THIS MONTH IN FILM HISTORY: O Brothel, Where Art Thou?

A scene from The Apartment . Photo by Jack Harris. Courtesy of United Artists/Photofest. Copyright United Artists

by Kevin Lewis

Billy Wilder could be the poster boy for why America should remain a nation of immigrants.  In a succession of original masterpieces for the screen, including Double Indemnity(1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), A Foreign Affair (1948), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), the immigrant writer/director/producer from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire understood the American experience more clearly and more dispassionately than most of his native-born colleagues in the Directors Guild.  But it was truly through a glass darkly: Even his sparkling comedies were film noir.  Ironically, when he attempted to explain the American character in an upbeat fashion (his examination of Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis, 1957), the result fell flat.

Wilder won three of his six Oscars for The Apartment: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Story and Screenplay (Original), and also received the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1988.  He was a 1930s refugee Jew from Third Reich Germany, whose very existence depended upon an anonymous visa official in Mexico in 1934, who allowed him to enter the United States with the promise that Wilder would make good movies.  Wilder’s family–– including his mother––was later exterminated by the Nazis.

He was the logical successor to another emigrant director, Ernst Lubitsch, for whom Wilder co-wrote screenplays, including the immortal Ninotchka (1939).  The Austrian Jew and the German Jew understood the master and servant roles of Mittel Europe and the attendant corruption, whatever the political regime.

The Apartment, an original screenplay by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, is an update of the operatic plots of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro to reflect the then-current corporate America.  Jack Lemmon plays C. C. “Bud” Baxter, a junior executive at a major insurance underwriting corporation, who is promoted by his boss, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), for making his brownstone apartment available to his circle of married executives––and himself––for their after-hours trysts with the company secretarial pool.  The complication is that Baxter is in love with the elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who is the married Sheldrake’s mistress.  Like Figaro, Baxter is the wily servant who has to outwit his lecherous, entitled master to preserve his integrity.

Of all his creations, The Apartment is Wilder’s most influential and greatest film.  Fifty years after its release in June 1960, it was the inspiration for the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage musicals How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1961 and Promises, Promises (which was based on The Apartment) in 1968, as well as the films Days of Wine and Roses (1962), starring Lemmon as an alcoholic corporate executive; Save the Tiger (1973, also starring Lemmon); 9 to 5 (1980), Wall Street (1988); and the current television series The Office30 Rock and Mad Men.  Sexual harassment wasn’t even an issue when The Apartment was released.

The film has its own classic final line, “Shut up and deal,” referring to the gin rummy game in which the reunited Baxter and Fran finally complete in the apartment.  If nobody is perfect, [Billy] Wilder is the closest we have to perfection.

Wilder also expanded the role of the film editor.  He promoted his primary film editor from Paramount, Doane Harrison, to associate producer on his films, and hired Daniel Mandell from Goldwyn to be his primary editor––so he had two top editors overseeing his films.  Mandell was an interesting choice because he was admired for his seamless editing of the intensely emotional films directed by William Wyler at Goldwyn. His editing career can be characterized as running from Wyler to Wilder.

Although he was not known for comedy, Mandell often remarked in interviews that he learned timing and audience reaction––laughter, shock and surprise––from his days as a vaudeville acrobat with his brother.  Though one smiles with amusement when Some Like It Hot and The Apartment (and the other Wilder film with an apartment, 1955’s The Seven Year Itch) are mentioned, with a different directorial and editorial slant they could easily have been melodramas.  In fact, the heroine of The Apartment, played by MacLaine, does attempt suicide in the apartment, and Some Like It Hot’s musicians in drag are marked for death.

Mandell was accustomed to a lengthy editing schedule, especially when he was editing a Wyler production, and Wilder gave him the same respect and space.  He won his first two Academy Awards for the Goldwyn productions The Pride of the Yankees(1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), the latter directed by Wyler.  His last five films were Wilder productions, including his third Oscar win for The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie (1966), the last film he edited.  Mandell’s sensitivity to the emotional texture of the characters enabled Wilder to switch gears from film noir to black comedy to slapstick in a few frames, without jarring the viewer.  Interestingly, when Mandell was no longer editing Wilder films, Wilder never made a critically acclaimed or popular film again.

Alexandre Trauner was a legendary production designer and set decorator in Europe until his death in 1993.  His Oscar-winning work for The Apartment reflected his European background in Expressionist design.  The chilling anonymity of the rows of office desks where Baxter works was actually cribbed––with Wilder’s acknowledgment––from King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), also about office despair.  According to the story told by Trauner, he designed the crowded, endless desks from a vanishing point, or forced perspective.

The extras who peopled the desks were progressively shorter and smaller, until the back rows were populated by dwarfs.  According to Wilder’s publicity director Tom Wood in his book, The Bright Side of Billy Wilder, Primarily (1970), the office was built in exact perspective.  “We had tiny desks at the back with dwarfs sitting in them,” the director told him.  “And then, further back, tinier ones still with cut-outs operated by wires.”  The black-and-white cinematography of Joseph LaShelle made this image of powerless conformity unforgettable.

Indelible also is the accurate seedy West Side Manhattan apartment where Baxter ran his corporate brothel––tiny cubicle rooms cramped full of clothes, books, a worn-out mattress, etc.  Practically everyone remembers the scene where Baxter uses his tennis racquet as a spaghetti strainer.  Three years later, Wilder reunited Lemmon, MacLaine and Joan Shawlee (the head of the secretarial pool) for Irma la Douce (1963), about corporate commerce of the oldest kind.

And like Some Like It Hot with its kicker quote, “Nobody’s perfect,” The Apartment has its own classic final line, “Shut up and deal,” referring to the gin rummy game  in which the reunited Baxter and Fran finally complete in the apartment.  If nobody is perfect, Wilder is the closest we have to perfection.  And we are still shutting up and dealing with his priceless insights into the human condition.