over to Sheldrake, but he’s unwittingly helping damn the woman he loves. Fran’s too weak to break up with an adulterous man, and her weakness has also robbed her of hope.

The love of an older, powerful man is attractive—power is reassuring in itself, as is paternal authority, but it also testifies to beauty’s power. Thirty thousand employees depend on Sheldrake—Fran gets to call him Jeff. He orders everyone around, but has to plead for her time. They may serve him—but he serves her, when the wife and kids are vacationing. This works because marriage law, though perhaps sacred, goes unenforced.

Fran’s not evil, merely narrow-minded, sentimental. Since she’s never seen Sheldrake’s wife and kids, she doesn’t think of them. Since she’s young, she finds it difficult to believe actions have consequences—much less catastrophic consequences. Even law-breaking means nothing to her, because she didn’t mean to, and after all, men do it, too. Welcome to modernity, where we replace innocence with irresponsibility.

Sheldrake is not too different, only more powerful. He begs Fran to love him, but he cares about respectability more. This makes him cruel—he disgraces women, then bribes or intimidates them into silence. It’s no accident that the clueless and the astute are trapped in the same sordid mess. They playact morality and lack principles. The job doesn’t require them. A future is aborning where people are debased with their consent. He would be a #metoo story, too.

Wilder, like most masters, liked to cast stars against type. As in Double Indemnity, he has perpetual nice guy MacMurray play the cad. Indeed, both movies are about life insurance, the business that shows how we deal with our fear of death and our moral uncertainties. We bet on our lives and hope to make money. Much good comes of this—peace of mind, but not virtue.

Everyone in the story is admittedly a coward, which is unusual for a comedy. Billy Wilder, however, was a humanist. He extends a certain hope, that Baxter and Fran can learn to love each other. They have suffered similar wounds and can understand each other, including their weaknesses. Moreover, they understand what it means to lose much, to even lose hope, to be tempted by death. It takes strength to come back from that.

But they are Americans, too. As Tocqueville says, even if reason fails, the will does not fail in America, and so they pick themselves, and each other, up again. The entire drama is supposed to teach them self-reliance, inasmuch as they can learn it together. They do for each other things they wouldn’t have the confidence and perseverance to do for themselves. Self-interest means little to them, but love proves lifesaving.

Our nature loves nobility and beauty, yet our society systematically denies us. Wilder understood this would become everyone’s problem, hence his Everyman protagonists. Indeed, the drama of young men and women who seem perpetual adolescents, whose weakness leads them to misery, has become our American crisis. Wilder proved a prophet—nowadays, most young people are just like Baxter and Fran, unable to get married, stuck in apartments rather than homes, and exposed to a shame so deep that it corrupts the soul.

The comic, sentimental look at Baxter and Fran is supposed to teach us that moralism is not going to fix our problems. We cannot change our society by snapping fingers. The young go to cities chasing after dreams and often find sordid things instead. Wilder isn’t a reformer, political or religious, but he hopes to show us how to understand this weakness and how it might be dealt with gently, even with love.

Between Christmas and New Year, these two failures discover love. I won’t spoil their ups and downs, because the charm of the movie is in showing how two people could deal with the entire social problem I’ve articulated in this essay. That is by itself an important lesson—in a way, we’re all helpless in the face of a vast continent-spanning nation—but in another way, we each can do well enough.

This is a bittersweet comedy, but it has high aspirations—for love is a matter of life and death. Come New Year’s, as I said, we’re haunted by our mortality. Our defense is love, which puts the beautiful and the good together, and reconciles us to our limits by offering us a completeness greater than ourselves, which depends not on our own will but on another person. The Apartment’s a New Year movie intended to get us through the new year.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.