The Hero’s Journey in “The Apartment”

There is a melancholy gulf over the holidays between those who have someplace to go, and those who do not. “The Apartment” is so affecting partly because of that buried reason: It takes place on the shortest days of the year, when dusk falls swiftly and the streets are cold, when after the office party some people go home to their families and others go home to apartments where they haven’t even bothered to put up a tree. On Christmas Eve, more than any other night of the year, the lonely person feels robbed of something that was there in childhood and isn’t there anymore.

Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a definitive lonely guy, in “The Apartment,” with the ironic twist that he is not even free to go home alone, because his apartment is usually loaned out to one of the executives at his company. He has become the landlord for a series of their illicit affairs; they string him along with hints about raises and promotions. His neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss hears the nightly sounds of passion through the wall and thinks Baxter is a tireless lover, when in fact Baxter is pacing the sidewalk out in front, looking up resentfully at his own lighted window.

When made “The Apartment” in 1960, “the organization man” was still a current term. One of the opening shots in the movie shows Baxter as one of a vast horde of wage slaves, working in a room where the desks line up in parallel rows almost to the vanishing point.

Baxter has no girlfriend and, apparently, no family. Patted on the back and called “buddy boy” by the executives who use him, he dreams of a better job and an office of his own. One day he even gets up his nerve and asks out one of the elevator girls, Miss Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine), but she stands him up at the last moment because of a crisis in her relationship with the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake. She thought her affair with Sheldrake was over, but now apparently it’s on again; he keeps talking about divorcing his wife, but never does.

The screenplay, executed as a precise balance between farce and sadness, has been constructed by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond to demonstrate that while Baxter and Miss Kubelik may indeed like each other–may feel genuine feelings of the sort that lead to true love–they are both slaves to the company’s value system. He wants to be the boss’ assistant, she wants to be the boss’ wife, and both of them are so blinded by the concept of “boss” that they can’t see Mr. Sheldrake for an untrustworthy rat.

The movie has been photographed in widescreen black and white. The b&w dampens down any jollity that might sweep in with the decorations at the Christmas parties, bars and restaurants where the holidays are in full swing. And the widescreen emphasizes space that separates the characters, or surrounds them with emptiness. The design of Baxter’s apartment makes his bedroom door, in the background just to the left of center, a focal point; in there reside the secrets of his masters, the reasons for his resentments, the arena for his own lonely slumber, and eventually the stage on which Miss Kubelik will play out the crucial transition in her life.

Other shots track down Manhattan streets and peer in through club windows, and isolate Miss Kubelik and the phony-sincere Mr. Sheldrake in their booth at the Chinese restaurant, where he makes earnest protestations of his good intentions, and glances uneasily at his watch.

What is particularly good about her Miss Kubelik is the way she doesn’t make her a ditzy dame who falls for a smooth talker, but suggests a young woman who has been lied to before, who has a good heart but finite patience, who is prepared to make the necessary compromises to be the next Mrs. Sheldrake. The underlying seriousness of MacLaine’s performance helps anchor the picture–it raises the stakes, and steers it away from any tendency to become musical beds.

What’s particularly perceptive is the way, after her suicide attempt, she hauls herself together and actually gives Sheldrake another chance. Like Baxter, she has not been forced into job prostitution, but chosen it. One of the ways this is an adult picture and not a sitcom is the way it takes Baxter and Miss Kubelik so long to make the romantic leap; they aren’t deluded fools, but jaded realists who have given up on love and are more motivated by paychecks. There is a wonderful, wicked, delicacy in the way Wilder handles the final scene, and finds the right tender-tough note in the last lines of the screenplay. (“Shut up and deal” would become almost as famous as “nobody’s perfect,” the immortal closing lines of “Some Like it Hot.”)