Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT (1960)

Inducted Into the National Film Registry: 1994

Academy Award Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing

The 1960’s was a decade of great upheaval in American social mores, especially when it came to the subject of sex and its depiction in mass media.  The rigid respectability and chastity that marked the Eisenhower years was falling out of fashion, replaced by the JFK generation’s embrace of evolving attitudes and new ideas.  This decade in particular saw youth culture beginning to assert itself in the national conversation, constantly challenging institutional authority and long-held taboos.  Nowhere was this cultural transformation more apparent than it was in the cinema, where a new generation of easy riders and raging bulls were usurping the Golden Age maestros and their classical, formalist styles.  Some of these maestros even used their prestige to help usher in this new age of expression and give it an air of artistic legitimacy.  Director Billy Wilder had started chipping away at the wall of cinematic chastity with the success of his 1959 film, SOME LIKE IT HOT, which featured cross-dressing characters and thinly-veiled allusions to homosexuality.  However, it would be his next film, THE APARTMENT (1960), that rose up to directly combat the Hays Motion Picture Production Code and lay the groundwork for a new generation of mainstream movies that would reflect how people really lived.  

Wilder had wanted to film the story detailed in THE APARTMENT at least since the mid 1940’s, when a viewing of David Lean’s A BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) caused his mind to wander from the couple engaged in an extramarital affair on-screen to the unseen character who rented out his apartment out to the protagonists for their illicit meetings (1).  He wondered what kind of a person would willingly do this, and began dreaming up a comedy from this unseen person’s perspective.  For a long time, the Hays Code barred Wilder from making a film that openly featured adultery and marital infidelity, but now that he had drawn blood from the once-impervious watchdog, he had an artistic imperative to follow up with another strike.  He rounded up his closest collaborators– writing partner I.A.L. Diamond and longtime mentor/confidant Doane Harrison– and brought them aboard as consulting associate producers to help him finally realize his long-gestating idea.  

THE APARTMENT begins like so many of Wilder’s films before it, with an opening voiceover by Jack Lemmon’s CC Baxter that establishes the Manhattan setting as well as the film’s social climate.  Lemmon’s second consecutive performance for Wilder as a rank-and-file insurance accountant in a sea of white collar drones would also net him his second consecutive Oscar nomination, and is remembered today as quite possibly the greatest comedic performance of his career.  Despite his corporate anonymity, he’s got a special in with his higher-ups, in that he’s worked out an elaborate system that trades the use of his bachelor apartment for their various affairs in exchange for the promise of an accelerated promotion schedule.  Something of a happy-go-lucky pushover, Baxter is convinced that all these nights barred from his own home will be worth it when he has a cushy corner office to call his own.  

He desperately wants to be a part of this old boy’s club, but in reality he’s nothing like them– whereas his bosses see women as disposable playthings, he has an unrequited and well-intentioned crush on the building elevator girl, Fran Kubelick.  As played by Shirley MacLaine in her own Oscar-nominated performance, Fran is an arguably edgy love interest for her time.  A prototypical version of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope, Fran’s aesthetic sensibilities fly in the face of the era’s feminine ideals: short cropped hair, a self-deprecatingly aloof sense of humor, and a polite smile that just barely masks the melancholy and depression underneath.  Her hidden sadness stems from her secret affair with Baxter’s alpha-male boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who keeps delaying and reneging on his promise to leave his wife and children for her.  THE APARTMENT marks MacMurray’s second collaboration with Wilder, and despite having appeared as an equally emotionally-bankrupt character in 1944’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY, his casting here as a slimy moral coward was still regarded as against-type thanks to the squeaky clean image he’d cultivated in family-friendly projects for Disney.  As it happens, Sheldrake uses Baxter’s apartment for a romantic interlude with Fran that quickly goes south when he declares that he won’t be leaving his wife anytime soon.  Overcome with heartbreak and despair, she attempts suicide by downing an entire bottle of sleeping pills.  Baxter finds her just in time, and spends the weekend nursing her back to health while playing keepaway with his apartment from the other lusty executives and their mistresses who would want it for themselves.  The situation provides a great opportunity for Baxter to finally make a romantic connection with Fran, but his own professional ambitions set him up to become just like all the other men who broke Fran’s heart– and just might become his own undoing.       

For all his plaudits as a premier director of classical Golden Age formalism, Wilder’s approach to cinematography was deceptively cutting-edge.  On a surface level, THE APARTMENT’s visuals are relatively mundane and utilitarian, but Wilder packs his frame with an abundance of thematic and contextual depth– beginning with the shape of the frame itself.  For marketing purposes, THE APARTMENT is a comedy, and most comedies of the era were captured using the Academy aspect ratio of 1.85:1.  Wilder wasn’t interested in conforming to genre expectations, so instead he and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle shot THE APARTMENT on a significantly-wider 2.35:1 canvas (a newer ratio that was usually reserved for dramatic epics or westerns).  This particular choice speaks to Wilder’s particular insight into the human condition– finding laughter in tragedy and vice-versa– and enhances his framing in a subtle fashion.  This effect is most evident in shots emphasizing depth, like a one-point, forced-perspective establishing shot that features endless rows of workers bees at their desks, stretching backwards into infinity.  It should be noted that because THE APARTMENT’s setups most frequently utilize a high depth of field, one could surmise that the Cinemascope aspect ratio was captured spherically, and not with specialized anamorphic lenses (which are infamous for their very shallow depth of field).  

While it seems an obvious choice on its face, the decision to shoot in black and white is another aspect of Wilder’s genre-bending approach to THE APARTMENT.  By 1960, the monochromatic format was on the wane, with mainstream studio films increasingly adopting color as the industry standard– comedies in particular were a ripe opportunity for splashes of brilliant Technicolor.  Wilder’s decision to shoot in monochrome underscores his countercultural approach to the picture, which was to subvert the language of classical Golden Age cinema with modern techniques (i.e., positioning the subjects of his close-ups in stark profile).  Indeed, THE APARTMENT more closely resembles classic film noir with its shadowy, high contrast lighting and cold urban landscape than it does the bright and cheery comedy it might’ve been marketed as.  This desire to reflect the complex nuances of real life emotions via the cinematography is what makes THE APARTMENT one of the last great films of the black-and-white era– indeed, it was the last fully monochromatic film to win the Oscar for Best Picture until THE ARTIST in 2012 (and yes, that’s counting SCHINDLER’S LIST’s 1994 win, which wasn’t entirely black and white thanks to its bookending color sequences).  

THE APARTMENT is a perfect crystallization of the various techniques that shape Wilder’s identity as an artist.  His sharp-tipped humor is wantonly spread across the whole piece, which is made all the more impressive considering the fact that most of the film was actually written as shooting progressed.  That he could think of such iconic lines– like Fran’s closing exchange with Baxter after he tells her he loves her: “Shut up and deal.”– is a testament to Wilder’s supreme skill as a writer even when under immense pressure.  There’s a purity to the construction of the film itself, owing to Wilder’s precisely calibrated camerawork that eliminates the need for unnecessary coverage by using dollies, cranes and pans to change our point of view instead of a hard cut.  This lends a great deal of timelessness and class to the picture– a much-needed quality when the subject matter deals (rather bluntly) in unsavory behavior like suicide, adultery, and successful business men gleefully scratching their seven-year itches.  (Speaking of that film, Wilder can’t help but joke about his contentious working relationship with Marilyn Monroe by incorporating a cameo of a lookalike, playing up the actresses’ bimbo qualities to an exaggerated degree).   

On a thematic level, THE APARTMENT works as a satire on the utter absurdity of modern urban life.  Wilder fills the film with snappy little vignettes, like Baxter battling with the ridiculous amount of contacts he’s amassed on his rolodex, or wearily cycling through increasingly inane television channels– the cumulative effect being an insightful reflection of the white collar rat race, where workers are busier than ever before but yet aren’t actually producing anything.  Indeed, the ones with the most power are the ones who produce the least, bestowed with the rather meaningless title of “Executive”.  Baxter’s tireless quest to attain this coveted title for himself dovetails neatly with Wilder’s tendency to write characters whose principles and values are primarily defined by their profession.  Because the professional responsibilities implied in their job title are nonspecific by nature, the executives featured in the film have lost their moral anchor, and have taken to running around on their wives instead of actually doing any work.  Being of decidedly middle-class stock, Baxter desires to join this old boy’s club but only has the use of his dumpy apartment (and by extension, the forfeiture of his privacy) to offer in trade.  Even as he climbs the corporate ladder to become an executive in his own right, his middle-class background still boxes him out from truly joining the inner circle, leaving his status low enough to have to regularly contend with blue collar brutes like Fran’s brother in law.  Even after he gets his name on the door, he still has to go home and strain his spaghetti through a tennis racket.  

In the corporate world, attaining the rank of executive is both the result of merit-based and political machinations, similar to the military.  And just like the military, executives wear a uniform– the dark flannel suit– to identify themselves as Masters Of The Universe.  While the men are preoccupied with blending into the crowd with their three-piece suits, Fran refuses to allow her own elevator girl uniform to take away her individuality.  At one point in the film, she cautions Baxter that’s she’s more than just her job: “Just because I wear a uniform doesn’t mean I’m a girl scout”.  This stance illustrates why Fran is the most nuanced and realistic character in the film, casting her as a reflection of American culture’s collective turning away from the conformity of the postwar era to embrace the individualism and the expression of alternative ideas that marked the 1960’s.                   

THE APARTMENT’s influence on cinema cannot be denied or understated– its place within Wilder’s legacy is rivaled only by SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) in regards to the cornerstone works of American filmmaking.  It was a bonafide commercial success, despite the unapologetic treatment of risque subject matter turning off a substantial portion of critics.  Come Oscar season, THE APARTMENT racked up a slew of nominations and several wins– LaShelle’s cinematography, Alexandre Trauner’s production design, and Daniel Mindell’s editing were all honored.  Wilder himself won his second Oscar for directing, in addition to a win for his screenplay and The Big Win of the night– Best Picture.  This would be the last time he was honored with the gold statue for any one project in particular, and while the Oscars are hardly the final arbiter of a film’s contribution to the art form, this fact lends credence to the argument that THE APARTMENT is Wilder’s last master work.  

Wilder would go on to create excellent films in the decades to come, but none of them could ever quite manage to recapture the brilliant magic of THE APARTMENT.  The film’s legacy as a signal for the looming sexual revolution was validated when the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1994.  Even now, the film possesses tastemaking qualities that have far outlived the time of their creation– Wilder’s enduring vision of a corporate America driving itself mad with lust and ambition has served as a key reference for a wide variety of contemporary works, from Sam Mendes’ AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) to Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN television series.  Any way you slice it, THE APARTMENT is one of the most important films ever made; a definitive portrait of mid-20th century American life and social values, as painted by one of the century’s most influential artists.

THE APARTMENT is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.


Produced by Billy Wilder

Written by Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond

Director of Photography: Joseph LaShelle

Production Designer: Alexandre Trauner

Edited by: Daniel Mandell

Music by: Adolph Deutsch


  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. Via Wikipedia: Chandler, Charlotte. Nobody’s perfect: Billy Wilder : a personal biography.