“Be a mensch,” Jack Lemmon is told by his neighbor in The Apartment. “You know what that means? A human being.”
It’s the kind of feel-good, motivational poster message you’d expect to see from any number of warm and cosy romantic comedies from the last couple of decades, but while The Apartment most certainly has its warm and cozy parts, it’s much more complicated than that. A dark film about immorality and infidelity, it’s searingly angry, viciously satirical, and at times deeply melancholic. It’s also a perfect film for Christmas and New Year.
Set over the festive period and concluding on New Year’s Eve, The Apartment stars Lemmon as Bud, a lowly office worker who wants to climb the corporate ladder and finds a novel, if unethical, way to do so. Using his bachelor status to his benefit, he loans his cosy flat to his bosses so they can conduct extra-marital affairs away from their wives’ prying eyes. All is going well until he realizes that his latest customer, his boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), is seeing his crush, elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).
It’s easy to overlook just how incendiary The Apartment was back in 1960 (and, to a degree, remains today). Director Billy Wilder and his longtime co-writer I.A.L Diamond’s masterstroke here is to avoid trite moralizing. These men may be grossly immoral, braying idiots who objectify any woman unlucky enough to stumble into their path, but they’re rarely explicitly condemned. Their womanizing is just something they do, coming to them as naturally as breathing. That’s what’s so horrifying about it: It’s all presented as a simple fact of American life.
Though he’s the hero of the piece, Bud doesn’t escape this moral quagmire unscathed. He’s a spineless worm for most of the film, happily lending out his home to enable family-destroying affairs and leapfrog his colleagues, whether he deserves it or not. At one point, he’s given the promotion he longs for and packs up his belongings ready to move to the office’s upper floors. An older man, who’s clearly been there much longer than Bud and probably done much more to justify a promotion, can only watch on with indignance.
Our sympathy never wavers though, and that’s partly due to Wilder and Diamond’s own sympathy for him. Bud isn’t a bad guy, he’s just a sucker. He’s been suckered into lending out his apartment, suckered into thinking he has a chance of making progress in the company, suckered into thinking that making progress like this is a worthwhile goal. He’s placed ambition over basic decency, but even as he becomes complicit in actions that will ultimately unravel families, it’s difficult for us to hate him, such is the quality of Wilder and Diamond’s writing.
A typically humane performance from Jack Lemmon helps too. Lemmon made a career out of characters like this: frustrated, bedraggled everymen who feel much more real than the idealized everymen James Stewart played for Frank Capra. Bud is his masterpiece and his genius lies in the small details. The annoyed sighs as he’s bombarded with ads before the start of a favorite film; the quiet heartbreak when he’s stood up on a date by Fran; the confident, but entirely dorky, way he goes about complimenting her: “You’re tops: I mean decency-wise and otherwise-wise.” It’s a tour de force of charm and if you never watch anything else from The Apartment, at least enjoy this four-and-a-half minutes of cinematic brilliance:
As well representing the greatest office Christmas party sequence in film history, that excerpt also has Lemmon’s crowning achievement. Sporting an expensive new bowler hat he’s bought to impress Fran, he asks her for a mirror, and when she produces a broken compact that he recognizes as the one left in his flat after Sheldrake had occupied it, he works out what’s going on. A phone rings and a crestfallen Bud answers with a cracked ‘hello.’ Suddenly, with one small revelation, everything he holds dear falls to bits and any malice we saw in him before evaporates; he’s not the scheming corporate climber, but the hopeless romantic in love with someone who’ll never be in love with him.
Lemmon is of course just one part of the equation here. As Fran, MacLaine gives a performance of fragility, defiance and strength that stands as one of the best in her wonderful career. Like Bud, she’s stuck in a loop: a good person who’s doing a bad thing because she’s been suckered. After a failed suicide attempt, she spends Christmas at Bud’s apartment and she and him share some of cinema’s most romantic moments: a game of gin rummy, a meal of spaghetti and meatballs, a tennis racquet used as a pasta strainer. There’s humor, pathos and, most of all, genuine love here. Take this exchange, for example:
Fran: Would you mind opening the window?
Bud: Now don’t go getting any ideas, Miss Kubelik.
Fran: I just want some fresh air.
Bud: It’s only one story down. The best you can do is break a leg.
Fran: So they’ll shoot me – like a horse.
Bud: Please, Miss Kubelik, you gotta promise me you won’t do anything foolish.
Fran: Who’d care?
Bud: I would.
Fran: Why can’t I ever fall in love with somebody nice like you?
Bud: Yeah, well, that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.
This is the beating heart of The Apartment. Bud genuinely loves Fran more than a physical or romantic attraction; he wants her to be happy without expecting anything back. For her part, Fran loves him too, she’s just too hooked on Sheldrake to do anything about it. The moments between the two of them are romantic precisely because they’re not meant to just be romantic. In a world where the connection between people resembles a monetary transaction, Fran and Bud are two lost souls rediscovering what it is to care for another person and have that other person care for them back.
The thing they’re lacking is the courage to change, and that’s what makes The Apartment such a great film to watch over Christmas and New Year. At this time of year, we look backward and forward simultaneously, wondering where we went wrong, where we went right, and what we can do in the 12 months ahead to make ourselves better people. In the corporate mire The Apartment depicts, this is pretty much the only thing Bud and Fran can control: their ability to make a positive change. And change they do in a sweet and deeply stirring finale that very few romances before or since have rivaled for emotional impact.
Like Fran and Bud, we’ve got to ask ourselves what we can change to improve things and how we can go about enforcing that change. The key, The Apartment says, is to simply be kind. Be good. Be a mensch.