Created by acclaimed writer-director, Billy Wilder, The Apartment is a sardonic romantic comedy about an ambitious office worker who lends out his New York apartment to his bosses for their extramarital affairs. A bit risque for its time, the film still ended up being a commercial and critical success, nabbing several Academy Awards including one for Best Picture (marking the last completely black-and-white film to win the coveted award until 2011’s, The Artist).
Wilder’s keen ability to balance light and dark material is evident throughout the film’s running time and is handled deftly by its three main leads — Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray. All in all, The Apartment feels like a quintessential New York Story, and yet surprisingly very little was actually shot on location. However, like his previous New York stories, Wilder insisted that they shoot at least some material in the Big Apple, although it’s hard to thoroughly appreciate it since the majority was shot at pitch night.
Pretty much every location for this film had already been identified when I started looking into it several years ago. At the time, the most comprehensive website on the subject was the always-entertaining ScoutingNY, helmed by location scout Nick Carr. He pretty much covered all the New York sites used for this film, including the office building at 2 Broadway (est 1959).
I’m sure finding it wasn’t too difficult considering this opening shot featured the iconic US Customs Building in the foreground, which has been used in countless other films over the years, including Ghostbusters 2, Big Daddy, and the classic Harold Lloyd comedy, Speedy.
If the shot was a little tighter of 2 Broadway, it might’ve been a little more difficult to identify since the facade got a major facelift in the late 1990’s after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority took over the then-vacant office space. Renovations on the 32-story building began in 1998 and continued for five years during which all of the original glass was replaced and the window pattern was reconfigured, making it unrecognizable from what it looked like in this film.
Aside from turning one of Downtown Manhattan’s first modernist buildings into a rather banal office tower, the MTA’s renovation of 2 Broadway ended up being a bit of a fiasco for multiple reasons. Plagued with construction delays, unexpected infrastructure issues, and courtroom battles, the project turned really ugly when it was revealed that the man in charge, Frederick C. Contini, had been using his position to embezzle millions. Working with two different crime families, Contini managed to syphon over 10 million dollars out of the renovation project through inflated bills, extortion schemes and kickbacks on work contracts.
The total cost of the renovation ended up being nearly $500 million —a far cry from the original estimate of $55 million— and Contini was indicted on charges of fraud and money laundering, eventually receiving prohibition and an order to pay $8 million in restitution.
As to the aerial shot of U.N. Plaza that preceded the shot of 2 Broadway, I originally had a little difficulty lining it up with a modern view, until I realized the image was actually flipped in the film. I’m not sure if it was like that in the original print or whether it got accidentally reversed in a later transfer, but I’d be curious as to how or why it got that way. But regardless, it’s fascinating to compare a 1960 view of midtown Manhattan to a current view where the skyline has grown into a compact cluster of skyscrapers.
When Nick Carr wrote his post on The Apartment in 2013, it was probably the first website to thoroughly explore all of its filming locations. Consequently, his post was likely the source used by other movie websites when writing about this film. However, as good of a researcher as he is, I do believe he made an error when calculating the exact address of Baxter’s apartment.
He did a great job in tracking down the specific street used (which was different from what is given in the film’s dialogue) but he figured Baxter’s apartment building to be at 55 W 69th even though the entrance had a 51 on it. I believe he reached that conclusion after he discovered a photograph taken by production of 53-57 West 69th Street, with no. 55 looking the most like Baxter’s place.
The reason production took photos of the street was because the art department was tasked with recreating the block at Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Los Angeles and they needed references to make it as accurate as possible.
While a few of the exteriors were shot on the actual New York street, most of the apartment stuff was shot on a soundstage where they didn’t have to deal with things like freezing weather or sound issues.
In the production photo above, since 51 W 69th wasn’t in the frame, Carr probably assumed that no. 55 was what was used for Baxter’s apartment building since that looked the most like what appeared in the film (even though it wasn’t a perfect match). To add to the confusion, almost all of the original stoops that were present in 1960 have since been removed, making the ground floors look very different today.
Fortunately, the second story windows along 69th Street haven’t been significantly altered, and it was those windows that helped me line things up and convince me that 51 was indeed Baxter’s place.
I figure the reason why production had a photo of nos. 53-57 is because the art department naturally had to create the neighbouring buildings on the soundstage in addition to the “hero” Baxter building. I’m certain production also had a reference photo of 51 W 69th Street, but it’s simply no longer available today.
While I’m pretty confident with my conclusions, on practically every movie website that covers The Apartment, they give 55 W 69th as Baxter’s address, which is a little disconcerting. But I can only assume that’s because most of them just blindly grabbed the info from ScoutingNY —which is usually a pretty reliable source— without doing any additional research.
So, I stand by my conclusions.
Like the other locations from this film, this quick bench scene was covered on the ScoutingNY website. He seemed to had figured out the general location due to its close proximity to the established apartment on W 69th Street. He then figured out the exact bench by looking for a lamppost with the tree behind it, which matched the film.
One interesting thing about this scene — after filming in the freezing night on a wet bench, Jack Lemmon reportedly got sick, which director Billy Wilder then incorporated into the story.
Such things were actually common in a Wilder film, as he was known for starting productions without a completed script. Wilder has always emphasised that the writing is the most important part of a good film, but being Indifferent to conventional movie-making, he saw the script as a flexible thing that could always be changed for something better.
Usually once he saw the direction an actor was taking with their character, the script would be shaped accordingly. It didn’t matter if the change was for a big overarching character development or for something small like giving a character a cold when the actor got sick,
Making a Date
Even though the exteriors were shot on location in Downtown Manhattan, all the lobby stuff took place at an impressive recreation on a Hollywood soundstage. The giant replica of 2 Broadway’s lobby was amazingly accurate, so much so, it briefly fooled me into thinking it was real.
The one big giveaway that it was not the actual location was the panoramic view out the lobby windows, which I determined to be a fake backdrop. Basically, the cluster of skyscrapers seen outside the windows in the movie looks nothing like what is really outside of 2 Broadway, which is mostly open sky due to the building’s close proximity to the New York Harbor.
If you want to see footage of the real lobby at 2 Broadway, watch the Gregory Peck thriller, Mirage, which was filmed there in 1964. When you compare the footage from Mirage to the massive sets built for The Apartment, you can really appreciate what a superb job the production designers did.
Today, the lobby looks nothing like it did in the 1960s, and seems to have been reduced in size, with fewer entrances into the building.
It must’ve been interesting for the crew to recreate the lobby for 2 Broadway, which was completed only a few months before filming began and was one of the first modernist office towers to be built in Manhattan’s Financial District. It also happened to be one of the bulkiest, so much so that it would be considered in violation of modern day zoning laws.
Designed to maximise the amount of volume inside, the structure fills most of the lot, with very little open space surrounding it. The building was so dense that it likely inspired the change to the zoning code, which was proposed just one year after 2 Broadway was completed,
Prior to 1958, the lot had been occupied by the New York Produce Exchange, which was less massive, but certainly not any less imposing. Completed in 1884, the main arcaded building was only ten stories tall but was still quite awe-inspiring. It was described in King’s Handbook of New York City as having “12,000,000 bricks, 15 miles of iron girders, 1+3/4 miles of columns, 2,061 tons of terracotta, 7+1/2 of flooring, more than 2,000 windows, and nearly 1,000 doors.”
The New York Produce Exchange, which was originally founded in 1861 as a national network of produce and commodities dealers, was seeing a huge loss in membership by the 1950s, and plans were soon made to replace the brick and terracotta edifice with a modern skyscraper. When the exchange building finally came down in 1957, no one made much of a ruckus, but years later, many have considered it one of the city’s greatest architectural losses.
Of course, if you’ve ever seen this movie, the most memorable thing about these office scenes is the sweeping office set where Baxter and the other minions work. Paying tribute to King Vidor’s 1928 classic The Crowd, Billy Wilder and production designer Alexandre Trauner created a gigantic forced-perspective set to give the illusion of a seemingly endless row of desks that disappear into the distance.
This was accomplished by making the set narrower as it went back, and dressing it with successively smaller props, furnishings and background actors. For the distant office workers, they actually used children dressed in suits, and according to film historian Bruce Block, for the very far back of the office, they used stringed marionettes.
These days, they’d almost certainly accomplish this effect by using green screens and CGI, but they’d be hard pressed to replicate the impact of an old-fashioned optical illusion like the one used in this film.
This restaurant sequence was essentially an extension of the walking scene with Lemmon and McCaline outside of 2 Broadway. They basically walk north along the front of the building, ending on the southeast corner of Broadway and Beaver, where they then part ways.
New Street, where the restaurant was located, is just a half block away from 2 Broadway, and like the earlier park bench scene, makes perfect geographical sense. (Although storywise, it doesn’t seem very prudent for two co-workers who are having an illicit affair to meet up at a restaurant so close to the office.)
Naturally the interior of the festive Chinese restaurant was a set built on a Hollywood soundstage, and I suspect the signage outside of the restaurant was just set dressing. I haven’t found any records of a Chinese establishment being on New Street and the 1940s tax photos don’t show anything similar at that address.
In any case, New Street is definitely not as hopping today as it appeared in the film, with very few retail spaces on the ground floors and street barcades preventing regular traffic access to the Wall Street area.
There obviously wasn’t any confusion as to the location of this brief scene. The Majestic Theatre, which has been around since 1927, looks pretty much the same today as it did in this film, mostly because the facade and interior are landmarked.
With 1,681 seats, the Majestic has always been a prime venue for large musical theatre productions, such as Carousel, South Pacific, Camelot, The Wiz, as well as the show Baxter got tickets to, The Music Man. Since 1988, the theater has housed The Phantom of the Opera, which is the longest-running production in Broadway history and is expected to run until at least 2023.
There’s one other scene that is claimed by many to have been filmed on location in NYC, and that is the bar scenes where a drunk Baxter hooks up with a fellow lonelyheart (played by Hope Holiday, who, as of this writing, is one of two surviving cast members from this film).
Carr indicated on his ScoutingNY website that the scene was shot at the Emerald Inn, an Irish pub that used to be located at 205 Columbus Avenue. I have no idea what brought him to that conclusion, other than a reversed 205 on the door which can be seen in a couple shots. But I haven’t found any production notes, behind-the-scenes photos or contemporaneous reports that indicate that the actual Emerald Inn was used.
In fact, there are many things to suggest that it was shot on a Hollywood set. The most straightforward thing is the fact that every other interior scene from this movie was shot on a set. I can’t see why they would make an acception with this one location.
Not to mention, the bar, while nicely detailed, looks like a set. And there were some complicated camera moves in those scenes which seems implausible if they were actually in a cramped New York pub.
But even if, for some reason, they did shoot in a real New York location, I don’t think it was at 205 Columbus Avenue. The retail space is noticeably narrower than what appears in the film, and there’s no evidence that there were any modifications to that space over the years. (If you look at the 1940s tax photo of the address, you can see the retail space was the same width as it is today.)
I couldn’t find any vintage photos of the Emerald Inn online, and none of the modern pictures seemed to match the film, other than the wood bar being on the same side of the room.
While the Emerald Inn was forced to vacate 205 Columbus Avenue in 2013, they have since moved to 250 W 72nd Street, so I suppose I could go there and see if they have any old pics of their original location. But unless they have something that looks identical to the film, I am sticking to the opinion that the bar Baxter got drunk in was, sadly, just a Hollywood creation.
When it comes to Billy Wilder films, I’ve always preferred his darker pieces, like Double Indemnity, to his more lighter fare, like Some Like It Hot,. But The Apartment is an unusual combination of the two with a very cynical view of the world of business mixed with an arguably sentimental view of the world of romance.
While I never bought into its “happy” ending (which felt similar to the rather frigid ending to Sabrina), I think The Apartment holds up as a classic film thanks to a clever script and engaging performances by the three leads. Lemmon did a great job balancing the comedy with the tragic, as well did Shirley MacLaine, who was able to show the underlying sadness her character was feeling even in the more lighthearted elevator scenes.
In the ensuing years, Maclaine has expressed some of the frustrations she felt on set while making the film, but has also credited Billy Wilder for guiding her through a most memorable performance that helped launch her movie career.
Often described as being extremely sarcastic, the Austrian-born filmmaker strived to keep the mood on the set open and upbeat, which is apparent in several of the behind-the-scenes photographs.
And as I mentioned earlier, Wilder was constantly looking for things to help improve the evolving script. For example, he added the bit of playing gin rummy after finding out MacLaine was learning the card game from her Rat Pack pals. And one of the film’s most memorable lines, “Why do people have to love people anyway?” was inspired by a conversation Wilder had with MacLaine while having lunch at the studio commissary.
Almost every actor and crew member from the film had nothing but praises to say about their cinematic leader, including Hope Holiday who described him in a 2018 interview as the best director she ever worked with.
The fact that Fred MacMurray, who made a career out of playing wholesome, likable characters, stepped into a pretty unwholesome, despicable role is a testament to how appreciated Wilder was from the acting community.
Although I wish there were more New York locations in the film, it’s really all about the acting. In fact, it absolutely could be done as a stage play since the majority of the action takes place in the office or the titular apartment.
Rounding out the cast is a dream team of character actors, most of whom play their parts for laughs. The most recognizable from the roster are Ray Walston, who would later play the title character on My Favorite Martian, and David White, best known for playing Darren’s boss on Bewitched.
But of all the secondary characters, the stand-out is Baxter’s neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss, played by Jack Kruschen, who does an incredible job of switching from a comical commentator to a sobering moral compass. In the end, it’s his character that gives Baxter the existential fodder to make some significant life changes — leading him to finally become a “mensch.” And that, I believe, is the core theme of the film.
So, even if the sappy romantic ending doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the story, The Apartment is truly a film to admire and emulate — in other words, a real “mensch.”