By Stephen Thanabalan (Singapore)
The Apartment is a beautiful and endearing film that shows its audiences the greater meaning behind the vanities of life. How love, modest elegance and principles in character (mensch) ultimately overrule self-centeredness, indulgence, and materialistic corporate ladder decadence.
In fact, the corporate NYC settings for the main character, evoke an emblematic element of the rat race that everyone living in a city is inevitably forced to run today (more so when you consider inequality and rural-urban migration). This film hits on the collective sentiment of universal loneliness in a dog eat dog world. That of a person being a mere utilitarian unit of production in a cruel world and less of a human that is just about being. To that end, the film is almost a study in existentialist philosophy, and the scary bit is that at times, the film feels less comedic, and more real; more actuality than the clichés it was supposed to provoke.
When the content delves into extramarital adulterous liaisons (considered taboo during its time), the film becomes almost part social commentary, part “let’s laugh at ourselves”, and more “oh my my, our lives are sad and lonely aren’t they?” so much so that there is a point you actually feel for the characters in their loneliness. And it is that, which ensures the film its very timeless quality, and its relevance to the modern world till this day, with the film rightly earning labels like being “ahead of its time”.
However, I do not believe that it is merely this ‘timeless’ resonance quality that has caused this prescient film to become such a ‘classic (and indeed, what a classic it is), rather, it is merely the reason explaining why this film did not leave you at the lobby floor sitting and waiting like so many other existential films out there. Instead of merely highlighting our futile existences and leaving us at the lobby of meaninglessness, this film, in contrast, actually begins to, elevate us to the door of hope, horror of horrors, this film begins to actually have, heart.
With thematic content that is still relevant today anywhere from NYC to Tokyo, to just about anyone living in a globalised city, the heart behind this very real human dramedy is that quiet, simple love that endures and triumphs in the end, is still what every human being needs, despite the pretensions, greed, and steely facades we create or live yoked under.
I think the single reason this film still resonates with audiences after 50 years is that there is a palpably delightful message of hope amid the humdrum monotony for the millions of people feeling trapped and lonely in ostensibly insignificant lives and careers in big cities, and the film moves toward capturing the heart of hope, that money and materialism cannot buy. The message is old yes, but not outdated, as it never will be. In fact, the director of this film clearly was not content with merely having his film remain “ahead of its time” at showcasing the individualism of chasing city lights and the vanities and loneliness of such an existence, but, to do more.
I am convinced that the man behind this elevation towards heart, Billy Wilder, the writing talent behind such brilliant works as Ninotchka, is genius. He makes this film his second outing after the highly celebrated Some Like it Hot, and whilst many felt he might be hard pressed to top that, here- in a totally different direction thematically – he does.
Plot wise, as mentioned, the story is really much more about the dramatic pinpricks of human tragedy and loneliness insofar as it is laced with comedic turns about a man who loans his apartment out to bosses for their extramarital liaisons in order to gain their approval and climb the ladder at work. Complications ensue when he discovers a beautiful woman he desires to court is actually inimically one of the objects exploited beguilingly by his indirect actions, because she becomes a lustful tool used by his very boss in his very apartment, forcing him into an impugning quagmire.
Now of course the lady is not completely innocent in this as she was willing to be taken in, but what is interesting here is precisely the fact that Wilder does not give her a faux angelic innocence that is characteristic of most films that went before. She is nuanced, and has flaws, yet is human and experiences hurts and pains and Wilder does not sacrifice layers of complexity for the sake of a quick plot one dimensional resolution. Wilder blends these elements in perfect harmony in this film, with the added chemistry between the cast of the wry humoured Jack Lemmon and the cloy beauty of Shirley MacLaine (Wilder would pair them again for Irma Douce).
Together, the pair are unforgettable; neatly balancing their acting lines on the tensions of pure wit and pacing off the script, whilst viewers rest secure in knowing Wilder’s touch is always there undergirding the whole film with a sense of a genuine sanctity for compassion, evinced in the whole plot and film’s overall flow. So much so that when Lemmon and MacLaine fall in love and you have the climatic happy ending, you actually do not feel it was trite, or forced because “in the 50s and 60s you just had to have a happy ending”.
No, the film manages to do all that and still climax narratively, and yet, it also achieves so much more. It manages as I said before, to even succeed as a social commentary. Far from considering the film an insult on the many who play sycophantic roles on the way up the rat race or corporate ladder, or in the case of women, climbing up by way of giving in to adulterous men, here, the cynicism can be construed with much verecund indignation as it highlights the sadness of it all without being condescending. And that is poignantly radical, so much so that it becomes in fact, thoroughly refreshing and one of the very reasons why the film resonates and has heart.
Here, Wilder’s characters speak of the struggle each city dweller in modern (or postmodern) living can identify with. There is no condescending need to present anyone as perfect, overtly altruistic, overtly feminine nor elegant (MacLaine’s character is a lift attendant) nor flawless in their life choices. They make mistakes, sweat over them, and regret. This is a real rarity for films emerging out of Hollywood on the back of the 1950s with swashbuckling heroines and heroes and candy coated resolutions. It is ironic because post WWII, almost all the world only wanted a happy story and understandably so for the zeitgeist of that era (perhaps why this film only succeeded critically and not commercially).
The irony being that at the time (and arguably still) Hollywood was Jewish owned, so it doubtlessly took a real Jewish understanding of pain and loneliness to painstakingly create this picture with “mensch” (Yiddish for integrity and honour). Now to me, Wilder is the one with real Mensch here, for his work. Lemmon is his social puppeteer to convey his meaning, and do it well he does, with earnestness.
Lemmon’s character is a simple bachelor with an air of inevitable loneliness in the meanderings of life in a NY apartment. As they say, that’s why they call them a-part-ments. You live apart and alone. He is an amalgam of a laid back yet pre-emptively self-serving corporate machine, who ostensibly is forced into playing the only role he knows in order to better his predicament of being merely yet another average diploma staffer on Wall St. to climb up the corporate-ladder in his General insurance firm. He is a real selfish utilitarian. Or is he? See, that’s what I love about the film. Lemmon’s character begins to develop mensch and changes. There is a redemptive quality here. It acknowledges that we all as human beings are selfish, but, do we really want to be like that if we could have an alternative? A hope? Beauty and meaning in our lives- something to live for?
The real beauty here in Wilder’s film is yes, MacLaine (as often it can take a woman to trigger that attractive need to provide love in a man), but here, it is the script and writing. The characterisation is so good that both Lemmon, and also MacLaine (who makes the wrong choices by being mistress to Lemmon’s boss), both harness a true propensity for love and care that is nestled within, waiting to exhale whilst in the midst of them being stuck in their cyclical ruts of despair and pursuits of selfish ambition. And it took the man to initiate their salvation. This is not just Jewish, or Christian, but, true of humanity and the way we as human beings are made and constituted for more in life; for love; for hope, and not just greed, power and status. This is pure social commentary, but not done distastefully, rather, done with a great deal of heart.
It is the heart that carries you as you watch this film, thus giving you real satisfaction when both these characters reconcile each others pains, heal each other (literally too in the classic doctor scene) and find love amid the hustle bustle of the rat race in the world that goes on around them, championing each other on, with us the audiences, championing them on! It is almost as if you vicariously resonate with each pinprick and human dramedy they go through, such that when they play gin rummy in the final scene, in heart wrenchingly beautiful emotional overtones (kept painfully modest by Wilder), and celebrating the simple love that triumphs over all hurts, even grown men have been known to let out a modest sigh, if not a sniffle.
Why do we feel for this film? Well, the themes are relevant till today, and the quality of what this film achieved stylistically (as the last of the B&W generation) remains extant in full living colour today, because of the sheer timeless message of hope and heart this film carries to anyone who’s ever been that insignificant other, or ordinary person to be forgotten in that apartment out there in a big city world.