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You know, it’s that old story of boy meets girl … girl is dating boy’s married boss … girl tries to commit suicide … boy saves girl’s life …. Okay, that sounds pretty dark. But somehow it’s the basis for a classic romantic comedy, Billy Wilder’s 1960 film, The Apartment. The film raises the question of how we distinguish authentic relationships from relationships of utility and convenience. What cultivates human intimacy? What compromises it? When are we just using people? Wes and Erin analyze.
Cover art is based on a French poster for the film.
The conversation continues on our after-show (post)script. Get this and other bonus content at by subscribing at Patreon.
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Thanks to Tyler Hislop for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: We’ve been friends for a year, and I know you know a lot about film, which is just something that happened growing up right. You haven’t formally studied it, but…
Erin: No, I haven’t. My grandfather was known throughout his group of friends on the block for being a really big film buff, and he kind of got me into it. I was… well, it is kind of a bigger story than that. I guess you could say I got really sick with what turned out to be a blood disease when I was 12, which is like a whole story. I’m totally fine now. But it was an opportunity for me basically to stay home from school for two years, and I couldn’t do very much because I was really tired all the time. And so I just watched TCM like, for two years straight, practically, and my grandfather would come over and watch movies with me or bring me some of his movie books so that my watching TCM nonstop could be enriched with his many resources. And we would talk about the movies and I started getting into reading, you know, film, literature and film books, and that’s kind of where it officially began. That’s when I really became crazy and, you know, like, one is Rita Hayworth for Halloween when I was 13…
Wes: [laughter] That’s great.
Erin: …and everyone thought I was Marilyn Monroe and I was so offended. So, yeah.
Wes: That’s great. I did not have the same experience growing up. I was watching whatever was in the theater or whatever it was on HBO, basically. But when I got to college, I met someone who grew up watching old films and knew a lot about old films. And so I got introduced to these films that way, including Billy Wilder, who… It was my friend’s favorite director, and I think you said he’s your favorite director as well, right?
Erin: He’s certainly my favorite writer, my favorite screenwriter.
Wes: Okay, And why is that?
Erin: Well, you know, it’s interesting because I think of him as a writer before I think of him as a director. And I think that that’s kind of a fair assessment. Even as a director, I think he’s just infinitely more interested in story than in image. You know, the way we would typically think of a director, like Hitchcock, is being more interested in the image on the screen.
Erin: Even one might say, more interested in line than in story, in lines of dialogue. So his writing to me is really what makes his movies great.
Wes: So he had been a journalist. I mean, he has a… It’s really interesting because he immigrated. Well, he’s originally from Austria, right?
Erin: Yeah. Yeah, born in Vienna.
Wes: Yeah. Moved to Berlin, became a screenwriter, but he had been a journalist and most of his films, right, are… is it most or all are written? He wrote them as well, or…?
Wes: Sometimes the co-writer? One of the things I learned looking into the background for this was that he had a brother who’s a filmmaker as well. W. Lee… William Lee Wilder.
Erin: Oh, I didn’t even know that.
Wes: Responsible for such hits as Manfish and The Man Without a Body. [laughter]
Erin: Oh! [laughter]
Wes: Wait. Let me make sure this is true. But did I dream this? Or this is actually…?
Erin: It sounds like a dream.
Wes: He is the brother of Billy Wilder… [laughter] Sorry.
Wes: So yeah, we had the chance recently to see The Apartment on the big screen, which is the first time I had ever seen it that way.
Erin: Same with me and I almost want to talk about… I’m going to resist the urge, I suppose, to talk about the audience’s reaction to the apartment in that particular screening that we were in, but I think some elements of it were kind of telling it was amazing to see it.
Wes: Are you…? What are you thinking of, first and foremost?
Erin: One particular scene in the film. The reaction to it, I thought was…
Wes: …the slapping on the face.
Erin: The slapping.
Erin: The slapping. And, kind of, what that means for the larger themes of the film. And I think there’s an argument to be made that maybe Billy Wilder is contemptuous of women. There’s a whole school of thought there.
Wes: One of the things I learned looking on IMDb… because I had the same… I don’t think we’ve discussed this, but I had the exact same reaction. Well, I was kind of surprised by the audience’s reaction. So she is…
Erin: I was, too.
Wes: …has taken a bunch of sleeping pills, and they’re trying to revive her. And so the doctor, who is also the next door neighbor of the protagonist, whose name I forget…
Erin: Dr. Dreyfuss.
Wes: Right. Dr. Dreyfuss. Yeah, good name, like all the names in this movie. He’s trying to revive her, so they’re giving her coffee and walking her around, but one of the things he does first is smelling salts, and then he slaps her in the face a few times. And one of the things I learned is that those are real slaps and that the whole scene was choreographed by doctors that he had on set. So saying, how would you revive someone who’s tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills and this is what they set to do, and they also said they did that scene in one take, I think, with the slapping and they said, “Well, if he didn’t slap her hard enough so you should reshoot it” And Billy Wilder refused to do… to reshoot it. They seem pretty hard to me.
Erin: They seem really hard. I’m surprised that someone would have a problem with it being that hard.
Wes: It’s harsh. It’s startling. The audience reacts with laughter. I mean, my instinct wasn’t to react with laughter, though, and that’s why I noticed that so much.
Erin: The reactions were also… there was a lot of gasping. You could tell that there was this kind of indignation from the audience at what the doctor was doing, which was incredible to me. And the audience is gasping in sort of disbelief that “Oh my gosh, you know, this doctor is hitting a woman.” It just seems to me to be completely misplaced. And then the laughter, too, the uncomfortable laughter was also kind of unsettling.
Wes: It’s interesting that we had such similar reactions because I was sort of caught up more in the drama of the moment, and I mean, I guess it’s probably a product of our times, right that people are… there’s a heightened sensitivity to those sorts of interactions,
Erin: Sure, and yet not to the much more severe and disturbing interactions between Fran and the Boss character, played by Fred MacMurray, whose name escapes me at the moment. And even between Jack Lemmon’s character, Sheldrake. Another great name.
Wes: Even though this question didn’t occur to me explicitly, I was thinking a lot about Jack Lemmon’s character, C. C. Baxter, who, on the face of it, is a womanizer, that’s what Dr. Dreyfuss thinks he is, and someone who’s constantly having women over to his apartment. Of course, we really know that he’s just lending out his apartment to other men in the office so they can have extramarital affairs, basically, which is, you know, morally compromising in its own right. But the question is whether he is another decent character, and you seem to be suggesting that maybe decent isn’t the right word for him.
Erin: Well, you know, I think it’s interesting that we only really hear his motivation for how he got into this predicament in the first place. First the tail end of the film, when he talks about how one of his co-workers used his apartment as a place to get changed. It started out rather innocently that Baxter’s character was just using… It was kind of doing this guy a favor by allowing him the use of his apartment. And then word got around that he had this apartment that was available in a convenient area. You know, you think sort of from the beginning that he must have been making his apartment available, you know, explicitly for the use of these extra marital affairs. You don’t find out how it started until he sort of recounts everything at the end of the movie. So the placement of that is odd, too, because you have slightly more sympathy for him when you discover how it began. You know, he wasn’t just offering his apartment to people as a place for a tryst from the outset. So I don’t know that we’re supposed to think he’s a decent character.
Wes: The impression I had gotten… So I rewatched the movie since we saw it on the big screen, just to… you know, I knew I would not remember. But you know the impression I had when we saw it together recently was that his rent had gone up and that he couldn’t afford to live there without letting people have these trysts there. Of course, that makes no sense because he’s not charging them.
Wes: But he does mention the rent going up, that has no connection, so… And you do get the impression during the film, even though he says, “I’m not very ambitious, I have a cozy little apartment that’s just right for a bachelor, but I can’t get into it whenever whenever I want.” That’s part of his voice over at the very beginning of the film. It does seem like he’s letting people in his office use it so he can advance his career, basically, get a promotion.
Erin: Yes, yes. And you do have these great shots at the beginning of the film that establish the almost dystopian look of the office in which he works.
Wes: Yes. Yeah.
Erin: And actually, I read… I don’t know if you read the same thing, but the trick that he played visually, that Wilder played visually, which was really smart, to have children in smaller… succeedingly smaller desks in the back so that the room would appear to go on forever, almost to the vanishing point.
Wes: So they didn’t have the actual space, too. So it’s the… you know, the office itself in which Baxter works is just… it’s this massive open floor plan with men and women at their machines. I guess they’re doing calculations, right? Are they actuaries? Is that what they are?
Wes: They are an insurance company, and he wanted to make this illusion of a massive office space. And he didn’t have the real space to do that. Yeah. So he did this thing with perspective where he had the desks get smaller and smaller and and, at a certain point, transitions from adults to children. During my second watching, I was trying to… I was looking for the children in the back, [laughter] watching that scene, but… and the very, very back it’s actually like puppets or something. It’s not even children, but it’s a great kind of thematic idea as well to juxtapose the somewhat… Whether you think of the apartment as cramped or cozy, you know, will depend, I guess, it could be it could be both, and maybe it goes from one to the other. But that’s sort of contrast between this very open space and then the apartment, that really is thematically interesting, I think.
Erin: Yeah. You have sympathy for him, seeing him in this, you know, heartless corporate atmosphere.
Erin: As one of… you know, a drone, trying to do anything to make his way to the top. But I wonder how much sympathy we’re supposed to have for that, because I don’t have much in terms of how he goes about succeeding, though it seems as though this is one of the only ways you can succeed or get noticed in this company.
Wes: So the movie starts with the voice-over of him giving these actuarial statistics so that you get the impression that he’s very nerdy and preoccupied with detail. And it sort of lends itself to his general obliviousness, which we’ll get into. And then we see him in the office. You know, one of the cogs in the machine, although there’s this great moment where all the typing is happening in rhythm, and he just very briefly starts bouncing his head to that. I don’t know if you remember that.
Erin: [laughter] I do.
Wes: And gets that sort of look of unexpected pleasure on his face, which is… he also has during a scene when he’s in front of the TV [laughter] and they’re announcing the stars who are going to be in the movie.
Erin: Oh yeah, in Grand Hotel. So great! So many great stars in that movie. That’s like the exact reaction that I have [laughter] when I hear a list of stars in Grand Hotel, as I often do.
Wes: His eyes get successively wider and…
Wes: …and then, of course, he’s disappointed by the… interrupted by the ads, but…
Erin: [laughter] That’s like maybe my favorite moment in the whole movie.
Wes: Yeah, it’s funny. It goes to Jack Lemmon’s strength as a comic actor, but I find him an odd choice for leading man. But I guess I have trouble thinking that, you know, someone like him would be a leading man, even in a comedy these days, because of his… or at least the way the character has done… maybe it’s not Jack Lemmon, but maybe it’s just the character, the passivity of the character, the obliviousness, the… you know, as you pointed out, the sense in which maybe we can’t call him decent, exactly.
Erin: Taking a step back in my mind here, to think about Jack Lemmon as a film figure or his persona in film. I suppose there’s the character of Baxter, and then there’s Jack Lemmon himself. And as movies so often do, they play on our familiarity with, and our love of the persona to sort of carry the character over even his most unlikable moments. Maybe thinking of Baxter as someone who we’re supposed to just like is kind of the wrong angle to go in on, because it’s Jack Lemmon. So we’re supposed to like him in spite of how terrible he is, or maybe even because of how terrible he is, because he’s Jack Lemmon doing his Jack Lemmon thing, whatever that is. But it’s, you know, it’s… I think you’re right. It’s that nerdiness, that odd-couple kind of persona that he has.
Wes: I read that, sort of, Billy Wilder’s philosophy was to not try and, you know, have actors overextend themselves, but to sort of, I don’t know if play themselves exactly. They’re not trying to be method actors like us, drawing on the strengths of their personalities.
Erin: Right. Which is what I love about Wilder and what I think he really understands about the movies, and what makes this movie is so enjoyable to me in the fifties and sixties, when you have this onslaught of method acting, and with Wilder… I don’t know. What I want as a moviegoer is to see the personas that I like doing what they do well. And I think Wilder understood that. That’s another sort of philosophical [laughter] thing that we could get into in terms of talking about, like, the persona and what that means. But I have definite opinions about all of these things, which may be wrong, but there to my own taste.
Wes: Even if they’re wrong, they’re interesting, [laughter] but… yeah. So let’s go back first to what it is about Lemmons’s use of the word “terrible”, “how terrible he is,” the phrase “how terrible he is.” What is terrible about Baxter as a character?
Erin: We get the impression that he’s a… how can I put this nicely? An opportunist. He’s willing to do what it takes to climb the corporate ladder, irrespective of any kind of morality. He doesn’t mind, and perhaps even enjoys the fact that his neighbors think of him as being a Lothario, because they hear the noises coming from his apartment and assume that it’s him having multiple affairs sometimes, you know, two a day, and he seems to take some pleasure in that. Would you say that he takes pleasure in it? I don’t know. He doesn’t mind that they think this.
Wes: Yes, I think he does take some pleasure in that, in being thought of to be a ladies’ man, or as he says at another point in the film, a notorious sexpot, I think. [laughter]
Erin: Yeah, the fact that he uses that term also [laughter] makes him a terrible person.
Wes: Sexpot. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] It’s such, like, a 1960 dirty word, but… Yeah. So you know, he doesn’t seem to have any… I mean, as I think, a lot of Billy Wilder’s characters don’t have the sense of an interior moral compass that they’re guided by. They’re almost never… shall we say, they have expediency on their mind, always, And it’s never affected by any kind of internal sense of right and wrong on the part of the character. Until, you know, we could say, in The Apartment until the very last moment, because until shockingly late in the film, even having a suicide attempt in his apartment, he’s still trying to save face for the Sheldrick character.
Wes: Right. Right.
Erin: He’s turned around, and when it does happen, you know it comes from his love of the Shirley MacLaine character and not his sense that what Sheldrick has done has been deeply wrong on any kind of objective level. Just that he’s hurt the Shirley MacLaine character in particular. There’s no moral objectivity in Billy Wilder. There’s only expediency and love of individuals, I guess you could say.
Wes: Yeah, I mean, I have in my notes this phrase “passivity is decency,” which I’m not sure… or “decency is passivity,” which I’m not sure exactly what I meant now, but so I think my moral compass is compromised. [laughter]
Erin: I think that’s a really smart observation. Or the two coexisting in any of the… like the scenes in the Chinese restaurant, I think, are so good for that reason, like the true, like, you know, festivity and the true meaning of the word, and then seeing all the sort of layers of interaction that are happening in those scenes. Or in the bar, when he [laughter] when he dances with…
Wes. Oh, this is great.
Erin: Oh, so good.[laughter] The married Mrs… whatever her name is, his…
Wes: Margie… Or Marjorie…
Erin: Marjorie something. Do we know her first name?
Wes: We do. We know what…
Erin: We do? Okay.
Wes: We learn her last name. Mrs. Margie McDougall,
Erin: Right. And for Mr. MacDougal, a prisoner in Castro’s Cuba.
Wes: Who she’s going to have beat up Baxter, because Baxter [laughter] didn’t allow her to stay in his apartment for their trust or so.
Erin: Oh, gosh.
Wes: But go ahead. Yeah, the scene in the bar.
Erin: I mean, when I think of the apartment, I think of two scenes: the tennis racket scene and then the New Year’s Eve celebration at the Chinese restaurant with the confetti and streamers on everyone’s heads. And I always think of what a nightmare that would be to clean up the hats, Sheldrick wearing that ridiculous hat and being totally taken with the festivity and totally oblivious to the fact that Fran Kubelik is not enamored with anything and having a really terrible time. And this is only days after she has had her stomach pumped and everything else, so…
Wes: Yeah, days after she’s had her stomach pumped, his wife has just left him. Most of the men in this film are utterly repellent, and he’s repellent. But this at this moment it gets like just sickening, his level of opportunism and insensitivity, you know, and because he was completely unsympathetic to her suicide attempt and just sort of chastised her, and that was it. And he’s only with her because his wife left him and has also told Baxter that he’s going to enjoy his life as a bachelor for a while. I think, he says, “Happy New Year’s, friend,” right, as, you know, it’s New Year’s, right. “So happy New Years.” And then he himself is oblivious to how uncomfortable the situation is or how morally compromised, maybe, the situation is and then turns around for the festivities and then when he turns back to her, she’s gone.
Erin: I think oblivious is a word that can be applied to basically all the men in the film, except for Dr Dreyfuss. They’re all operating under some sort of complete disregard for what the women are actually experiencing. Even the obliviousness of Mrs McDougall there doesn’t really compare to Baxter’s obliviousness in that moment. He sees that, you know, Shirley MacLaine is in his bedroom and is then trying to get Mrs McDougall out, but he’s not listening to anything that she’s saying, and he’s not… he sort of doesn’t realize the situation he’s gotten himself into with her passivity and obliviousness. Where do those two converge in him?
Wes: That’s a good point. I mean as, yeah, there’s two competing forms of obliviousness at that point between Margie McDougall and Baxter, which I hadn’t thought of, and that’s interesting.
Erin: We feel sorry for her in that moment, too. I mean, she says to him, I think, at some point, like, “Well, where am I supposed to go?” She was supposed to stay over with him in the apartment and… Yeah, I mean, I guess that’s what everyone is constantly asking him when he kicks them out of the apartment. “Where am I supposed to go?” Nobody in this film wants to pay for a hotel room. That’s what I took away is that everyone is so cheap.
Wes: Why the need to take over someone else’s abode for this? I think that says something important [laughter] beyond not wanting to pay for a hotel.
Erin: Yeah. What is that?
Wes: I mean, there’s something, you know, when Margie walks in, she says, “Wow, Snugsville!”, [laughter] which is one of the… like the jarring bits of silly slang that are in the movie, Snugsville. And it is kind of… I think the apartment itself is kind of a… It’s kind of snugsville. The way it’s decorated, it’s kind of warm, and it’s not antiseptic, like a lot of the relationships are no way antiseptic that go on in the film. But the apartment itself is cozy. There’s the word I’m looking for: cozy. And it was, you know, I read that it was decorated like… Billy Wilder actually used some of his own decorations on that set. I think he was trying to cut corners in all sorts of different ways, you know. And there’s Tiffany lamps in there, and it’s not, you know, it’s not what you imagine a typical bachelor pad to be. It’s not like it’s… It looks like it has a feminine touch, exactly, but it’s not like a typical bachelor pad. It’s such a small place like that, you know, maybe it’s the illusion of intimacy that people are after with that, that you don’t get with a hotel.
Erin: You know, regarding the hotel, I think of something like the graduate. You know, the Benjamin Braddock character in The Graduate as being, maybe, kind of like a child of Jack Lemmon, in terms of movie personas in a lot of ways, with the awkwardness and passivity. But the scene where he meets Mrs Robinson in the lobby of the hotel and there’s the party going on, some company party going on, and so he runs into all of these old ladies. There’s that awkwardness, I guess, of carrying on an affair in a hotel that Mike Nichols, as the director, really kind of highlights. The question of, well, you show up to the hotel and Benjamin doesn’t have any luggage, and then he makes a show of oh, he’s going to go into the car and get his luggage and comes back and sort of like, you know, pat his chest pocket and so I have a toothbrush in here, you know, And the matter of what to put on the guest registry. What name to put down. You know, all of these things, I think, as being kind of really similar to what might be in a Billy Wilder movie, when you have to deal with the awkwardness and the reality of actually carrying out an affair in a hotel, the interacting with other people and the justifying it to yourself and everything. You know, it’s more real, versus just showing up to some office drone’s apartment and knowing that at most you’re going to have to run into somebody in the hallway and that’ll be it. But they don’t even have the… you know there’s the key exchange through the couriers in the office, but for the most part they’re just putting the key underneath the mat outside of Baxter’s door. You don’t have to see anyone. You don’t have to talk to anyone. You don’t have to worry about people, you know, seeing you at a hotel or something. So maybe that’s some element of it, that there’s even less accountability in carrying out an affair in someone’s apartment than there is in a hotel and less on the man that he has to do in order to carry it out.
Wes: You know, the women that these men are with, it seems pretty clear that they know that they’re married men and that these are trysts. So the Kirkeby character, I think it’s that one, when he’s outside the apartment, his date says something like, “Have you been having other girls up here?” and he’s like, “Are you kidding me? I’m a happily married man.”[laughter]
Erin: Yeah. [laughter] Yeah, that’s one of the great lines.
Wes: That’s such a great… There’s a seediness, right, to the hotel thing, and there’s a chance to enjoy the transgressiveness of that, if that’s what you like. But there’s also a chance to get depressed by that.
Erin: And they have to face it…
Erin: …in a more tangible way when you have to sign a hotel registry or something.
Wes: But there’s also, you know, there’s the question of intimacy and wanting the illusion of that, which I think the apartment provides, wanting to do this thing where you are not just having a openly utilitarian sexual relationship but masking it, giving it the illusion of some sort of intimacy, giving it the illusion of some sort of romance. And the alcohol can… you know, they’re always showing up champagne or…
Erin: Yeah. In glasses. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. Martinis in the glasses [laughter] as he gets out of the cab, which is also great. Yeah, to provide some illusion of romance and connection to something that doesn’t have that.
Erin: Well and think also of the… I think you’re absolutely right. I think also the fact that, you know, there’s that answer room before the bedroom, you know? I mean, of course, it’s a living room, but it might just be an answer room for the purposes of the people who use the apartment. You know, you walk into a hotel room and the majority of the hotel room is a bed. In the apartment, you go in and there’s a couch and there’s a TV, and, you know, you set up your glasses and your champagne and there’s a little bit of preliminary, there’s a little bit of the promise of, like you say, of this intimacy, of this real relationship. And then the bedroom.
Wes: Emotional foreplay.
Erin: Exactly. Yeah, I was going to use the word foreplay, but then I thought, well, you know, not maybe not really. But yes, emotional foreplay, for sure. And then the apartment set. I’m sorry, the bedroom of the apartment set, sort of in the shadows in the back, like always there, always in the frame, but, you know, door open, door closed, you know, depending upon what’s going on in there, that in the same way, it’s sort of always in the back of the mind of the guy who’s in there with the woman, you know, like, “Okay, how can I most easily finesse this so I can get her through that door?” You know, with whatever I’m going to do in the living room so that, you know, you can…I can play it off as though we’re having this romantic evening. But ultimately, the bedroom door is like the goal post, right, to put it in a totally disgusting way. But, um…
Wes: Yeah, I mean, disgusting is really… that’s a lot of what’s going on in the film. It’s, um, no matter how libertine you might be, it’s just really hard to not feel repelled [laughter] by all of it. It all just unfolds without any internal moral judgment within the film, which is as it should be, because that would undermine it dramatically.
Erin: You know, to go back to what we were saying earlier about the idea of the moral compass, we think of Hollywood movies under… at least I do, under the production code as being hemmed in by this kind of sense of moral judgment imposed upon the film by the production code, by good old-fashioned American values. And so I was thinking, you know, as we were talking, maybe it’s to the film’s credit that Baxter doesn’t have any kind of interior moral compass that we can discern. Wilder’s vision of the world is fundamentally amoral, and thus his choice at the end then becomes that much more profound that you know he’s not going to choose against good and bad; he’s going to choose between material and spiritual in a way, or loving someone versus not loving them.
Wes: Being a nebbish and being a mensch.
Erin: ..and being a mensch. That’s it. Yes. Thank you for…
Wes: Dr. Dreyfuss’s formulations.
Erin: …for giving me that. Yeah. Dr. Dreyfuss, who is the moral compass, maybe, in the film, and his wife, who is just the ideal chicken-soup-making Jewish mom.
Wes: [laughter] Yeah, she was nurturing…Yeah.
Erin: Great. Yeah. But back to earlier, in talking about the disgustingness of the film, it struck me, at some point… does he say it about the blonde woman who’s in the apartment the first time, that she looks like Marilyn Monroe. Who says that?
Wes: So that’s a scene when he gets called by Mr. Dobisch, and Dobisch is in the bar with the Marilyn Monroe lookalike.
Erin: Yes, that’s right. And that’s when they come out of the cab with the champagne glasses…
Erin: …that they’re drinking from. That really struck me. I don’t know if it’s struck you in the same way. But Wilder was coming off of Some Like it Hot.
Erin: And the pitiful sort of nature of this woman and her similarity to Marilyn Monroe… you just think, you know, if Marilyn Monroe were in this movie, she would be one of the women who is being taken up to Jack Lemmon’s apartment.
Wes: Right. Well, she wanted to be… Apparently, she told Wilder at a party that she had wanted to be the Kubelik character, that she wished she had been chosen to be the Kubelik character. Of course, I think he was fed up with her by the time he got off Some Like it Hot, right? He didn’t like working with her,[laughter] and it’s hard not to see… the scene in the film is kind of a… you know, it’s not just the joking reference to her, but it’s kind of a jab at her. I don’t know. I might be over-reading that. But, she says… so she’s very drunk, and as Dobisch is on the phone, she comes up to the phone booth and is tottering and then knocks on it. And, you know, when he opens the door, she says, “I’m getting lonely” in the Marilyn Monroe voice. Of course, which is… yeah, it’s sad, I think. I don’t know if that’s the word you use, sad or pathetic, or…?
Erin: Yeah, yeah, it is. I think of one of my favorite moments in the film for the Kubelik character when she says that the broken mirror… she likes the fact that it’s broken because she looks the way she feels on the inside. That’s a line I’m sure that Marilyn Monroe would like to have delivered or felt or…
Wes: I think that might be the first time, the nast, and that’s right near the middle of the movie, where the unpleasantness becomes explicit. She’s in pain because normally she’s a very kind of sprightly, smiling-eyes type of character. But she’s been pained because another… someone else in the office, Miss Olsen, has basically told her about Sheldrake’s serial womanising and so she knows that she’s just another one of these many women. And so she’s in a lot of pain, and this is during the office party, and she’s learned that in between the time that Baxter kind of grabs her off the elevator, in which she’s in a pretty good mood to come have a drink with him before they get to his office. So she’s in pain, she’s got that pained expression on her face. Baxter, as usual, is oblivious to it, and finally, he sees the mirror, and that’s when he gets it. She makes that remark, I mean, he gets it, of course, because he’s seen that mirror before in his apartment. But it’s hard not to think that he also gets it because he’s been shown this very obvious visual representation of her situation. This is before he’s going to go to the bar right and get really drunk and have all that stuff with the March Marjorie character. But I think it’s the first time we see… you know, he’s got this look of shock and distress. I think that’s the first time we see anything really profound, maybe, out of him as far… emotionally. That’s unpleasant. Most of the time he’s running around being oblivious or goofy, or maybe he’s irritated about apartment stuff. Here he gets genuinely depressed.
Erin: I mean, in Some Like it Hot… It would be interesting to watch that alongside this film, because I think that Wilder has a lot of fun with Marilyn Monroe in that movie, meaning she’s often the butt of the joke. I don’t think, though, that the Shirley MacLaine character… I think that Fran Kubelik has a lot of dignity in this. I don’t think that she’s ever the butt of the joke in that way, and I think that’s why… I mean, this is my favorite Wilder film by far because of the humanity of the characters. She doesn’t seem to me to be pathetic at all. She has a lot of dignity that very few other Wilder women have.
Wes: Well, you’re going to be much more of an expert. I mean, even though I’ve seen almost all of his films, it’s been so long, so I don’t have the memory, unfortunately, to compare. You’d have to do that for me. But it would have been impossible for Marilyn Monroe to play that character. I mean, speaking of sexpots, I mean, it’s not a sexpot type of character…
Wes: …and I don’t know that Marilyn Monroe could have done that. I might not know enough about her actually to make that judgment, either. But the Fran character is very well defended, as a psychoanalyst would put it. She’s not obviously wounded in a way that… is Marilyn Monroe obviously wounded? But whether or not Marilyn Monroe is that way, she’s got a genuine vitality about her, and happiness, even though we find out later on that her and Baxter have a lot in common, you know, she’s ended up with the wrong men. In a way, she’s unlucky and then you see that kind of reinforced in the gin game or the rummy game they’re playing, where she keeps losing. The idea of them both being kind of losers… It becomes the thing that starts to bond them. But, yeah, I think you’re just getting at your point about her decency as well. Maybe it’s not right to say Dreyfuss is the only decent character. I think she’s… you know, even though she’s doing something which itself is also lacking in moral compass by dating Dreyfus, just her persona, her…
Erin: Dating Sheldrake.
Wes: Sheldrake. Sorry.
Wes: Dreyfus. [laughter] Yeah. She, you know, she comes across as fundamentally a good person.
Erin: Yeah, yeah. No, I think you’re right. I mean, I think I think Dreyfuss, in terms of male characters, for me, is the only decent one.
Wes: Yeah. Right.
Erin: But she certainly has a lot of decency. I think what you say about her being unlucky is really important. Maybe this is a terribly superficial thing to say. But looking at Marilyn Monroe, no one would think her to be unlucky in any way.
Wes: [laughter] Yeah. Yeah.
Erin: Shirley Maclaine is perfect for this role because she isn’t a knockout. She is… I mean, I do think of Marilyn Monroe as being a wounded kind of person, and one could make the argument that the way that she looks could be perhaps part of her unluckiness, you know, only being seen in a certain kind of a light, never being seen in the way that she wants to be. But what makes Fran so complex as a character is the fact that she smacks more of ordinary womanhood. You know, she’s sweet and she’s plucky and she’s certainly attractive. But there’s nothing particularly remarkable about her, physically or perhaps intellectually. I mean, she’s certainly clever, but she may be more of an everywoman than Jack Lemmon is the classic everyman, which he always plays. She seems, therefore, to have just a lot more pathos for me as a character, because she’s the everywoman who happened to be dealt this really bad hand, whereas Jack Lemmon is the everyman who maybe is dealt the same hand as everyone else, and that’s part of what makes him so maddening in his passivity. I think of MacLaine, in this film, as being unlucky, where I think of Jack Lemmon’s character as being on his way to being a mensch, but not there [laughter] but not there yet, no more nor less lucky than anyone else as part of his state.
Wes: Yeah. No, that’s interesting, because the association I just had, is to the fact that luck is an actuarial concept.
Wes: The whole casting the movie in the beginning in terms of circumstance, and this lends itself to the idea of passivity, “Oh, I’m just subject to circumstances,” but also to, you know, your idea that I think it kind of connects up to people approaching life, you know, in terms of expediency. There are opportunities, there are lucky moments, and you take them or you don’t. And to the extent that you have a conscience or moral compass, you become unlucky, you interfere with your luck. Thinking about Fran’s situation where she’s ended up with the wrong guy. You know, it’s not her decency, exactly, [laughter] that drives that and then they, you know, they bond over that, it turns out he’s had a suicide attempt as well, although it’s an accidental attempt, where he shoots himself in the leg, and and that was over unrequited love.
Erin: And also a point of attempts at hilarity in the movie. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. I’d have to think more about this whole luck factor, but I think it’s important that that luck and conscience butt up against each other, in the sense that you close off possibilities, you lose lucky opportunities, like getting lucky. You’re not going to get lucky, maybe as much or at all, if you’re to the extent that you have a moral compass. And I find that interesting. And the way they, you know, the way they bond. So after… there’s that whole 45 minutes of… we’re almost entirely stuck in that apartment with them while she recuperates, which I don’t know, I found that kind of claustrophobic in the film. I don’t know if you do, I’d start to get antsy with all that. There’s a few cutaways to Sheldrake, but mostly we’re in the apartment, and for the most part, Baxter is kind of depressed through all of that, and we don’t see him liven up again. He will liven up again and get kind of elated and that happens after he says he’s been living like Robinson Crusoe, alone, and it seems to occur to him that he’s happy just to have company, which is, of course, something that has not really happened in the film to this point. No one’s really been in each other’s company in any real sense up to that point. But at this point they’ve been forced to spend enough time together. I mean, is that what it takes in the modern world to [laughter] have a suicide attempt and the recuperation to be forced into a position…?
Erin: And Gin-Rummy. That’s a big part of it, too.
Wes: Right. Right, of course. Right.
Wes: The last line will be “Shut up and deal”. The “You need another activity,” of course. And it can’t be explicitly sexual, or directly sexual. It has to be a sublimating activity. It has to be a redirection of those energies.
Erin: And the destraction of the mind to almost a free… to free up the emotions.
Wes: I found that really interesting. We have to… we go through almost 45 minutes of horribleness in the apartment, and then Baxter is revived. I’m looking at my notes a little bit more because… he tells her about his suicide attempt. Yeah, that’s the other thing. It’s the remark about being like a hermit. And then something about the fact that he’s shared that with her, that very personal detail.
Erin: Another element, which I’ve forgotten about until now, reliving that whole scene with the two days of recuperation, is when Fran’s brother-in-law comes to pick her up. And Jack Lemmon ends up getting punched by the brother-in-law and he says, “Oh, you know, don’t worry about it. It didn’t hurt a bit.” That seemed to be sort of an interesting… you know, you always get these punches in movies that seem like necessary punches, where the person getting punched sort of wakes up.
Wes: Yes. Yes.
Erin: Bringing them into the physical realm with a good punch does everybody a bit of good. Is that the moment at which he realizes that he’s going to… we know it’s not, because he later gets the…
Wes: That’s the plot point that gives us a transition to the third act and then the third act he will…
Wes: He’s planning to go up and tell Sheldrake that he’s going to take Fran off of his hands, which is a delusional way to approach all of that, also repellent.
Erin: Yes. Right.
Wes: And then finds out that he can’t do that and then gives up again, momentarily.
Erin: Well, because Shelldrake is going to take her off of Baxter’s hands. [laughter]
Wes: Yes, will get that reversed.
Erin: Which is, you know, clever, verbally, that they used the same terminology and one of the great Wilder dialogue moments when, when he rehearses it to himself and then Sheldrake comes out with almost the exact same bit of dialogue, which we could talk about a little bit. I mean the dialogue in this and the cleverness of the certain recurring…
Wes: The wise…
Erin: …modes of… the wise. Yeah, “otherwise, and this wise, and that wise…”
Wes: “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.” Or “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise”, she says.
Erin: Yeah, “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.”
Wes: A double call back…
Wes: That’s another element in the movie, which gives us the sense of something mechanical and impersonal that’s just grinding on, right. It starts with Kirkeby speaking into a dictaphone and saying “premium-wise and billing-wise were 18% ahead of last year, October-wise.”
Erin: Yes, October-wise. Yeah, good.
Wes: Obviously, it’s trying to get at some of the soullessness of this contemporary knowledge work and some of the meaninglessness of it, and it pervades the way that people talk about things. So Kirkeby will later say, “if Kubelik, she won’t give me a tumble, date-wise..” and Baxter, you know, when he’s going up in the elevator, he thinks he’s getting a promotion, says to Fran, “You’re carrying a precious cargo. I mean, manpower-wise”, all of that sort of stuff.
Erin: That ties into what I was telling you before we started recording about David Thompson and his great Biographical Dictionary of Film, which I just picked up and read through a little bit because I don’t think I have ever read Thompson’s entry on Billy Wilder and was really shocked to discover that Thompson is not a Wilder fan and that soullessness of which you speak, I think it works so well in this movie because of the actuarial culture, let’s call it. But David Thompson would say, I think that it’s all Wilder, that the soullessness is one of Wilder’s faults as a writer, that he’s sort of all gags and punch lines and that there’s very little underlying humanity in his movies. Like, for instance, his movie One, Two, Three, which was kind of a failed movie of his from the sixties, underlines Wilder’s merits and failings. And the film is an exercise in comedy, fast enough to manage on puns, wisecracks and double meanings alone. Thompson feels as though he kind of defaults into these verbal exercises as a way to cover up the fact that he has no inherent human feeling. [laughter]
Erin: It’s really [laughter] it’s a real attack. It’s kind of amazing.
Wes: What do you think of it?
Erin: You know, it’s funny because I I agree with him and I don’t agree with him. I’ve never liked Some Like it Hot, and I never really knew why. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of Marilyn Monroe, admittedly, and I find her to be not as charming as some people think she is.
Wes: Well, nobody’s perfect.
Erin: Right. Nobody’s… That’s true.
Wes: Right. That’s the last line of the movie. I think.
Erin: I think that was the tagline on Billy Wilder’s obit, by the way.
Wes: Yeah, yeah, yeah, It’s on his gravestone. Yeah.
Erin: Oh, is it? Oh, that’s great.
Wes: It says, “I was a writer, but nobody’s perfect.” Something like that. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] That’s great. Like Thompson says about Some Like it Hot, he says, “It’s a dazzling verbal comedy well played by Curtis and Lemmon. But compare it with the best group all of the thirties and see how necessary the stream of jokes is to conceal the indifference to character or meaning.”
Erin: “It’s 90-odd minutes of jokes based on one ingenious situation, without any attempt at dramatic progress or culmination. Yet in hindsight, we can see how much that film did to unsettle gender confidence.” So it gives them that. It’s true, though, because, you know, as a lover of 1930s screwball comedies, more than anything else, I see the emptiness, perhaps the paucity of Some Like it Hot compared to those great ‘30s screwball comedies with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne and Roz Russell and Kate Hepburn, and and all of those greats, that they do seem to have more meat to them in terms of character and situation and everything, whereas Wilder’s tendency as a writer’s director is to go from gag to gag, from verbal setup to verbal… or to punch line. And yet that failing works really well in The Apartment, because of the idea that these are people who are nickeling and diming people, they’re assigning… I don’t know what actuaries do, they’re assigning dollar values to people’s lives, maybe. So it kind of works in the same way.
Wes: And the insurance company, by the way, is called Consolidated Life, which I think is great.
Erin: [laughter] Consolidated Life. Yeah, that’s perfect! That’s perfect Wilder, you know. But this kind of ties in with my idea of a film personas, as, you know, the best performances for me are characters that often kind of dovetail with the, you know, the equipment that an actor has naturally, the way that they look, the way they speak and the film role as being kind of born out of an actor’s strengths as well as their failings and playing those failings to their advantage. I think that Wilder and The Apartment, this is… these are his failings working to his advantage, perhaps. I mean, Thompson would call them failings. I don’t know if other people would agree with that, but this idea that maybe his earth sensibility here is fundamentally actuarial or something and it works best with that kind of backdrop, with the soulless backdrop, and then the human element can flourish from this dead atmosphere or something.
Wes: That is really interesting, because now I’m thinking about… because of the amoral authorial approach, I guess, -maybe that’s not the right way to put it- I have the same Billy Wilder’s films. They don’t… you know, I can’t say that they would be among my favorites, really, or that… I think the seventies is more my style. [laughter] So Rosemary’s Baby and Annie Hall and a bunch of other seventies films. I don’t know why then.
Erin: I hate to be that person, but Rosemary’s Baby is ‘68.
Wes: Yes, I know. I always do that.
Wes: I actually tweeted about Rose… was it tweeting? or I put something on Facebook, or I might have even mentioned it in a pod… another Partially Examined Life podcast. And I made the same mistake, and I got angry, people angry that I had gotten the wrong date, and correcting me on that. And I’m still doing it because I see it fundamentally as of that…
Erin: It is a seventies movie, though. Yeah. No, no. You’re totally right. And it’s Polanski.
Erin: Polanski, I think, almost just being seventies in every way.
Wes: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I don’t get the feeling out of these movies of something profound, or it’s not as… ultimately it’s not, say, as moving to me as a lot of other work. Which is not to say that there isn’t… you know, he’s got a very typical dramatic arc in here, and it’s a movement towards human intimacy. So you can’t really deny that in this film, and even the use of this “wise”, you know, what you’re talking about “this wise” and “that wise”. It’s used for a specific purpose, right more than comic purpose. So eventually, you know, he has Sheldrick say “you take a girl out a couple times a week just for laughs, and right away she thinks you’re serious, marriage-wise. Oh, no.” Baxter says that, but he’s pretending to be the womanizer that he’s not. He’s saying that to Dreyfuss.
Erin: Oh, when talking to Dreyfuss. Sure, Well, he has the language down.
Wes: So the idea that, you know, something about office life or the pragmatics of living infects relationships or undermines relationships, that’s there and that’s obviously intentionally there, thematically. It’s somewhat abrupt at the end of the movie, you know the transition… I mean, I think there are some subtleties to that we were talking about in the second act, when they’re in the apartment and they’re playing cards and they’re starting to build a relationship. It’s not like the ground isn’t set for that, but it seems a little abrupt and strange to have Fran suddenly run away from Sheldrake and go back to the apartment. But it’s not very emotionally satisfying to me. It’s there conceptually, but it’s not a point of great emotional satisfaction.
Erin: That’s one of Thompson’s problems with the film, too, that the sudden turnaround is completely unconvincing. But he picks a lot at Wilder’s right early sense in films and his lack of understanding of both the emotional and the visual, how those two things are tied pretty closely together. And yet I would say that in The Apartment that it’s probably his strongest film visually in terms of his, like, really great use of… Thompson mentions about… he’s talking about, I think, Sunset Boulevard, where in narration, which so many of Wilder’s films, you know, are relying on narration, in the narration of Sunset Boulevard, William Holden’s character mentions that Norma Desmond’s handwriting looks like the handwriting of a child, and Thompson says, you know, we never see a piece of Norma Desmond’s handwriting, you know. So this is like one of Wilder’s typical writerly tricks that has no business being on film. You say that in a story to mean something, but you have to translate that into film visually, in order for it to be part of the language of movie making, you can’t get away with something like that, and so he calls him out on it. But I think in The Apartment that marriage of the visual and the verbal works best of any of Wilder’s films, like the image of the tennis racket straining the spaghetti. You know, that’s such a great visual gag, and that’s something that I always say, “Well, how is he going to manage that every time he goes to do it?”
Erin: You know, it’s something that you think “well, that can only work on paper.” But then it does work visually in the film. Or the broken mirror. It’s such a great image that, you know, you think about when you think of that film and the office scene and the… it seems to me to have more visual moments that one can look back on than any other wilder movie that I can think of.
Wes: And there’s a great shot on the park bench when he’s locked out of his apartment where you get the use of perspective. You get an extreme perspective on the bench extending back into the distance. It’s a beautiful shot and there are lots of beautiful shots, which, as I learned doing background research, which he already knows, that he’s not known for what he does visually.
Erin: Right. And that may be more to the cinematographers credit than to his. But it does seem to be existing in the language of images more than the language of language.
Wes: He had the film editor on set for some reason. Well, it seems like it might have been a budgetary thing to minimize the amount of shots they had to take, so the editors were on set. I don’t know if that influenced it, though.
Erin: I think of Wilder’s career and, kind of, in two phases. A lot of his earlier movies were actually movies that I think of as his, were movies that he actually just wrote the screenplay. too. When he first came to Hollywood, in the mid thirties, he wrote two movies for Lubitsch and a few movies for Mitchell Leeson and this Howard Hawks’ movie Ball of Fire. And I think of them as being Wilder movies, and they’re not. They’re just written or co-written by him. And then I think of his later movies as being from Sunset Boulevard on. And he had a lot of clunkers mixed in there, which all directors do. You know, he had… I mean, I think Witness for the Prosecution, for instance, from ‘57 is a terrible movie. One, Two, Three from the sixties, also a very bad movie. And, oh, that… there’s another one with Shirley Maclaine, Irma la Douce, I think it’s called, is really bad. I loved it when I was a little kid, but it’s really bad.
Wes: Yeah. My friend who introduced me to all of this loved that movie. I think that might have been the first one we watched. [laughter]
Erin: Oh, really? [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Yeah.
Erin: I loved it as a kid, I think, because I love the costumes. I don’t know why else I would love it. But he’s someone with a really mixed legacy, when you think about it, when you examine film by film, he does have a really mixed legacy, and he’s someone who… you know, looking now at the amount of literature that comes out every year on Hitchcock, say, there’s no comparison. I mean, Wilder is someone who has really been overlooked of late, I think, and maybe there’s reason for that in terms of his flaws in him as a director that I guess Thompson picked up on. But I don’t know. I mean, you know, in… The Apartment to me, worked so well, in spite of or because of these supposed flaws, I don’t know. It’s difficult to say in terms of… if we want to give a postmortem on Billy Wilder’s whole whole career based on this one film. But something about his style, perhaps, is dated because of his writerly sensibilities. I think it’s what I’m trying to say, that maybe he is more dated than other directors.
Wes: Right. Yeah, I think that’s true
Erin: Than other great directors, I should say.
Wes: Right. Still better than Manfish, [laughter] his brother’s 1956.
Erin: Well. I don’t know. I’ve never seen it. [laughter]
Wes: Or Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons. [laughter]
Erin: Oh, God, is that one of them? Because he wrote… because Wilder wrote for Lubitsch Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife…
Erin: …in ‘38. So maybe that was some kind of…
Wes: This is 1960. Maybe… Yeah, maybe he’s…
Erin: Oh, that’s… that’s bad. [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] So that’s very well put. That’s interesting. Do we have anything else we want to head on before we…?
Erin: This was really fun.
Wes: This was great. The one thing I do want to mention, by the way, is that this is the 60th… today is the 60th anniversary of the office party scene. It was filmed on December 3rd, 1959.
Erin: No way!
Wes: They filmed it near the holiday so that everyone would be in the spirit and it was done almost in one take.
Erin: Let’s end with that. That’s the best… That’s the best end.
Wes: All those people making out, which is surprising. You know, if you haven’t seen the film before that a 1960 film has one hundred people making out in the office left and right at their Christmas party, but…
Erin: Well, that’s what I want to talk about, too. I want to talk about growing up, watching that movie and thinking that when I entered the workforce, all office Christmas parties would be like that. And what a let down my life has been since then.
Erin: That’s what I want to talk about.
Wes: Yeah, some people would say just the opposite, that we’ve made some progress. [laughter]
Erin: How dare you? I think that… [laughter] No, I’m not. I’m not being quite serious, but I mean, I don’t know, to a 10-year-old, thinking that that was like the height of sophistication…
Erin: …that when you grew up, you could make out at the office Holiday parties.
Wes: Yes, well, I have a whole set of expectations based on 80s movies that…
Erin: …never came to be.
Wes: Yes. Really skewed my [laughter] conception of human relations in a… Anyway, yes, So this was, like I said before, this was great.
Wes: Until next time.