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Non-Review Review: The Apartment

The Apartment is a classic romantic comedy, and deservedly so. Reuniting director Billy Wilder with actor Jack Lemmon, it’s a wonderfully dysfunctional look at life in the big city, and the compromises the people find themselves forced into. While I think the movie probably works better as a romantic drama than as a comedy – with some outstanding moments of bleakness, including a serious suicide attempt and another false alarm towards the end – Wilder and Lemmon do an exceptional job keeping the movie just light enough that the darker elements don’t overwhelm the film. It is a piece of cinematic history, and one that holds up as well today as it ever did.

The neighbours were wondering about the racket…

It’s sad to think that Jack Lemmon didn’t win an Oscar for his work here. It is, after all, Lemmon who carries the bulk of the film in the role of “Bud” – a fairly anonymous nickname for just another anonymous cog in a gigantic and uncaring machine. While he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Mister Roberts, he’d have to wait almost fifteen years to win a Best Actor Oscar for Save the Tiger. It was more than a little charming when his Glengarry Glen Ross co-star Kevin Spacey dedicated his American Beauty win to the performance here. There’s certainly a lot of Lemmon’s C.C. “Bud” Baxter in Spacey’s Lester Burnham, but he’s also a fundamental part of the DNA of any number of subsequent leading character.

The Apartment is nominally a romantic comedy, and that’s a fair description. It is romantic, and it’s funny enough to be classed as a comedy classic. However, at its core, it feels like a fairly bleak examination of modern living. Lemmon’s character just an anonymous number cruncher who wants to find his way in the world. Rhyming off facts and statistics, he’s nearly lost in a sea of desks in the gigantic office, a wonderful shot created by skilled use of forced perspective. Bud crunches numbers that get fed into a system in his insurance company. While he has a very clear skill for remembering and rhyming off facts and figures, his success or recognition doesn’t hinge on that.

The perspective floored me…

To his bosses, he’s literally just a key to his apartment. His higher-ups all conspire to use Bud’s apartment as a way to keep their affairs secret. It’s a sleazy hostel, with Bud managing bookings and waiting outside for them to finish up. They even complain about the lack of amenities available – whether it’s alcohol or cheese and crackers. None of these people are friends to Bud, they’re just people taking advantage of him. To them, he’s just “some schnook who works in the office.” Of course, that’s not to suggest that Bud is any less anonymous to his neighbours – those living around him seem completely unaware that it’s a different set of lovers meeting there each and every night. They just assume it’s him.

In a way, The Apartment seems to be a very cynical exploration of anomie, the sense of isolation and disconnect that comes with life in the big city. New York City, as portrayed here, is just a bunch of strangers piled in on top of one another, trying to fall into some sort of organised pattern. As Bud explains to us, “On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan.” And all those people are living on top of one another, falling over each other and yet don’t seem to really know anybody.

When life gives you Lemmon…

“The hours in our department are 8:50 to 5:20,” Bud tells during his opening monologue, “they’re staggered by floors, so that sixteen elevators can handle the 31259 employees without a serious traffic jam.” It seems like the staff aren’t people, they are just anonymous chattel to moved around in the most efficient manner possible. It’s all about efficiency of interaction, about timing everything perfectly. One executive seems almost disappointed that his affair can’t be kept to rigidly appointed hours. “These things don’t always run on schedule like a Greyhound Bus,” he apologises to Bud. It seems like almost everything else does.

In fact, by the time we join the film, Bud has never really talked with the object of his affection. Despite that necessary human interaction, however, the system is still so efficient that Bud already knows virtually everything he needs to know about her. Talking to her casually, he boasts, “I know your height and your weight and your social security number.” In a way, that sort of set up a lot of the creepier”stalker-ish” movie romances that are all too common today, but here it is actually sad. She is just a compilation of vital statistics in a machine.

Playing against type(writer)?

It is, naturally, dehumanising. Bud is, in a way, just as used as Fran Kubelik, the elevator girl trapped in an affair with Bud’s boss. Both are treated as commodities to be exploited, rather than human beings to be connected with. Early on, Doctor Dreyfuss even asks if Bud wouldn’t mind letting somebody use his body, after he’s done with it. “Would you mind leaving your body to the university?” When Bud is forced to come face-to-face with the consequences of the way the world works, his next door neighbour, Doctor Dreyfuss challenges him, “Why don’t you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means?” He explains, “A mensch – a human being!”

It seems like humanity is a scarce commodity here. After Dreyfuss helps treat a woman who tried to commit suicide in his apartment, Bud tries to fix up with the medical practitioner. “How much do I owe you for taking care of that girl?” he asks. In one of the movie’s few moments of humanity, and one that seems to resonate with Bud, Dreyfuss responds, “Forget it, I didn’t do it as a doctor, I did it as neighbour.”It’s one of the very few moments where Bud is treated as anything other than an anonymous cog in a machine.

All jacked up…

Of course, this is a very bleak view of the world. In quite a few ways, it seems like The Apartment has a strong thematic link with other depressing tales of city dehumanisation like Shame. Indeed, Wilder’s wonderful script doesn’t pull any punches. After all, how many movies classified as “romantic comedies” do feature a dramatic and entirely sincere suicide attempt during their second act? Wilder isn’t afraid of the implications of the ideas that he’s throwing out there, and that’s something to be very proud of.

And yet, it’s never overwhelming. Wilder’s wit and Lemmon’s delivery often manage to shape the movie into a very dark comedy instead of a bleak dramatic examination of city living. The script, from Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, is sharp and deservedly picked up an Academy Award. The timing and rhyme and pacing is all perfect. However, the film wouldn’t work with Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Both bring wonderful performances to the film, and play well off one another. In particular, Lemmon has this knack for the wry self-pitying one lines that frequently manages to make them both hilarious and heart-breaking in the same instant.

Playing the hand that’s dealt…

Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography is beautiful, as is Alexandre Trauner’s art direction. All the sets look absolutely fabulous, creating the impression of characters who are literally lost in these gigantic and sterile surroundings. The Apartment is just a fine piece of cinema, and a deserving Best Picture winner. Interestingly enough, the last Best Picture winner to be shot entirely in black and white, until The Artist this year.

The Apartment is a movie that still feels as fresh today as it was when it was written. It’s impossible to overstate how influential the movie was. Jack Lemmon’s characterisation of C.C. Baxter alone inspired an entire generation of pathetic down-on-their-luck romantic leads, and Wilder’s portrayal of the hallow and empty city living left its mark on many films that would follow.

4 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on My Homeprofit and commented:
    It’s old classic at me ,my likes myself think beyond and someone.

  2. Stunning film. My favourite Wilder movie and maybe, just maybe, my favourite film of all time.

    • It is great, innit? Not sure I’d place as highly personally, but I’d probably agree on ranking it as the best Billy Wilder film. And that’s some accomplishment.

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