The Timelessness of Loneliness: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment

 Billy Wilder made a career out of making timeless classics. From the noir groundbreaker Double Indemnity to the boundary-pushing comedy Some Like It Hot, his run cemented him as an all-time great. But it’s his five-time Oscar winning film The Apartment that unsentimentally tackled love, sex, and loneliness in modern America without knowing it would stay modern for at least fifty more years.

The Apartment was released in the summer of 1960. And with the new decade brought a new shift in the United States in the way we approached sex in film and culture. The Motion Picture Production Code (sometimes referred to as “The Hays Code”) was loosening its grip, and the cultural climate was slowly shifting toward the beatnik Bohemian culture and womanizing JFK years, from the straight-laced Leave it to Beaver facade of the Eisenhower era. The Apartment represents the meeting of these two eras with the classic stylings of Wilder’s filmmaking technique and his (and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond) boundary-pushing sense of humor.

The film follows C.C. “Buddy” Baxter, played impeccably by Jack Lemmon, a New York office drone with a bad cold who lets his superiors borrow his apartment for hours at a time to use the space to cheat on their wives. After a promotion from the big man Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) in exchange for a key, Baxter pursues the elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) without knowing that she’s the one meeting Sheldrake in his apartment after hours.

What follows is a sweet, but not too sentimental look into adult relationships. Following Hollywood’s Golden Age where falling in love was like sneezing, Wilder allowed the relationships to simmer, and wasn’t afraid to confront the realities of living a lonely life in the big city.

Wilder emphasized this by having cinematographer Joseph LaShelle shoot the picture in the Cinemascope/Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which was unconventional for comedies at the time and mostly used for large scale films. Wilder used this wide-frame and master shots to capture Baxter engulfed in the world around him. Including the famous shot of Baxter’s office lined with rows of desks and workers like an assembly line (a shot that was achieved through force-perspective on a soundstage at Goldwyn Studios, using smaller desks and persons further back and eventually cardboard cutouts).

Wilder doesn’t just stick to cinematic language to communicate the darker themes in his comedy, however. Fran has a brush with death when she takes too many pills after figuring out the full extent of Sheldrake’s affairs. While Baxter, who doesn’t usually take lovers (he’s at his lowest when he’s about to take a rare woman home from the bar to score), is jaunty and animated, Fran who can get sex on the regular, is suffering underneath–MacLaine plays Fran with the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen. Sex doesn’t solve loneliness, friendship does, and after the darkest moments of the film as Fran recovers from her suicide attempt, Wilder takes us to the kitchen where Baxter sings while he cooks for Fran.

“Do you usually eat alone?”

“No, no; sometimes I eat with Ed Sullivan,” Baxter gestures to the television.

Themes of loneliness in art are timeless when it comes to the human condition, but The Apartment hasn’t lost its relevance. While Baxter is alone in a large office filled to the brim with co-workers; and Fran, true to herself and affable, is still alone despite her relationship with Sheldrake. The plot advances when Baxter finds the hand mirror that Fran leaves behind in his apartment after an encounter with Sheldrake. He connects the mirror to her because the glass is fractured down the middle. It’s broken into two, “It makes me look the way I feel,” Fran said.

Many of us today have social lives that are completely lived online separated from the minutiae of our day-to-day work lives. Tweeting and updating Facebook posts into the largest void there is: the internet. Not to mention those who are tied romantically to their partners exclusively through the internet. At times there’s a distance between our emotional selves and the physical lives we live, whether it’s in-person or online. Offices have gotten smaller, but the vastness of the internet can keep us isloated. It’s our self-awareness that makes us human, but also makes us lonely; it fractures us from the material possessions and the physical relationships from the emotional sustenance we need. But every once and awhile, someone comes along to free us from that, be it online or in person.

In the end it wasn’t the promotion, the raise, or the executive bathroom that gave Baxter happiness, and it wasn’t the sex or the gifts from Sheldrake that fulfilled Fran. Billy Wilder crafted one of the greatest films of all time as a reminder that despite the odds one can find love and companionship in the massive machine. But he did it his way: wry, funny, satirical. This isn’t a fairytale, it’s a funny tale about sex, relationships, and loneliness. There is no sunset. Just two friends playing a game of gin rummy; “Shut up and deal.”