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30 Minutes on: "The Apartment"

[Editor's note: This one is being presented under the "30 Minutes On" banner because I wrote the original draft in that span of time, in accordance to my self-imposed rules; but the finished version actually is the result of another couple hours of editing and rewriting, conducted in airport lounges during a chaotic period of travel between San Francisco and New York.]


In the Ordinary Policy Department of Consolidated Life, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861, sits C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), the twitchy, socially awkward hero of "The Apartment." He's a nebbish who will grow into a mensch someday, after a long period of misery that we later learn is mainly self-inflicted. Bud loans his bachelor apartment to married Consolidated executives who need a place to take their girlfriends. He falls in unrequited love with an elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), whose affair with top executive Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is evidence of self-punishing streak as pronounced as Bud's. It isn't until late in the film that we understand where Fran's emotional masochism comes from—that it's part of a recurring destructive pattern of workplace flings that's gotten her drummed out of one job after another.

When's the last time you saw two lead characters in a romantic comedy with this much complexity? When's the last time you saw a film that was hard to categorize as either a comedy or a drama, but had something to enthrall any thinking adult?

Bud and Fran are but two of the characters in "The Apartment" who have more layers you initially suspect: the enduring brilliance of Billy Wilder and cowriter I.A.L. Diamond's classic comedy-drama lies not merely in its corrosive humor and its unflinching eye for all the different ways that people hurt each other and themselves; it's rooted in psychology, empathy, morality. This 1960 Best Picture winner wants the best for Bud and Fran and a number of supporting characters who become entangled in their story, such as Margie McDougall (Hope Holiday), a drunken bar pickup of Bud's whose jockey husband is in a Havana jail "for doping a horse"; and Bud's goodhearted neighbor Mr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), who mistakes the amorous noises issuing from Bud's flat for evidence of the younger man's boundless sexual appetite, and comes to Bud and Fran's rescue when Fran, rejected by Jeff, swallows half a bottle of Bud's Seconal. But the movie stops short of overt manipulation. It earns its laughs and tears, and there are times when it doesn't get as close to it characters as other films might, preferring to keep just a bit of distance.

Odd as it might sound today, after decades of dark American indies, one of the most persistent raps against Wilder, not just for "The Apartment" but nearly everything he directed, was that he was "cynical" and "tawdry"—and that, in general, he was too grim and smug to have anything substantive to say about his troubled and troubling characters. There was a consensus among mainstream critics that Wilder was just getting a kick out of being inappropriate or ugly, and pushing acceptable standards as far as he could while still making films within the studio system—and that if his movies weren't so funny and involving, no one would suffer through them.

There's truth to the accusation that Wilder loved pushing the outer edge of what is now called "the content envelope." From "The Lost Weekend" onward, a good part of his reputation was based on getting away with things other directors wouldn't dare think of doing. But it isn't the whole Billy Wilder story, and "The Apartment" is the clearest demonstration why saying so is reductive. If the 1960 Best Picture winner is Wilder's greatest and most perfect movie overall (and I think it is) it's because it's compassionate. It seems to want to embrace its suffering characters when they're at their most miserable, as when Bud shivers on a cold park bench after surrendering his apartment for an unscheduled tryst, or when a range of self-lacerating thoughts passes across Fran's face after Jeff gives her a Christmas present of money—like a common you-know-what. (There are many great performances in this movie, but MacLaine's is the greatest, underplaying every moment, even harrowing ones, to devastating effect; the reaction shot of Fran in the hundred-dollar bill scene is Bergman-worthy.)

Wilder's a moralist, but a European kind of moralist. He's not wagging his finger. He's identifying certain timeless tendencies in humankind, and perhaps wishing things were not so, but also realizing that they are so, and that there's not much point denying it. He's genuinely interested in the pain that expedient choices cause to wronged parties—and also in the ripple effect of those choices on the larger community. (Fran's suicide attempt disrupts many other characters' routines—and on Christmas Eve, yet.) The movie casts a mordant eye on the actions of all its characters, but it never seems to enjoy their suffering — except Jeff Sheldrake's; when he's abandoned on New Year's Eve by Fran, the woman whose heart he broke more than once, we feel a bit of schadenfreude, and it's fine, because Jeff is a sociopath who cares very much what other people think of him, but not about how they feel or what they need. "You know, you see a girl a couple of times a week just for laughs, and right away they think you're gonna divorce your wife," Jeff tells Bud. "Now I ask you, is that fair?" "No, sir, it's very unfair," Bud says. "Especially to your wife."

Dreyfuss and his wife Mildred (Naomi Stevens) serve as the film's moral and ethical anchors. They don't approve of Bud's presumed "lifestyle," not because they're prudes but because they worry about him, and about the women they assume he's sleeping with. When Fran tries to kill herself, Dr. Dreyfuss, who assumes Bud is the inspiration for Fran's act, tells Bud he expected something like this to happen or later. You don't ask a person to donate their body to science, as the doctor does with Bud, because you think he's normal. The man that Dr. Dreyfuss imagines Bud to be is a monster—probably somebody pretty close to Jeff Sheldrake, who carries on an affair with an elevator operator under the pretext of escaping a rotten home life (which is probably not that bad, knowing Jeff), then begs Fran to consider his wife and kids when he's breaking up with her. Jeff finally gets the divorce he's been foretelling to various women after another of his ex-lovers, his secretary Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), hears of Fran's near-death and rats him out to Mrs. Sheldrake. Jeff presents this to Fran as if it were another, belated Christmas gift.

There's something very slightly monstrous about Bud too, though, although it takes the film (and Bud) a while to sort if out and explain it. Bud made a terrible romantic mistake when he was younger, then accidentally shot himself in the thigh during his own post-scandal suicide attempt. Once you find out about all this, Bud's pattern of giving up his apartment for extramarital dalliances seems like a form of self-punishment by displacement. He's encouraging  skeezy men who reflect what Bud once was to take over his home and banish him into the streets. Bud's not actively horrible, like Jeff and the other executives, but he is complicit in the schemes of men who treat infidelity as a perk.

The film is aware that, like organized crime and institutionalized violence, lesser forms of bad behavior like the executives' infidelity ring can only exist if colleagues, neighbors and underlings look the other way, or participate to gain ancillary advantages (like Bud, who wants a promotion). The women who sleep with Consolidated executives are compensated with nights on the town, fur coats, a break from routine, and so forth. They experience a certain romantic fantasy without any much possibility of matrimonial follow-through. This is sad for some but a surely a relief for others, and it is the way of the world regardless. "When you're in love with a married man you shouldn't wear mascara," Fran says. "Miss Kubelik, one doesn't get to be a second administrative assistant around here unless he's a pretty good judge of character," Bud tells her, "and as far as I'm concerned you're tops. I mean, decency-wise and otherwise-wise." She's not tops. That doesn't mean she's a bad person—she's no worse than Bud; she's just human. And weak. It's easier for a weak, human person to go along and get along than stand up or opt out, because the whole system is rotten, and the pressure to conform to it is unrelenting, and when you push back, as Bud finally does, you pay.

As remarkable as the movie's moral sophistication is Wilder's old-school sense of craft. "The Apartment" was shot in then-fashionable black-and-white CinemaScope, and uses the wide frame to emphasize the soul-crushing anonymity of Consolidated's offices: rows of identical desks beneath buzzing fluorescent lights. Beyond that, there is nothing avant-garde about the way the story is told. Younger viewers may be struck by how engrossing the film still is, considering how lengthy the scenes are (as in a stage play, they have clearly delineated beginnings, middles and ends) and how rarely Wilder panders to short attention spans by cutting to something else. Many of Lemmon's best scenes are subtly choreographed one-takes that follow Bud through a space as he fusses, frets and mutters. This film does not "cover" its action as so many modern movies and TV shows do, by photographing every scene with multiple cameras and cutting to a closeup of whoever happens to be speaking. "The Apartment" is directed. Every shot and cut matters. Confident decisions have been made about what's in the frame and what's out, who we're looking at or listening to, and why.

Wilder and Diamond's screenplay is the foundation of this well-told tale. It makes masterly use of set-ups and payoffs, most of them encoded in props, such as the cracked makeup mirror that reveals that Fran is Jeff's mistress (while also reflecting her shattered self-image); the hundred-dollar bill that Jeff gives Fran, which becomes her wordless suicide note, and the album by Jimmy Lee Kiang, the piano player at Fran and Jeff's favorite Chinese restaurant, which announces Fran's presence in Bud's apartment and explains why she nearly died there. The movie is a masterpiece, structure-wise and otherwise—a rare Best Picture Oscar winner that might actually have been the year's best picture.

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