Billy Wilder’s ‘Apartment’ filled with wit and wonderful characters

The list of writers able to express themselves in a language not their mother tongue is short. One thinks of Vladimir Nabokov, mastering English after publishing a number of well-regarded novels in Russian, and Joseph Conrad, of course. But what about Billy Wilder, who came to the United States in the 1930s, knowing hardly a word of English, and became one of America’s great stylists of vernacular prose?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of what is perhaps Wilder’s most elegantly formed study of American failings, foibles and dreams, couched as the story of a man ascending the corporate ladder sideways. “The Apartment,” which won the Academy Award for best picture of 1960 (the second of Wilder’s films to win that award), is a clash of moods, the bittersweetness of its tone bumping up against the remarkable verve of Wilder’s dialogue. The mixture should make for an unmitigated disaster; instead, it resulted in a masterpiece. “Nobody’s perfect,” as the memorable closing line of his “Some Like It Hot” has it, but when it comes to punchy, forceful writing, has anyone ever come closer to perfection than Wilder?

A young journalist and screenwriter on the make in 1920s Vienna and Berlin (he claimed to have interviewed Sigmund Freud, Richard Strauss and Arthur Schnitzler on the same day), Wilder fled Germany soon after the Reichstag fire in 1933, eventually winding up in Los Angeles, where he finagled a job as a studio screenwriter. His English was poor, but his drive to succeed was strong. Coming up with a brilliant twist on boy-meets-girl (the two meet in a department store, where he is looking to buy just the bottoms of a pair of pajamas and she just the tops), Wilder held the idea in reserve until wangling a meeting with the resident genius of the romantic comedy, Ernst Lubitsch. Wilder got the job writing the film “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” and soon transitioned into a career as a writer-director — one of the first in Hollywood.

By the time of “The Apartment,” Wilder had been directing for nearly two decades, with a string of successes including 1944’s noir classic “Double Indemnity,” 1945’s best picture-winning “The Lost Weekend” and 1959’s “Some Like It Hot.” With “The Apartment,” the deranged hyperbole of Wilder’s cross-dressing comedy gives way to a muted, more cynical kind of humor.

Wilder was inspired by David Lean’s classic romance “Brief Encounter,” wondering what a movie about the man whose apartment the lovers tryst in might be like. “The Apartment,” though, is substantially more than that. It is a wintry movie, its protagonists’ chill a product of too much time spent outdoors in freezing weather and too much time spent indoors in workplaces distinctly lacking in warmth. It is those white-collar blues, set in an office whose boozing and carousing will remind contemporary viewers of “Mad Men,” that give the movie its bite.

The film cribs the famous opening shot of King Vidor’s “The Crowd” to set a mood, tracking along an endless row of desks in an aircraft-carrier-sized office before arriving at C.C. Baxter’s desk. Baxter ( Jack Lemmon) desperately wants to separate himself from the crowd, but his only resource is the home-based house of ill repute he has inadvertently founded. The job Baxter is paid for takes a back seat to the juggling of a dozen executives’ extracurricular love lives, passing out his apartment key to an array of straying husbands. Among them is that of his boss, Jeff Sheldrake ( Fred MacMurray), whose paramour turns out to be Fran Kubelik ( Shirley MacLaine), the same pixieish elevator operator C.C. has had his eyes on.

“The Apartment” is like the sauce at the Chinese joint Sheldrake and Fran regularly have dinner and drinks at — sweet and sour. The sweet comes from the halting, stop-and-start romance that grows between C.C. and Fran as he nurses her back to health after a suicide attempt. The sour comes from Sheldrake and his merry band of middle-aged Don Juans, wooing another in a never-ending fleet of willing working girls before catching the 7:14 to White Plains.

Sheldrake is a smooth talker — the kind of guy who always gets what he wants and good-naturedly steamrolls anyone standing in his path. C.C. and Fran are the schnooks who stand in the way of his pursuit of happiness and are flattened as a result. “Some people take, some people get took,” Fran observes, and it is abundantly clear that she and C.C. belong to the latter category. C.C., we realize, is too soft to ever cut it as an executive — or a womanizer. He retains too much decency — a problem his fellow executives do not have to worry much about.

Abundantly confident as a writer, Wilder plays with English, twisting it inside-out for comic effect. C.C.'s next-door neighbor (Jack Kruschen, Oscar-nominated here) speaks a vinegary brand of Yiddish-inflected English. He suggests that Fran “settle down instead of noshing on sleeping pills” and chides Baxter for his late-night shenanigans: “Such a racket I hear at your place. Maybe you have burglars?” Soon enough, C.C. is getting into the act too, sounding more like a greenhorn than a rising executive: “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise,” he tells Fran.

Working in the register most comfortable to him, Wilder is freed to indulge his inner Lubitsch. The bit of business whereby a compact with a cracked mirror passes from C.C. to Sheldrake to Fran, giving C.C. a hint of their secret romance, is a wonderfully economic example of the Lubitsch touch. So is the tennis racket C.C. uses to strain his spaghetti. But where Lubitsch preferred silent visual touches, Wilder favors the sharp tang of one-liners. Even the film’s closing words serve as proof of his acidic temperament: “Shut up and deal,” Fran tells C.C., ending on the perfect note of bruised romanticism.

Wilder’s films always preferred the trampled-upon small man to their ostensible superiors, granting them the gift of his dialogue as a means of evening out the world’s inequalities. Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter is part woebegone weakling, part conniving schemer, his efforts to ascend the corporate ladder halting at best, but his sharply observed self-awareness makes him heroically ordinary.

With “The Apartment,” Wilder had found an ideal alter ego in Lemmon and would go on to cast the unassuming leading man in five more films, including “The Fortune Cookie” and “Avanti!” The director’s later years would be synonymous with Lemmon, whose battered decency and plainspokenness were ideal Wilder traits. “He was my Everyman,” the director would later say of him. C.C. is our Everyman, too, and “The Apartment,” which has so much to tell us about romance, the rat race and life in the big city, hardly seems to have aged a day. Take Fran Kubelik’s advice, and just shut up and watch.

Saul Austerlitz’s book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy” is being published in September by Chicago Review Press. He’ll be reading at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Tuesday.