The Apartment, Billy Wilder
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Fluid Dynamics: Sexual Displacement in Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment’

Billy Wilder’s most savage of American comedies, The Apartment, skewers corporate culture and patriarchal structures while challenging viewers to read its spills and overflows as more than just accidents.

The Apartment
Billy Wilder
United Artists
15 June 1960 (US)


1630s, “a woman negligent or disordered in her dress or household,” of uncertain origin, probably related to Low German Slattje, Dutch slodder, dialectal Swedish slata “slut” (in the older, non-sexual sense). Cf. dialectal English verb slatter “to spill or splash awkwardly, to waste,” used of women or girls considered untidy or slovenly.

Online Etymology Dictionary

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is a film about displacement.


A lowly accountant in a giant insurance firm, C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), wants to “move up” the corporate ladder. To get promoted, he lends his apartment to the company’s executives so they can have illicit, adulterous sex. He’s dis-placed from his place. At this level, The Apartment presents what happens to a man willing to trade his placedness for a better job, a nicer office, and a more dashing hat (“it’s the junior executive model…”), but finds that what’s lost is his love. The notion that illicit sex threatens romantic love is an easy summary of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script, as it is for Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane in their 1959 film, Some Like It Hot. But the more difficult question has to do with a subtler displacement. 

Where in The Apartment are the fluids?

There are no scenes involving the labor of clean-up. No one does laundry, changes a bed, or fishes a condom out of a trash can. Consequently, the idea of the sexual issue – its wet remainder – is swept under the rug. Figuratively.

Displacement’s main thrust in The Apartment offers squirts, spills, and overflows in another place. The film is well-known as a corporate satire, but it’s also a study of the economy of the return of the repressed. And what’s repressed is not only the sexual act and its clandestine emissions: the film’s POV, often submerged by comedic touches, is relentlessly male and corporate, where women serve as playthings, convenient so long as compliant.

The Apartment (1960)premiered scarcely a year after Wilder and Diamond’s Some Like It Hot. The sexual innuendo of Some Like It Hot has always overshadowed that of The Apartment, emphasized by the presence of Monroe and the topsy-turvy romance plots that drive it. We know what the characters want to do, even before we find out with whom they want to do it.

In The Apartment, they are already doing it. Sex isn’t the film’s goal; it’s always already happening. It doesn’t take a complex, dangerous scheme to find a place to have sex. It’s as easy as finding the key under the doormat. The savagery that animates The Apartment doesn’t emerge from the plot so much as what it avoids. Where Some Like It Hot chases desire by avoiding death (at the hands of the Mob), The Apartment courts death by avoiding sex. Is there another romantic comedy in which the main characters have both recently attempted suicide?

Because of the Hays Code, sex, sexuality, and nearly all its physical manifestations were unavailable to film at the end of the ’50s. Some Like It Hot deals with sex through dialogue and visual cues: Monroe’s body, the ups and downs of elevators, etc. The winking is an in-joke no one misses. In The Apartment, sex isn’t aspirational but routine. Like the regimented corporate world Baxter details in the opening voiceover, executives bring their girlfriends to his apartment for timed assignments that must run on schedule lest someone miss his train.

Of the many ways Wilder and Diamond signal this diminished sexuality/intimacy is through a noticeable lack of fluids. Sex is, in the apartment in The Apartment, devoid of sexual emission. There are no dirty sheets, soiled beds, or spent condoms. The drying up of the act dries up the consequences of the act. We have to press this film to get it to leak out its dirty secret: all the married men we meet in The Apartment are committing adultery as often and as enthusiastically as they can. Women are selling sex for favors, for the promise of moving up in the world. And Bud Baxter is running a low-overhead brothel, the payment for which is his rise in the company.

This would be enough to establish The Apartment as a potent satire of ’50s patriarchal corporate culture, which the television series Mad Men would extend into the ’60s. But Wilder and Diamond aren’t finished. There are fluids in The Apartment, and they get spilled plenty. Indeed, in no other film do so many things get spilled. It’s not that drinks don’t, even in cinema, spill. There’s the famous “Hey, there’s a beverage here!” moment of The Big Lebowski, though if you check, the white Russian, magically, never leaves the glass. In The Apartment, they really get spilled. A lot.

The Apartment opens with a clue to C.C. Baxter’s place in the corporate hierarchy. Via voiceover, he offers statistics: the population of New York City (8,042,783), the size of the company he works for (Consolidated Life of New York, 31,259), zooming in finally on his desk on the 19th floor (section W, desk 861). When we first see him, he’s pecking away on an accounting machine, one insignificant worker drone in an endless hive.

As Baxter’s day ends, we learn that his biggest problem is not that he can’t go home but that someone else is already there. The opening apartment scene finds Baxter waiting in front of his building for Mr. Kirkeby (David Lewis) to finish his liaison with Sylvia (Joan Shawlee), a Consolidated Life switchboard operator. They’re getting dressed, and the mood is festive, though hurried. Kirkeby has a train to catch.

Baxter is tired; his place is littered with empty bottles, full ashtrays, and empty glasses, which he has to clean up. He heats and eats a frozen dinner. We cut to him in his pajamas, in bed, with no indication of changing sheets or acknowledging any other mess in his apartment. Before he can fall asleep, the phone rings. It’s another executive from the company, Mr. Dobisch (Ray Walston), calling from a bar. He’s in need of a place, having hooked up with a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe. Cue the visual pun and citation of Some Like It Hot. There’s no mistaking Mr. Dobisch’s motives: “I just want the place for 45 minutes…”

The first spillage occurs out front on the sidewalk, where Dobisch and Faux Marilyn’s arrival again relegates Baxter. Dobisch has, impossibly, carried four cocktails in the taxi. When he gets out, he asks Marilyn to pay the driver. She has to reach into his pants pocket, causing him to slosh the drinks and respond, “Watch those stingers!” There’s a concentration of sexual reference here that includes the cocktail (a stinger is cognac (brandy) and creme de menthe), Marilyn’s sharp fingernails, and the state of Dobisch’s arousal, evident in the drinks spilled: they’re all without ice. Dobisch’s stinger is up. This relegates Baxter to the park, where he sits on a seemingly endless bench that echoes the famous establishing shot of the office, framing the opening act with his insignificance, just another number, a C(arbon) C(opy) in the corporate world.

As the second act opens, someone is indeed leaking fluids. It’s Baxter, who’s caught a nasty cold, bearing a box of tissues (which at first appears to read “issues”) and sneezing constantly. The Apartment is unconcerned with the spread of germs—as invisible as the DNA in Baxter’s bed—and puts him on Fran Kubelik’s (Shirley MacLaine) crowded elevator, where she’s a target of the executives hunting “dates” in the office game park. Fran claims to be immune to colds, and after Kirkeby swats her rear and she threatens to shut the elevator on his hand, he notes that she’s also immune to his charms. As we’ll see, Fran is the only liquid with ice in it. Fran’s “ice”, if you will, blocks the easy flow of desire at Consolidated Life and redirects it in a new direction.

Baxter starts his work day but is too ill to concentrate. He phones Dobisch to inform him he’s left the wrong key under the matt. We’re following the same order of executives from the night before: Kirkeby, then Dobisch. Dobisch apologizes, not for locking Baxter out or having sex with a strange woman in his bed in the middle of a cold, rainy night, but for “that mess on the living room wall.” While the script reads, “You see, my little friend, she kept insisting Picasso was a bum—so she started to do that mural—but I’m sure it will wash off—just eyebrow pencil,” the film, leaving out everything after “mural” asks us to imagine what such a mess consists of (stingers?). Whatever it was, it was Bud who had to clean it up.

When Baxter determines he has a fever and needs to go straight to bed after work, he checks the apartment schedule and phones the next executive in the group, Mr. Vanderhoff (Willard Waterman), to reschedule. This prompts a short conversation in which Vanderhoff desperately tries to talk Baxter out of this disruption. On the surface, the phone call has the casual appearance of innocence (“But it’s her birthday! I already ordered the cake!”), repressing the sexual particulars. However, as with all the other scenes under consideration in The Apartment, the return of the repressed is fluid(s). Vanderhoff’s argument for getting the use of the apartment revolves around them. There’s the half-empty glass of water in the center of his desk, then his counter to Baxter’s self-prescription (bed rest): “You got a cold, you go to a Turkish bath. Spend the night there. Sweat it out.” For the men in this corporate culture, expelling fluids is the only way to get ahead.

Just when Baxter has the schedule rearranged so that he might go home for some much-needed sleep, he’s summoned to the 27th floor by Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), Director of Personnel. Anticipating his promotion, Baxter rides up with Fran, who points out that “it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy” and puts her flower in his lapel. But Sheldrake is on to him. He knows about the apartment, what goes on there, and who’s involved. Instead of a promotion, Baxter seems on the verge of being fired and perhaps arrested. Baxter counters that only four of Consolidated Life of New York’s 31,259 employees use the apartment (he counts only the men, not their female partners), so personnel should be proud that it’s a low percentage. Sheldrake isn’t having it, arguing that four apples in a barrel, no matter how large, is still a risk for a company “founded on public trust”. What follows is one of the great sight gags of the film and demonstrates the thesis of this essay in its clearest form:

Sheldrake: You realize if this ever leaked out—

Baxter: It won’t!

Baxter’s exclamation is pointed by his squirting of the nose spray he’s been using. And it’s not a little squirt, either. Wilder and Diamond’s script has: “In his vehemence, he squeezes the spray bottle, which squirts all over the desk.” It’s more, well, enthusiastic than that, spurting a good ten feet into the window blinds. What I’m trying to direct our attention to is the way “this” works in Sheldrake’s sentence quoted above. What is it? We know it’s sex, but The Apartment can never articulate it. However, the film has no desire to keep this inconvenient act repressed, so it displaces its messy fluids, leaking them out via other channels.

Sheldrake turns out to be playing another angle. He wants the apartment for his own use without competing with the others. Baxter complies, still eager to save his promotion. The budding romance between Baxter and Fran takes a hit when we learn that she’s the woman Sheldrake wants the apartment for. They’ve recently broken up, but Sheldrake hopes to rekindle their relationship. They meet at a Chinese restaurant, The Rickshaw, which was their favorite spot. The piano player recognizes her, and the waiter brings her usual drink almost before she can ask. About that drink… It’s frozen.

Here, the fluids in The Apartment reverse course and congeal, like Fran’s desire for Sheldrake when she realized he was using her and would never leave his wife. Fran is also staged in front of a giant aquarium, sitting inside its frame like a fish Sheldrake angles for. He assures her that things are different now, and that he will leave his wife. She succumbs to his charms and leaves with him, standing Baxter up.

We can spot Fran and Sheldrake kissing in the back of a cab. The film cuts to Baxter standing forlorn in front of the theater. Bud doesn’t know that Fran is about to have sex in his bed with Sheldrake. Do first-time viewers even recognize this? If not, it’s because the first half of The Apartment works to repress sex and sexuality not only for reasons of compliance with the Hays Code but also for a fragile fantasy of romance that it will more seriously question in its second half. In other words, the mechanism by which the film’s first half represses sex also preserves a fantasy romance whose messy business is invisible. So far, so Sabrina (Wilder’s 1954 film). But The Apartment has savage surprises lying in wait.

After his promotion, Baxter freezes out the other executives and settles into a monogamous arrangement with Sheldrake. It’s nearing Christmas, and The Apartment‘s middle section opens at the kick-off of a party on the 19th floor. The office Christmas party cliché is built on the drunken hook-up. It’s no different here, as Christmas joy, in the form of alcohol, knocks down the barriers of decorum. There’s music, dancing, making out, punch spiking. After too many drinks, Baxter offers one to Fran, who hasn’t joined the party. As he accepts her apology for standing him up, he rationalizes it: “You couldn’t help yourself. I mean, when you’re having a drink with one man, you can’t just suddenly walk out on him because you have another date with another man. You did the only decent thing.”

What’s not in the script is what happens to Bud’s drink as he says this. His conspicuous spill is timed to coincide with the word “date”, which has been code throughout for illicit, adulterous sex (“she just won’t give me a tumble, date-wise,” Kirkeby remarks of Fran). And, what’s worse, for Bud at least, the “date” Fran was on occurred in his very own bed.

When Baxter goes to fetch more drinks, Fran is buttonholed by Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), Sheldrake’s secretary, who informs her of her boss’s history of affairs with company employees. This visibly shakes Fran, but Bud assumes it’s holiday blues and ushers her into his new office. He bought a new hat and wants her opinion. She’s lost in her thoughts, then focuses on Bud and his ridiculous bowler. “I like it,” she offers. It’s clear that Miss Olsen’s warning now applies to the man in front of her, conspicuously climbing the corporate ladder one “date” at a time.

This is emphasized when she tries to return to work (“I don’t want to be fired.”). Baxter stops her, bragging he has “quite a bit of influence in Personnel. You know Mr. Sheldrake?” When she asks why, he replies, “We’re like this.” The script’s parenthetical reads, “crosses his fingers”, but that’s not what Baxter does. More suggestively, he puts one finger on top of the other, a (perhaps) unwanted reminder for Fran that she was very recently one of those fingers and Sheldrake the other in Bud’s bed.

In this pivotal moment of The Apartment, the hat prompts Fran to offer Baxter her compact so he can check it in its mirror. He’d previously found a compact in his apartment, belonging to Sheldrake’s “lucky girl”, whoever she is. He’d pointed out that the mirror was already broken. When Baxter opens it, he sees himself doubled in the cracked frame, his face echoing the Picasso invoked earlier. In a flash, he knows who Sheldrake has been seeing – and where. “It makes me look the way I feel,” Fran says, shattering the fantasy of the film’s easy romance narrative.

At another level, it draws Bud and Fran closer together since they share a betrayal. This scene sets The Apartment on a different path, a darker one that takes the seemingly light comedy and fills it with visible consequences. It will still repress sex and sexuality and continue to return them via fluids, but it will insist that patriarchal, corporate culture is anything but carefree.

The following scene, occupying around 25 minutes at the film’s center, is a masterpiece of juxtaposition and dark comedy. It’s where The Apartment sinks its teeth in, making it clear that what lies behind the humor is a cruel, dangerous reality. There is perhaps no other American comedy so equally funny and savage in lapidary fashion. Baxter, having learned about Fran’s affair with Sheldrake and the hollowness of his scheming rise to Second Administrative Assistant, spends his Christmas Eve at the bottom of a bottle. When we fade into him slouching at the bar, he’s already got seven olive-skewered toothpicks arrayed in a circle.

An attractive blonde woman at the end of the bar makes a fruitless effort to get his attention. She’s forced to confront him, asking him to buy her a drink, which he does: “If you buy me a drink, I’ll buy you some music.” Her jukebox selection—“O Come, All Ye Faithful”—could be The Apartment‘s ironic theme song. A hilarious attempt at romance ensues between two desperate, drunk people on the saddest night of the year to be alone. If the logic of the early part of the film were in play, this set-piece would extend the theme of fantasy romance it establishes early on. Intercut with the bar scene, however, is Fran at Baxter’s apartment with Sheldrake.

In our first glimpse of them, Fran is crying on the sofa, and Sheldrake is berating her for being a “bad sport”. He’s stalling again, divorce-wise, and she’s not letting him off the hook. In place of the bodily fluids of the romance fantasy are copious tears; Fran’s face is streaked with running mascara. She gives him a gift (a record by the piano player at The Rickshaw), but he’s empty-handed, so he gives her a hundred dollars. As she takes off her coat, he checks his watch: time to catch the train.

Sheldrake: Fran, it’s a quarter to seven—and I mustn’t miss the train—if we hadn’t wasted all that time—I have to get home and trim the tree—

(Fran has started to remove her coat.)

Fran: Okay. (shrugs the coat back on) I just thought as long as it was paid for—

This is the first time sex for money or advancement has been revealed as openly transactional. It’s the beginning of a series of reversals, in which whimsical affairs turn consequential, with potentially deadly results.

After Sheldrake leaves, Fran cries, puts on the Rickshaw record (the song is “Jealous Lover”), and washes her face. In the shaving mirror, she sees a bottle of pills. She picks them up, inspects the label, and fills a glass of water. Cut to the bar, where it’s closing time. The only remaining customers are a drunk Santa Claus and an even drunker Bud Baxter, dancing (literally) cheek-to-cheek with the woman from before.

The two plots come together as they leave the bar for Baxter’s apartment, where Bud finds Fran passed out on his bed. He tells her off, but she’s unresponsive. He finds the empty prescription bottle, realizes what she’s done, and hurries to his neighbor’s (Dr. Dreyfuss, played by Jack Kruschen). Fran’s suicide attempt produces a raft of fluids. Some go in: 2 c.c.’s of picrotoxin from a hypodermic (according to the script), and a cup of coffee. Others go out: Dreyfuss pumps Fran’s stomach, and we hear her vomiting.

Fran’s near-miss causes Baxter to phone Sheldrake at home on Christmas morning. This scene introduces a different kind of displacement. Sheldrake is playing with his sons, launching the new rockets they’ve gotten as presents. The phone rings. This exchange ensues.

Tommy: Hey, Dad – why don’t we put a fly in the nose cone and see if we can bring it back alive?

Sheldrake: It’s a thought.

Tommy: Maybe we should send up two flies—and see if they’ll propagate in orbit.

Sheldrake: See if they’ll what?

Tommy: Propagate—you know, multiply—baby flies?

Sheldrake: Oh—oh!

The Apartment doesn’t miss a chance to stitch the theme into even the most innocent scenes, here planting sex into a Norman Rockwell Christmas tableau.

The final displacements combine sex and the destruction of the romance fantasy of consequence-free adultery. There are drinks spilled and thin white ropes of spaghetti, but these are now overshadowed by something more serious. It’s not just sex that’s being displaced, but the potential death it engenders.

As Fran heals in Baxter’s apartment and he plays nurse-maid to her (a conspicuous construction of Sheldrake’s that emphasizes his inability to imagine a man caring for a woman), the machinery of romance gets into gear. Their relationship is strengthened by Baxter’s confession that he also tried to kill himself, with a .45 auto, though he only managed to shoot himself in the knee. This, after an affair with his best friend’s wife, no less. Baxter shops, cleans, and makes a candlelight dinner.

Fran’s cabbie brother-in-law has been looking for her, learning her whereabouts from Kirkeby and Dobisch, who are sore about losing their access to the apartment. He arrives at the apartment and, given the visible evidence (candles, drinks, Fran in a robe), assumes she’s having what Kirkeby calls a “lost weekend.” As Fran gets dressed, Dr. Dreyfuss bursts in to check on the patient. Karl (Johnny Seven), the brother-in-law, jumps to the conclusion that she’s had an abortion (Karl: “Say, what kind of a doctor are you, anyway? Bud: Oh, not that kind.”). Karl punches Bud, and as he’s sprawled in the Christmas tree, Fran leans down to kiss him before she leaves. He is, as the script says, “on cloud nine”.

Baxter returns to Consolidated Life of New York, planning to tell Sheldrake he’s in love with Fran and will “take her off his hands”. The plan goes awry when Sheldrake turns the tables and says exactly this to Baxter. He announces that he’s moved out and left his wife. Sheldrake shows Baxter his new office as a reward (“don’t think I’ve forgotten what you did for me”). He’s now the assistant director of personnel. He’s gotten what he wanted and lost what he wants. A few days later, Sheldrake mentions that he’s coaxed Fran into seeing him and wants to borrow the apartment. It’s clear that Bud hasn’t gotten over her. He turns in the executive washroom key and quits.

In The Apartment‘s brilliant climax, a reversal/echo of the Christmas Eve scene, it’s New Year’s Eve, Baxter packing up his apartment to move, sad, brooding, retrieving the gun from a drawer and dropping it in a box. Hard to forget Dr. Dreyfuss’ warning earlier that people usually don’t stop after their first suicide attempt. Meanwhile, it’s Fran in a bar (The Rickshaw, of course), unhappy, nursing a martini (up, no ice this time). Sheldrake mentions that Baxter wouldn’t lend him the apartment, especially if he was bringing Miss Kubelik there, and quit his job. Fran lights up at this, clearly going back over their time together while she was convalescing.

At the stroke of midnight, while Sheldrake’s back is turned, she flees the bar and runs to the apartment. As she’s ascending the stairs, we hear a loud bang. Frantic, she pounds on the door. It opens; Baxter has just opened a bottle of champagne that’s overflowing the bottle.

And what does an overflowing bottle of champagne symbolize?

Shut up and deal.