Dir. Billy Wilder. Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
In writing about The Apartment in the past (once as a great American movie, and the other as a Best Picture winner), I find myself coming back to the movie’s cynical heart, the seediness which is totally unexceptional to its purveyors, and all the more real for it. It’s so easy to be swept up in Bud’s (Lemmon) dogged pursuit and devotion to Fran (MacLaine) that you can forget about the months which have preceded this state of affairs, and which have presumably dominated Bud’s life ever since he lent that guy the key to his apartment to change into a tux. There really are four married men at this company—Kirkeby (David Lewis), Dobisch (Ray Walston), Vanderhoff (William Waterman), and Eichelberger (David White), executives all—who have decided to take care of a corporate underling’s bachelorhood and fragile employment so they can carry on with girlfriends, sweethearts, and one night stands. (There is a lengthy scene in the early going, one which is for the plot purely secretarial but for characterization essential; Bud, in need of his bed because of his recent ailment, juggles the schedule all four men are on in a series of phone calls. It’s not exciting, precisely; it’s hard to think of another scene quite like it, which is so businesslike about the strange cell that Bud keeps the books for.) They have the power, as Dobisch shows us, to kick Bud out of the apartment at a moment’s notice, even if Bud is already abed, and threaten to toss him out on the street for good if he does not toss himself out there so he won’t be in the way of their good time. It’s played off as a joke when Sheldrake (MacMurray), who outranks all of them, summons Bud upstairs to ask him what’s up, and Bud replies that “percentage-wise,” it’s only four men out of more than 30,000 who are so entangled. It’s an exemplary moment about how it’s always “a priest, a rabbi, and an imam” who walk into a bar together and not “Father Al, Rabbi Aaron, and Imam Abdullah” who walk in at the same time. Specificity is a bad ground indeed to plant one’s attempts at humor, where vagueness is the soft loam of humor.
All the same, what an unforgivable set of circumstances this is, and how starkly the guilt lies upon all of them. The executives cheat on their wives, and their privilege is so great that they expect the waters to part to give them more leeway to do so. It is inconceivable to Dobisch that Bud should demand his sleep at 11:00 at night; he is offended that Bud would deny him this great pleasure of bedding this biddy. Over and over again, there’s dissatisfaction when Bud does not “play ball” to their satisfaction, such as when he asks to be compensated for his liquor, or when Kirkeby makes a point of asking for “those little cheese crackers” on his way out one night. The only thing that these men respect is Bud’s sex life. Kirkeby barges in on Christmas at 4:00, commanding use of the apartment after Bud made it pretty clear with a non-answer earlier on that he was not open for business, and only demurs when he sees who’s there: Ms. Kubelik, the hardest gal to get in the entire building, inopportunely turns her face in Kirkeby’s direction while she sleeps. Kirkeby congratulates Bud, Bud practically smacks him out of the room, but the irony of the moment is heavy indeed. Recovering from a suicide attempt brought on by a Kirkeby with authority on ‘roids, Kirkeby can only imagine what pleasures he’s interrupting rather than imagine the agony that someone very much like him could cause. I stay up nights thinking about what kind of accountability Bud has for Fran’s suicide attempt, balancing my general disinclination to blame a worker for a boss’ perfidy with the human responsibility that Bud himself realizes he has by the end of the movie. (The movie, with it’s ’50s milieu and morals, is not especially interested in this question, although I think there is some kind of answer in Bud’s workplace. It is soulless. The lights go all the way back. The desks go all the way back. It melts into the horizon like it’s something out of Lawrence of Arabia. This modern workplace is its own lonely territory, Bud’s desk more crowded than his park bench but not any more welcoming.) Surely Bud has to wrestle with this in the witching hours, too, but we know too that his nights are not exactly the best time for him to sleep, anyway.
Bud has no friends. It’s never occurred to me in terms that blunt before, but he has no one. (There’s the line in the movie where he says that he doesn’t have friends or family to speak of, but it’s one thing to say “I don’t have any friends” and another entirely to have zero friends.) He picks up Mrs. MacDougal (Hope Holiday), or perhaps gets picked up himself, but they have no particular connection outside their loneliness, no matter how hilariously literal their cheek-to-cheek dancing at the bar is on Christmas Eve. Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) is even less Bud’s friend than Jiminy Cricket was Pinocchio’s; instead of “Always let your conscience be your guide,” Dreyfuss’ cry is “Mildred! He’s at it again!” No, there are people whose lives Bud has rubbed up against even before his bedroom becomes ground zero for Fran’s suicide attempt, but there is no one he can be intimate with, or share to. When he gets kicked out of his apartment, he goes to a park bench for the night; there is no one he knows who will take him in. We find out about his own past suicide attempt, a story so doofy that one can only give it credence, but it also sounds like his loneliness obliterated him in Cincinnati as much as it obliterated him in New York, that after he was disposed of by this girl he was into he had no one to share his troubles with. Fran is not a loner, precisely—an iron-fisted cabdriver named Karl (Johnny Seven), for whom she is a live-in in-law, proves it emphatically when he discovers where she’s been—but to me the second-best picture of loneliness in the picture is of her. (Number one is watching Bud do the thing that many a singleton has done in his or her time…he comes home, heats up a TV dinner, and can’t find anything to watch on TV. That he’s so excited about Grand Hotel, at once a movie which is an open vein of emotion as well as the container for “I vant to be alone!” only serves to emphasize that loneliness further.) If Bud is alone by himself, Fran is alone among people over and over again. Alone together with Sheldrake in the Chinese restaurant. Alone together with goodness knows how many people in the elevator each day, alternately ogled and ignored. Alone together at home, the third wheel in someone else’s life. Jack Lemmon is not often sad in this movie, landing more frequently on aggrieved or self-sacrificing, or perhaps engaging in some mild gallows humor. But Shirley MacLaine is so sad so often. That moment where she gets a hundred bucks for Christmas from Sheldrake and then stands up and takes her coat off, her body doll-like and limp, her eyes hooded and vacant, is an incredibly sad one.