The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

“Y’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. Now I ask you, is that fair?”
“No, sir, it’s very unfair. Especially to your wife.”

To keep the thesis to a few words: it’s difficult to do justice in writing to a film this wonderful. A recommendation is one thing; we do lots of those here. But when I tell you that if you’ve not seen The Apartment, it’s absolutely essentially unmissably urgent that you do so, that’s something a bit different — I simply have trouble imagining anyone not loving it and being enriched by it, its comic ingenuity, the crackling love of language evident in very possibly the best dialogue in film history, the still-timely lashing out against casual misogyny and the general bitterness between those who take and those who get took, and the sincere capturing of something so universal as loneliness, tempered by unrequited love. You might not care much for the prestige pictures that win the big Oscars, or for Billy Wilder’s typically claustrophobic cynicism about the world, but from start to finish you’ll feel lifted up and hugged by this one.

The Apartment is at its basic level a romantic comedy of the sort Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond had worked down to a professional art by the end of the ’50s; they could have made another Some Like It Hot with eyes half-closed. But this film is far more ambitious, a first-person narrative that, like anything that’s truly funny, has pain at its core — stinging as viciously, right in the heart, as City Lights. Mostly free of the slapstick of Some Like It Hot and Wilder’s other ’50s comedies but also flirting with Cinemascope impressionism (its image set borrowed in part from King Vidor’s The Crowd, one of Hollywood’s few perfect films), it’s aged beautifully because it captures a separate time but also reaches down into ours with its subtly scathing attack on corporate life, white-collar dehumanization, and boundless romantic and sexual disappointment. But yes, it’s also hilarious, sparkling, utterly romantic.

Billy Wilder was already a veteran of every corner of the film industry when he made this, so its creation could hardly have been a life-or-death struggle. But the way the movie plays, you wouldn’t know it. A 125-minute date movie could easily be the last hurrah for someone who’d made waves with hard-boiled masterpieces like Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. plus jovial gems like Witness for the Prosecution and Stalag 17. Instead, it’s not only Wilder’s best movie, it’s not only the most deserving winner of the Best Picture Oscar ever (only Casablanca and The Best Years of Our Lives even approach it), it’s one of the handful of films that is so lively, so witty, so oddly real, and so all-encompassing that it could turn a person’s spirit completely around like a boomerang.

Though heralded far and wide as a grand screenwriter, Wilder’s directing is woefully underappreciated; his versatility is stunning, his sense of life remarkable, and his application of universal day to day problems to the muddy Hollywood fantasy zone is without precedent. The Apartment‘s evocative black and white widescreen frame seems to breathe a new sense of purpose into the visuals of Wilder and his cameraman, Joseph LaShelle. All of Wilder’s previous efforts are visually exciting, Sunset Blvd. particularly so, but the compositions and often unexpectedly stylized angles have never been so flawlessly presented, and always mannered and deliberate, every aspect of the screen corresponding to the mood and personality of C.C. Baxter, played with godlike brilliance by Jack Lemmon, adorable tics and neuroses and all. Wilder’s newfound attention to aesthetic detail carries over to the pacing. The movie’s running time makes it sound long-winded, but it jolts along with breakneck abandon.

Wilder defined the idea of “pushing” every ingredient; at various times, Some Like It Hot is a screwball comedy, a thriller, a gangster movie, a sweeping romance, an avant garde tract about sexual identity, a musical. It succeeds in all departments. The Apartment is more excellence yet; it wrings every emotional possibility from its premise. Without bowing into sentimentality, it exposes a kind of pathos and raw humanity few comedies would survive. (Wilder can’t even resist one last sickening jump thirty seconds before the end.) There’s a sequence, without giving too much away, in which emergency medical help is needed, and the director is precise and harrowing in his depiction of what ensues. Notwithstanding all the immortal lines, some of which I think of nearly on a daily basis, the truth in the examination of adultery and heartbreak is undeniable, the emotions painfully studied. It’s a credit to Wilder and Diamond, yes, but also to Lemmon and to Shirley MacLaine, who is staggering as an independent woman trampled upon and doesn’t seem to be in a movie at all, so full-bodied and complete is her Fran Kubelik, a genuinely wondrous creation — and even Fred MacMurray, revising his weak-willed modern day monster of Double Indemnity as the embodiment of the self-made selfish man whose wry good spirits hide a tormented, unknowingly abusive mess with an inevitable path of destruction across multiple floors of the office building over which he presides.

Setting The Apartment miles away from the vast majority of comedies made in Hollywood today is the fact that it is an adult film. I don’t say this in the sense that it’s a movie exclusively for adults, because I don’t deeply believe that. But it resides squarely in a jungle of mature themes, marital/sexual frustration and career ambition and office politics and sexism (in its sarcastic reproach of chauvinism, the film is pretty potent stuff even now) and suicide and longing. Movies like this were always rare in Hollywood, but they once didn’t seem like such aberrations and even managed to pick up considerable commercial attention, or at least widespread recognition; Dodsworth wasn’t a comedy, but it approached many of these same themes with a relieving seriousness absent of pettiness or condescension. In America, the definition of entertainment for “adults” is markedly different now and tends typically to involve splattering blood or dick jokes. You don’t get many grownup people dealing with grownup problems; you have to go overseas for films like A Separation to find that. That’s why something like The Apartment sticks out. It’s a riot, but the comedy is a vehicle for reality, not an escape.

I couldn’t begin to tell you how many favorite scenes I have in this movie, but when it comes out for a near-annual showing in this household I usually end up viewing the last five minutes over and over again, beginning with the singalong of “Auld Lang Syne” at the restaurant. These final moments of The Apartment are so perfect, so sad, so wounding, so finally ecstatic in their begrudging optimism, that they alone justify the film’s reputation. Despite its unerringly subtle final note that gives just the right hint of happiness, the last scene belongs in a pantheon with City Lights and Manhattan as an encapsulation of the rushing emotions of romantic ache that simply cannot be bettered. But it’s reductive to zero in on this, for there’s barely a false second in the whole production.

This isn’t a “torn between two lovers” story, as much as the emphasis is placed on the polar opposites of nice and unassuming but mildly angry guy Lemmon and villain-who-must-be-destroyed MacMurray, as enigmatic and spot-on as ever. This is a story about good people stuck forever in a world of hungry sharks and opportunists. This is about life, much more than it’s about love. It’s about the sense of belonging we spend our lives seeking out, and the fragility we take on as we find it. It’s not a movie that lets us witness our fantasies enacted, it just teases us with the suggestion that they may be just beyond our reach. You might never get what you want, but maybe you can touch it.

[Modified and slightly expanded from a review published elsewhere in 2007.]

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