The Mastery of Mis-en-scene In ‘The Apartment’

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Mise-en-scene, a French word often used in the film industry has a simple definition: “placing on stage”. It can operate as part of the story’s narration which can be multi-leveled in any given scene or several scenes of a film. This is because there are many components: settings, costume and makeup are a few. Lighting (direction of said light, the source of it, color and highlights and shadows) staging (movements and performance, function and motivations of where things are places) and Space (scene space, how close and far actors are to each other and the screen itself-screen space) are other important components. In the Billy Wilder directed 1960’s hit, The Apartment uses mise-en-scene brilliantly throughout with dramatic lighting, attention to spacing of actors in certain scenes and the deliberate use of certain objects to invoke memories of past pivotal scenes.

Wilder’s decision to shoot The Apartment, a film about a man who higher uppers at work, get into the habit of using his home for their extramarital affairs, was an unorthodox move in a time when color television and film was popular and widely used, but it was bold move that paid off handsomely. Shot in black and white film, this meant that dramatic lighting could be played up to a greater effect and for this film it worked over and over again. This works well with isolated scenes when C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) spends the night on a bench outside, a lone figure on a bench shivering as the snow falls.

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One of his managers has use of Baxter’s apartment and he sadly has no place to go — it invokes sympathy from the audience and paints him as utterly alone. Another scene: when one of his managers calls to request use of the apartment the shot of him in a phone booth. When the manager mentions his “Marilyn-Monroe-look-a-like date” (possibly homage to the fact that Director Wilder worked with Marilyn Monroe previously on another film) she is sitting at the bar, a glamorous figure with blonde hair and a fur coat with dramatic lighting to bring attention to her.

Lighting is used in other ways to give clues about the characters and their intentions and their internal struggles. In the scene where Fran Kuberick (Shirley MacLaine) meets her date at the bar we see that it is a well-lit place but two meet meet in a corner booth. When she approaches the table and seats herself, we see the back of the man’s head; there is a soft light that adds a shine to his black hair — just who is he?! The anticipation builds and then he speaks and it is revealed that it is the boss of the company: Mr. Sheldrake!(Fred MacMurray).

While the audience is probably recovering from the shock of Kuberick meeting Shedrake, she cries, explaining to him that she wants this affair between them to end as he is a married man. A close up of her face reveals tears and a mournful expression-highlighted by the Rembrandt lighting cast on her face giving the audience some ideal of her troubles. Quite possibly one of the most effective uses of dramatic lighting is a scene in the later half of the film of Kuberick crying alone in front of the Christmas tree in Baxter’s apartment.

She has a failed suicide attempt on her record and is spending the holidays not in the arms of the man who claims to love her so much. He wasn’t there when she woke up, he didn’t nurse her back to health and he wouldn’t even speak to her on the phone until much later because he was cautious around his wife and children. She stands crying in front of the Christmas tree alit with lights and decorations — the juxtaposition is palpable. She should be happy, joyful and feel loved. Instead she feels abandoned, cheap and used. There is no warmth in this scene. The audience can’t see the bright colors. The only extreme emotions here are negative: sadness, perhaps anxiety but definitely desolation.

Throughout the film there are several scenes that standout before the dialogue even begins because spacing of the characters on screen to each other; the viewer may feel tension, elation or even frustration. In When Fran and Baxter are usually on screen together, they are seen on equal ground: leaving the office building together, walking into the Holiday party linked arm in arm, sitting (or preparing to sit together) in close proximity.

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This shows that for the most part they are equals to each other although one could argue this changes ever so slightly with his change of station throughout the film. Also, it is the boss Sheldrake, that Kubelik has a romantic relationship with but she spends the majority of her time with Baxter who, of course, falls in love with her.

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Even Baxter who started off as a low level worker with a desk on a lower floor sharing a room with several, several other workers gets promoted to a new floor with his own office — the audience is still reminded of his fragile station at work. All four of his old managers who once used his apartment for their late night activities crowd into his new office. In the same breathe they congratulate him and remind him of their part in his recent success. The men also demand to know why can’t continue use of his apartment when he calmly tells them their arrangement has ended. He is comfortable at his desk but they crowd him and his office attempting to get answers as they attempt to look intimating on screen.

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This type of imposing presence or feeling is further carried on in later scenes as Baxter promotes higher in the company and Sheldrake walks into Baxter’s new office and sits upon the desk that our impressionable character is seated next to. Baxter is seated in his chair and Shelddrake is seated upon his desk, above him with higher ground with a new scheme to sell to the morally conflicted but eager to please Baxter. In the second half of the film there are a few scenes that demonstrate the distance between Kubelik and her lover Shelddrake.

Another example of the spacing could include : As she is recovering from her attempted suicide at Baxter’s apartment, she receives the first phone call from her lover who never came to see her in person. She has to cross the whole room to reach the phone and when she does all Shelddrake can offer are promises over the phone, nothing more. Nothing concrete. The screen cuts away to him as he speaks but he’s not there with her in the apartment, he didn’t nurse her back to health. He wasn’t there when she needed him most and the audience sees further proof of his carelessness towards her.

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Certain objects placed on stage for the characters to interact with comes into play as important and especially when these objects are seen on screen again to invoke memories of past pivotal scenes becomes deliberate to the film’s narration, itself.

The audience can start to gain an idea of how the environment of a set relates to the characters. How so? As Kuberick is being nursed back to health by Baxter, he worries that she may be possibly still be suicidal so in the bathroom he takes the blades out of his razor before he allows her to use the bathroom. Later it provides a bit of a comedic timing when he goes to shave and looks to find no blades! He reaches into his shirt pocket to retrieve them and continues shaving.

During the later half of Kuberick’s recovery at Baxter’s apartment when she’s gained enough strength to walk around she pokes around in his kitchen to find a tennis racket and is baffled. He cheerfully tells her it’s a great tool for straining noodles for Italian food which makes her laugh.

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He goes on to prepare dinner for them both which is disrupted by her angry brother-in-law who assaults Baxter thinking him responsible for Kuberick’s disappearance. Later as Baxter has quit his job and is boxing up his belonging, preparing to move he comes across the very same tennis racket and finds one it one single noodle. It, no doubt, reminds him of his shot chances with Kuperick and how at this moment she’s with Shelddrake. It paints a bleak picture of this misunderstood man who has fallen so low in the eyes of everyone.

Lastly, even places, locations can serve to deliberately remind the characters and the audiences of memories to wrap up the story. Take for example the booth in the Chinese bar that Kuperick and Shelddrake meet at. In the beginning of the film, they meet there and Kuberick is crying.

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The two at the bar at the beginning of the film.
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The two at the bar near the end of the film.

The boss is still married and she is still being stringed along. Near the end of the film, she is back at the booth with the boss and while he is in the middle of a divorce she knows she should be happy but she isn’t. It is New Year Eve and she realizes that Shelddrake is truly no good for her. It is Baxter that cares about her. It is Baxter that has shown that through his actions and she makes the decision to leave Shelddrake then and there and rush to Baxter’s apartment.

It is time for new beginning and for Kuberick, a chance to break the pattern of her falling for and staying with men that aren’t good for her. If one could go further with this thought, in Kuperick’s case, Baxter’s Apartment would be the very last place ideally she would want to go — being a cesspool of bad memories of her botched suicide attempt and knowing that other married men in the company brought their dates. But she runs there anyway knowing that the only good she knows, Baxter resides there and she can separate the two.

In conclusion, The Apartment is a timeless masterpiece in the way that director, cast and crew used Mise-en-scene to their advantage, brilliantly. While Mise-en-scene again can be defined as “placing on stage” and it can contain many elements. Using dramatic lighting, attention to spacing of actors in certain scenes and the deliberate use of certain objects to invoke memories of past pivotal scenes, this 1960’s award winning film indeed succeeds as a box office hit and a critically acclaimed film. As noted earlier this, the director took a great risk in shooting this film with black and white film in a period where color was more popular; and years later The Apartment remains a classic to watch, a fine piece of film history and lastly a film that has been near impossible to truly imitate in its style and successes.

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⭐️ Writer, Editor & Media Scholar with an affinity for red lipstick living in California. Writes about literature, art, cinema & amazing women. ⭐️

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