Analysis of ‘The Apartment’

The Apartment is a 1960 comedy produced and directed by Billy Wilder, who also wrote the screenplay with IAL Diamond. The film stars Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray, with Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, David Lewis, Willard Waterman, David White, Hope Holiday, and Edie Adams.

The film received widespread acclaim, and was the eighth highest grossing film of 1960. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Film Editing. Lemmon, MacLaine, and Kruschen were all nominated respectively for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor; Lemmon and MacLaine won Golden Globe Awards in their categories.

The Apartment is considered one of the best movies of all time, ranking at #93 in the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies, which then moved up to #80 for the 10th Anniversary Edition. It ranked at #20 for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs, and at #62 for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions. The quote “Shut up and deal” was nominated for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

The film’s central premise, that of an upwardly-mobile insurance clerk named CC “Bud” Baxter (Lemmon) allowing his senior coworkers to use his apartment to have extramarital affairs, is on many levels symbolic of capitalist exploitation. He often stays in the office late after normal working hours are over, working without overtime, because one of the men above him is fooling around with a woman in Baxter’s home, meaning he has to stay out until they leave.

This sense that his home is not really his home reminds us of another aspect of capitalism: landlords’ ownership of one’s home, putting one in the potential danger of being kicked out and thrown into the street. Indeed, early in the film, Baxter finds himself temporarily homeless one winter night because Mr. Dobisch (Walston) on short notice has picked up a woman in a bar who “looks like Marilyn Monroe,” and so he needs the use of the apartment; Dobisch also gives back the wrong key to the apartment, leaving Baxter out of his home even longer. Having been out in the cold, he ends up getting sick.

Why does he let these men walk all over him? If he doesn’t, his hopes of climbing the corporate ladder are sunk. Again, the cutthroat world of capitalism drives this pressure to compete. At the beginning of the film, Baxter’s is one among a sea of desks in the office, where the lower-ranking employees work; later, when promoted, he has his own, coveted office, but Dobisch, Kirkeby (Lewis), Vanderhoff (Waterman), and Eichelberger (White) all want the continued use of Baxter’s apartment, implying that if he doesn’t let them, they’ll bring him down just as surely as they brought him up.

Fortunately, Baxter will have the protection of his boss, Mr. Jeff Sheldrake (MacMurray). Unfortunately, that protection will come at a price–a spare key to Baxter’s apartment, so Sheldrake can bring his mistress there. To make matters worse, this mistress also happens to be Baxter’s crush at work–elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine).

The mistresses personify yet another aspect of capitalism: the exploitation of women. In a society that promotes worker alienation, it follows that women will be used for men’s sexual sport rather than appreciated as human beings. Dobisch et al are not only using Baxter as a kind of pimp; these married men are also using their mistresses as if they were prostitutes.

Their encroaching on Baxter’s apartment and his use of it in his free time is perfectly symbolic of how capitalists exploit the worker by extracting surplus value from him to generate profits. His apartment is symbolically (as well as literally, of course) what the office building is literally: private property, a place the capitalist uses to exploit workers and make profits from. Baxter’s home is thus a double for his place of work.

Even when at home alone, he still has capitalists intruding on his private life. He turns on the TV, hoping to enjoy Grand Hotel, a film starring Greta Garbo in which she says the famous line, “I want to be alone,” a sentiment with which Baxter surely would sympathize. The problem is that before the film even gets a chance to begin, it is interrupted by the program’s two sponsors.

His philandering boss’s and senior coworkers’ use of his apartment, symbolic of the extraction of surplus value, is significant in how this use of it is for sex, which shows how Marx can be fused with Lacan. Plus-de jouir, a term Lacan coined to express an aspect of his notion of jouissance–an excessive and transgressive indulgence in sexual pleasure–is derived from Marx’s notion of surplus value: one gains a sinful excess of sexual pleasure (i.e., cheating on one’s wife), just as a boss cheats the worker of the fruits of his labour (surplus value).

Still, a countercurrent is going on in the story. In spite of all the worker alienation we see going on, Baxter’s crush on Kubelik is the beginning of a bond slowly developing between the two. As coworkers, Baxter and Kubelik will build a mutual fondness that can be seen to symbolize worker solidarity.

This development is far from being a smooth one, though. First, when they have arranged a date to see The Music Man at the local theatre, she stands him up because Sheldrake, of whom she is–unbeknownst to Baxter–the latest in a string of mistresses, is taking her to the apartment.

Baxter forgives her for this because he’s happy to have been promoted and to have gotten his own office. Later, he returns a compact with a broken mirror to Sheldrake, knowing it belongs to his mistress because it was left in the apartment (in an argument with Sheldrake there, she threw it at him and broke it). During a Christmas party, after Kubelik has heard a drunk and chatty Miss Olsen (Adams), Sheldrake’s secretary and original mistress, tell her of all the women their boss has enjoyed, from Olsen to Kubelik, this latest, and heartbroken, mistress reveals herself as such to Baxter by letting him use that broken compact mirror so he can see how he looks in a new bowler hat he’s bought, now that he’s of executive status.

Marx and Lacan are again fused here in the form of alienation. Lacan’s mirror alienates one’s fragmented self (symbolized by the broken mirror) from the ideal-I in the specular image. Baxter would see his ideal-I (the new executive) in that hat in the mirror reflection, but the break in it shows his realization that he isn’t so great, because Kubelik is Sheldrake’s girl, not his.

Alienation from oneself in the mirror reflection can be seen as symbolic of alienation from one’s species-essence, as Marx called it. Kubelik’s heartbreak over falling in love with a married man who dangles promises before her of divorcing his wife so he can marry Kubelik, yet never keeping the promises, is an alienation of herself from herself, because she realizes she’s being used as his whore, when she’d rather see herself as his true love. Small wonder she likes how the broken mirror makes her look how she feels.

Not aware of the depth of her heartbreak and despair, and assuming she’s content to be Sheldrake’s mistress, Baxter leaves the Christmas party and goes to a local pub to drown his sorrows. A married woman there named Margie MacDougall (Holiday) gets his attention, hoping he’ll pick her up since her husband is stuck in Cuba over the holidays.

In a strange irony, Margie complains about Fidel Castro, calling him “a no-good fink,” for not releasing her husband, Mickie, from a Havana prison (a jockey, he was caught doping a horse). I bring this up because Cuba under Castro would provide largely universal housing and free healthcare, two benefits that could have helped Baxter avoid catching that cold, and could have freed his home from being a haven for his coworkers’ infidelities (Castro’s first name thus embodying yet another irony).

Baxter finds himself lowered to the level of lecherous Sheldrake, Dobisch, et al, taking Margie to his apartment for a tumble. He is experiencing a nadir of alienation, making him use a woman for his sexual sport (and helping her cheat on her husband), when deep down he just wants to have a real relationship with Kubelik. Another irony is that his neighbours and landlady assume that he’s an alcoholic ladies’ man, when it’s those other men that are drinking and philandering in his apartment.

Kubelik is in his apartment, too, to his surprise, since she’s had another argument there with Sheldrake earlier over his continued unwillingness to divorce his wife. Heartbroken, Kubelik has overdosed on sleeping pills and is lying on Baxter’s bed, unconsciously awaiting death.

Baxter has to kick Margie out and get his next door neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss (Kruschen) to help revive Kubelik. It’s interesting how, in the process of helping her to recover, the sense of alienation is fading away, to be replaced with a sense of solidarity.

Dreyfuss assumes, as does her gruff taxi driver brother-in-law (played by Johnny Seven) later on, that Baxter has taken advantage of Kubelik, when actually he has been a perfect gentleman with her. He and the doctor nurse her back to health–with the help of the care and cooking of Mrs. Dreyfuss (played by Naomi Stevens), who also assumes the worst of Baxter–and he even plays the role of housekeeper for her as she recovers, suggesting the feminist ideal of men helping around with the household duties.

In all of these actions, which include the doctor not requiring any payment for helping Kubelik, we see, in contrast to all of the exploitation of the upper-level coworkers of Baxter, Kubelik, and the other women (all symbolic of capitalist exploitation), communal acts of kindness and charity symbolic of socialism (recall what I said above about that “no-good fink,” Castro). This growing relationship between Baxter and Kubelik is the solidarity that will free them of Sheldrake et al by the end of the movie.

A crucial part of this growing relationship, in the symbolic sense, is the gin rummy game Baxter and Kubelik play. What’s ironic about this game is that he is playing with her, but it isn’t ‘playing’ in the sense that the other men are playing with their mistresses. A genuine bond is developing between Baxter and Kubelik as she tells him, during the card game, of her bad luck in love, not just with Sheldrake, but with a number of men before him.

Baxter listens sympathetically, which is just what Kubelik needs. He has also told her about a suicide attempt he once made with a gun over similarly unrequited love for a woman who sends him a fruitcake every Christmas. In this growing mutual empathy, we see also their growing solidarity against Sheldrake and the exploitative capitalist system he represents.

On the other side of this growing solidarity and camaraderie between these two employees, there is also their growing attitude of rebelliousness against the philandering men who still want to use Baxter’s apartment. Kirkeby and his telephone operating mistress are rebuffed at the door to the apartment; Kirkeby and the other men get their revenge on Baxter by helping Kubelik’s brother-in-law find her at the apartment, where he punches Baxter for having apparently soiled his sister-in-law’s honour.

Baxter doesn’t mind the punch, though, since Kubelik’s kiss immediately afterwards tells him that she’s growing feelings for him, too. This encouragement will inspire him, on the doctor’s advice, to “be a mensch,” and give up his pimping use of the apartment…even to his boss.

Sheldrake has learned that it was the loose lips of his tipsy secretary at the Christmas party that pushed Kubelik to the desperate swallowing of those sleeping pills, so he fires Miss Olsen. She gets her revenge on him by telling his wife about his many affairs, so Mrs. Sheldrake kicks him out of the house. As we can see, this conflict between him and Miss Olsen, as with the conflict that’s growing between Baxter and Kubelik on the one side and Sheldrake on the other, is symbolic of the contradictions between the bourgeois boss and the proletariat.

The worker is promoted as a reward for his obedience to the powers-that-be, not so much for his abilities. We see this when Sheldrake promotes Baxter to an even higher position…expecting the key to the apartment in exchange.

Baxter, in love with Kubelik and sick and tired of being used for his apartment, defies Sheldrake by giving him the wrong key…the one to the executive washroom instead of the one to his apartment. This deliberate giving of the wrong key is an ironic repeat of Dobisch’s accidentally giving Baxter the executive washroom key instead of returning the apartment key. The sexual symbolism of a key going into a keyhole is obvious: in the use of Baxter’s apartment key, the adulterous men are screwing their mistresses (and their wives, metaphorically); they’ve also been screwing Baxter out of the use of his own home; now, Baxter is screwing Sheldrake back.

At a New Year’s Eve party in the Chinese restaurant, Kubelik is surprised to hear from Sheldrake that Baxter has quit because he refuses to continue acting as apartment pimp for his now-former boss, especially if such pimping involves her. Now, she could go the traditional route and marry rich Sheldrake (only to be replaced in turn by future mistresses). Instead, realizing that unemployed Baxter truly loves her, she runs out of the restaurant when Sheldrake isn’t looking and goes to Baxter’s apartment.

There, the popping of a cork on a bottle of champagne sounds to her, out in the hall, like a gunshot; she’s relieved when he opens the door with the bottle and with no bullet in his head. Again, we see growing sympathy as indicative of growing solidarity and love.

She learns that he is moving out of the apartment: indeed, the memories of the pimping have made the place unattractive. The two sit down and get out the deck of cards. He professes his love to her, but she’s sick of hearing the mere words of love–hence, her famous ending line.

Playing that game of gin ironically expresses true lovemaking, not the lewd acts of the lecherous playas and their mistresses, but a real making of love, a building of a relationship of mutual support and solidarity, symbolic of a union of workers in defiance of their exploitative bosses.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s