“The location is a character in its own right in this movie”. How many times have you read a similar statement in a film review? How many times did you hear a screenwriter, actor or director utter words to that effect in a promotional interview? It is a tried and tested way to play up the setting (or set design) of a movie, a clichéd comment that has become a staple of both film writing and promotion.
I don’t know if the makers of The Apartment (1960) ever used the same line to describe the eponymous dwelling “in the west sixties, just half a block from Central Park” (1). If they did, it worked. Because Alexandre Trauner and Edward G. Boyle won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction and Set Decoration in a Black-and-White Movie for their work.
In this video essay, published originally by MUBI, the apartment really does get the starring role. Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and all other visitors to C.C. Baxter’s bachelor pad have cleared the way for the rooms themselves to shine… All human presence has been scrubbed from Billy Wilder’s movie: their appearances erased, their voices replaced by a soundscape. (If you want a visual reminder of what The Apartment was like when it had inhabitants, you can watch the “before and after” montage of this video essay).
However, this video essay’s main goal is not to put a tired promotional trope to the test. It wants to function as a movie memory palace. The Apartment is a beloved classic that is widely seen and known. But what remains of the film’s essence when it is reduced to nothing more than its locale?
Do these empty rooms conjure up joy, because we remember Wilder’s unique brand of gracious humour? Does the deserted hallway fill us with giddy awkwardness at the memory of the movie’s many romantic entanglements? Or is the sight of this site (without the radiant Shirley MacLaine and without the affable Jack Lemmon) one of sadness and melancholy? And what if you’ve never even seen the film, what feeling do these uninhabited rooms evoke then?
Some viewers’ gaze may feel at ease in this vacant apartment. Other viewers will feel the need to fill its void with memories of Wilder’s movie, or with emotions of their own making. Be my guest.
(1) Three minutes into the movie, this is how Jack Lemmon’s character C. C. Baxter vaguely describes the street address of his apartment.
This video essay includes clips from:
The Apartment [feature film] Dir. Billy Wilder. The Mirisch Corporation, USA, 1960. 125 mins.
The music used is: