The Lonely City: On the Empathy and Isolation of C.C. Baxter in The Apartment

illustration by Brianna Ashby
A man frets over a typewriter, a pencil behind his ear. His face shifts from bemusement to tentative yearning as his co-workers buzz around him. The place is full of polite chatter and the low hum of technology. Everyone glides around each other, barely talking, barely interacting. The man who draws our eye doesn’t speak to those around him. With a few changes, he could be anyone: The barista at your favorite coffee shop whose name you don’t know, the young bookseller who frets when anyone raises their voice, that man in your office who carries himself with a bruised disposition. But the man in this office isn’t just anyone. He’s C.C. “Bud” Baxter, the nebbish and complicated lead played by Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment.

The Apartment is many things. A keen understanding of the way empathy manifests, a sharp look at human weakness and how geography shapes identity, and one of writer/director Billy Wilder’s best films. But more than that, it is perhaps the foremost portrait of loneliness in big cities.

The opening credits play over an exceedingly lonely image: An apartment building with a single light on as everyone else is asleep. Then it shifts to an overhead shot of New York City—its gargantuan skyscrapers and buildings make the people bustling to and from work that we see next seem all the more insignificant. Baxter’s voiceover makes careful efforts to mention the population of New York City in 1959 (over eight million) and the amount of employees who work for his same insurance company (over 31,000). We see the impressive density of this population in Baxter’s office. They hustle and work and drink coffee and lean against elevator doors and check the clock but rarely seem to see one another. This dynamic betrays what makes living in the modern American metropolis such a lonely experience. Despite continually being surrounded by people, we rarely truly interact with anyone. Like many of Wilder’s films, The Apartment brims with great supporting roles. But the story pivots around three characters: Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the sweet, wounded elevator operator Baxter grows fond of, and Baxter’s boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the quintessential narcissistic married man who uses various flings to feed his own ego. Then there is Baxter himself, whom Lemmon emboldens with impressive physical humor even in moments of startling darkness.

The film follows Baxter through crowded offices, outside well-lit theaters, into bustling bars as he tries to fill the time until his small apartment is no longer occupied. The reason? He’s been loaning it to executives at the mammoth insurance company he works at so they can entertain mistresses without the consequence of being caught or the price of a hotel. Trading his apartment so the executives can have their flings is framed as his way of getting a promotion. Baxter seems like a man who yearns to be touched, to be seen, to be wanted. But if you look closely this choice speaks to an intense masochism and the side effects of prolonged loneliness.

The Apartment doesn’t explore New York City in the way you’d expect. Wilder bypasses most iconic landmarks, instead exploring how the city leaves an impression on its characters in more minute ways. Most of the settings reflect the terrain of the lonely: the apartments of bachelors, crowded and seedy bars, cramped office environments, the steps of apartment buildings. The influence the city has on Baxter’s emotionality and the way the film understands human connection is a constant presence.

Baxter doesn’t so much experience New York City as he does sequester himself from it. He deals with people through barriers: glass office doors, empty phone conversations, miscommunications. Like many lonely people, he’s a creature of habit. In this way, despite a few touches, The Apartment could exist in almost any major metropolis, making the story feel incredibly timeless. Despite the humor of the film, Baxter’s relationship with the city is one of profound disconnection. We don’t see him having any friends or family in his life. Instead, he surrounds himself with charismatic and temporary substitutes for the intimacy he’s lacking—the buzzing television as he eats a TV dinner, the brief conversations he has in the hallway with his neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), off-hand exchanges with co-workers.

In her amazing book The Lonely City, from which this essay draws its title, Olivia Laing writes, “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged.”

I know this hunger very well. It’s bottomless and aching.

I’ve been living in Chicago for my entire adult life. Nine years ago, I rushed here just after graduating high school, desperate to escape the over-heated, rotten paradise of Miami. It took me leaving Chicago for several months last year to realize how much this city has come to define me. When I went back to Miami and New Orleans, the cities that shaped my upbringing, I no longer saw myself there. My childhood home had been taken over by strangers. A carport has replaced what was once the den where my brother played video games and I obsessively watched The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. New Orleans has grown increasingly gentrified in the years since Katrina. Whole neighborhoods that once teemed with the city’s vibrant black population have been upended by young, white disaffected youth who love the cheap rent and down home quality they are forcing out. I came back to Chicago because I had nowhere else to go; it is by far the hardest decision I had to make. While I have a few close friendships, there is no family for me here. Chicago is a city it is easy to feel isolated in. People tend to stick to their respective neighborhoods, fiercely tying them to their own sense of self. I came back just a few days before Halloween with two suitcases and my cat in search of something I can only put into words now. Hope. I felt much like Baxter in The Apartment—a raw nerve.

Cities inform our identities in major ways—the way we speak, the speed in which we walk, the food we crave. But there are also smaller, subtler effects. Ask any person in Chicago to draw a map of their neighborhood and you’ll find each looks wildly different. Our understanding of cities is shaped by the experiences that leave impressions on us, like the remnants of fingerprints on ripe fruit. The geography isn’t literal, it’s emotional.

Despite living in New York for at least a few years and being in his thirties, Baxter treats his home as transitory. This isn’t to say the city hasn’t shaped Baxter. It’s his relationship with the city itself and its inhabitants that provide the most humor. He moves like quicksilver—all boundless energy and odd quirks. Just look at how he strains his spaghetti with a tennis racket with practiced ease. Or pay attention to the shape of his language and the way he moves on the street. The fast, neon bright, cutthroat nature of New York has seeped into Baxter. It’s these qualities that make it easy for him to be a bachelor, and to loan out his apartment, even as he grows increasingly uncomfortable with the arrangement.

This dynamic underscores the sense of desperation in how he interacts with Fran. He may be comfortable with his bachelorhood but the way he’s drawn to her suggests a level of empathy and yearning he may not be willing to own up to. He unfurls detailed suggestions for evening plans while they scuttle off from work before she even agrees to anything. He seeks her opinion on his choice of hats. He hinges upon her every word. Yet Baxter can’t quite see the disquiet roiling beneath her attractive surface until it’s nearly too late.

If Baxter embodies the loneliness of reluctant bachelorhood, Fran is the incarnation of the different issues single women face. I’m not only talking about romance. We don’t get much of a look into Fran’s life. Most of what we learn about her outside of work deals with her affair. But it is clear from the way she carries herself that she doesn’t have many, if any, deep friendships. After all, if she did, wouldn’t she have been warned away from being involved with a man toying with her as obviously as Sheldrake does? Fran’s loneliness is rooted in the mistakes many single women make—going after men that see them as placeholders, even as she imagines a permanent place in their life. That the man in question is the married and much older Sheldrake gives the affair a sordid sheen. Without the brutal emotional poetry of the script, Wilder’s direction, and MacLaine’s understanding of the character, Fran could easily become no more than a mirror for Baxter’s problems. But instead she feels like a whole person wrestling with her own self-destructive impulses. One of the most poignant exchanges in the film comes toward the end. Thanks to using Fran’s mirror (which he had seen before without knowing it was hers), Baxter realizes she’s the woman Sheldrake has been taking to his apartment.

Baxter: The mirror…it’s broken.

Fran: Yes, I know. I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel.

In that single line she’s trying to reach out, nearly begging Baxter to ask why she feels broken. She’s also guarding herself from potential disappointment. MacLaine plays each moment far quieter than you’d expect. Fran is drifting in life, desperately hoping for something or someone to give her meaning. MacLaine undersells the emotions in order to communicate the sadness at Fran’s core, as if she’s growing numb to her situation. She’s cute and funny, sure, but if you look closely when no one’s around, I bet you’d see the same cracks she hints at sharing with her mirror. Or perhaps you’d see a wandering look cross her face, much like it does when she meets Sheldrake when he tries to convince her to get back together. He uses the lie every married man uses: that he loves her, misses her, and he’s leaving his wife.

Fran hasn’t been his only conquest in the office. Even though common sense should tell her that, it takes Sheldrake’s secretary and former lover, Miss Olson (Edie Adams) to cue her in. But she’s desperate to prove she’s an exception to the rule; hoping for love from a man who’s only interested in how his image looks in the eyes of whatever woman he’s currently playing with. Wilder understands, more than one might expect, how the weight of loneliness shifts for single women. This resonates not only in Fran’s storyline, but that of Miss Olson. She later undoes all Sheldrake’s conniving by calling his wife to let her know the truth. Her version of loneliness is far rougher around the edges.

There is a brief aside when Miss Olson spots Sheldrake and Fran at the Chinese restaurant, which seems to be a familiar haunt for many questionable encounters. She carefully studies the intimacy in their interaction, suggesting she remembers what it was like to be in Fran’s place. The gentle way she takes off her glasses is devastating. How many unrequited loves exist in the city on any given night?

Watching The Apartment, I’m reminded of something Sylvia Plath once wrote in her journals: “God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”

The problem with loneliness is how easily it lets us isolate ourselves. You want to break free from your routine, but isolation comes so easily. You want passion, but not heartbreak. You want to be seen for who you truly are, but you’re afraid of what will happen when someone finally takes a closer look. Modern city life makes it easy to commodify the approximation of intimacy, so at least for a little while our needs are met.

The way the affair between Fran and Sheldrake plays out—at times nearly being discovered by Baxter—is perhaps one of the reasons Wilder gets labeled as a cynic. But with co-writer I.A.L. Diamond there is no cynicism. Instead you’ll find an honesty and poeticism about human nature sharp as a piece of cut glass. Fran’s suicide attempt and how it affects the men around her is a testament to that. While Sheldrake shirks any responsibility, Baxter’s innate empathy comes into focus.

Throughout the film, Wilder conceives of the human experience in wide frames, a visual shorthand meant to communicate how easily loneliness can breed in environments of such grand, overpowering scope as the modern metropolis. There are many striking images in The Apartment but those that cut deepest take place during the loneliest time of the year: the holidays.

Wilder takes a dim view of this season. Amongst all the glittering decoration and champagne-soaked conversations is a frightening truth: you can’t treat joy and connection as transactional. The holidays lay bare our worst impulses by putting everyone’s emotional connections under a microscope. It’s then that Fran tries to kill herself after a disheartening encounter with Sheldrake. The image of her teetering around Baxter’s apartment (which she still doesn’t know is his), the anemic plastic Christmas tree in the background, is haunting. The film turns sharply in a different direction when Fran goes into the bathroom to wipe her tears only to decide to kill herself. Which is communicated by a single glance at a bottle of pills.

Wilder doesn’t shy away from using a withering gaze on the gaudy, fake sense of cheer that pervades this time of year. But he also uses it to smartly show Baxter finally connecting to Fran. Baxter cares for Fran in his apartment, highly attuned to her recovery. He shares his own romantic battle scars, including a story about wanting to kill himself but only ending up with a bullet wound through his thigh. It’s played for laughs but there is an undercurrent of something much darker than Lemmon’s smile is letting on.

While Baxter obviously cares for Fran, it’s apparent he hasn’t seen her clearly until now. She’s obviously suffering and struggling in her own way. But he can only see in her the potential for connection he so desires. As she recovers at his apartment, they start to see each other as people rather than means to an end. He’s candid and self-deprecating. When having dinner one night, Baxter makes clear his situation, although he couches it in jokes. Lemmon sings and is light on his feet as he maneuvers through his small surroundings, setting things up. But then his voice will deepen unexpectedly. He says he was “shipwrecked amongst eight million people” before meeting Fran.

Fran: Do you usually eat alone?

Baxter: No, no. Sometimes I have dinner with Ed Sullivan, sometimes Dinah Shore, Perry Como. The other night I had dinner with Mae West…of course she was much younger then.

Lemmon plays it as a bitter truth dipped in honey. He uses pop culture for company when the flesh and blood variety feels impossible. Haven’t we all done the same? As a teenager I created a pantheon of madwomen from film and television who operated as the mothers, aunts, sisters, and comrades I wanted in real life but struggled to find. Wilder suggests in this scene that this can only be so fulfilling for so long.

I came to understand this when I returned to Chicago. I was surprised to learn my internal rhythm was still attuned to the city. Over the last seven months, I have explored in order to find my own sense of home. I’ve now been here long enough that certain streets feel as much a part of me as the scar that is etched across my left knee. I dipped into the quiet streets of Bridgeport. Walked dogs in Wicker Park. I passionately kissed a man for the first time in over a year, somewhere in Pilsen drunk on cheap beer and the energy in the room during Dave Chappelle’s set. Had panic attacks that set my nerves aflame amongst the beauty of Andersonville. Tipped into self-harm in Ukrainian Village. And finally I found a place to call my own in Logan Square, just bordering my other favorite neighborhood, Humboldt Park.

Throughout all of this, I feel the ghosts of former selves just over my shoulder. The girl I was fresh out of high school who spoke quietly and still relaxed her hair. The girl who associates the Western Blue Line station with a suicide attempt. The girl who had no idea who she was right after college, scarcely writing, scarcely interacting with the world. Chicago is as much, if not more, a part of my identity than the cities I associate with my youth. There have been moments when I have cried because of its ragged beauty, knowing this is where I am meant to be. The woman I am today is stronger, more vibrant, more complex. She’s also far more lonely. When you’re twenty-two, the prospect of your only close friends moving to other cities and never having been in a serious relationship is vaguely uncomfortable. Closing in on thirty, loneliness starts to root itself a bit deeper. I share with Baxter one of the qualities that exacerbates loneliness—having to stitch together a sense of family from memory, hopes, and friendships that, due to age, can become long distance.

Loneliness in the big city is both wide-ranging and utterly specific, daunting and always underscored by the potential to be broken, given the amount of people always surrounding us. Even more so than during the era Baxter lives, today’s modern city makes it easy to never have to meaningfully interact with another human being. Making loneliness fester unimpeded.

In modern dating, cruelty masks itself as efficiency. We can dip in and out of relationships. This isn’t to say this same sort of ethos didn’t exist in the 1950s. The way the execs at Baxter’s insurance firm commodify their adulterous flings is in its own way a means to fight away loneliness (or to feel young again) and also allows these women to never get too close. But in modern times, there are endless options. Technology has repackaged the idea of human intimacy into something that is enjoyable enough to keep coming back to, while still leaving us hungry due to its ephemeral nature. Which isn’t to say these bonds have no purpose. I’ve formed great connections online, some of which have translated into real life. Yet why do I, and so many others, still feel so alone? There is something about talking to someone in person, or in the simplicity of a hug, that no amount of heartwarming online interactions can possibly replace. For all the darkness that pervades my history in Chicago, though, there is still a lot of hope. I find it by cherishing small moments of kindness, the few friendships I maintain, and by being more open than I ever have in my life. The dichotomy between needing to connect and the fear of rejection that comes with loneliness is something The Apartment demonstrates all too well.

Toward the end of the film, Fran and Baxter think they have what they’ve always wanted. He’s steadily risen to assistant director, second only to Sheldrake. Fran thinks Sheldrake left his wife for her when in reality he was kicked out. (Thanks, Miss Olson!) He has no intentions of settling down with her. He wants to be a bachelor, something he mentioned earlier that he was jealous of Baxter over. Their hollow victories culminate on New Year’s Eve. Baxter quits his job. Fran finally realizes who Sheldrake (and Baxter) really is to her, amongst the boisterous party streamers floating around her.

The Apartment ends winnowed down, foregoing the expanses of the city for a single apartment. It doesn’t end with swelling music and a passionate kiss or another suicide attempt. Instead, Wilder settles on an ending more true to life in all its murkiness. Baxter confesses his love while Fran beams at him, slyly saying, “shut up and deal.” A deck of cards in her outstretched hand and a small smirk on her face. This ending doesn’t negate loneliness but puts it in sharper focus. How can you truly love and cherish such moments of divine understanding without knowing its exact opposite? It doesn’t matter what the future holds for them, their budding relationship in the closing scenes lights a spark of optimism. What was once a pipe dream is now close enough to touch. For all his supposed cynicism, Wilder ends his greatest film with hope. Perhaps, we can rewrite our identities, be released from the shackles of loneliness that cause anxiety and depression to loom over life like a dark cloud. Perhaps the potential of connection a city holds is possible to grasp. Perhaps our emotional landscapes can be reshaped, reconfigured, and made whole.