The Apartment ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


I want to talk about a cinematic trope that (to the best of my knowledge) has never been given a name. I'm gonna call it Oppositional Processing.

You see this one all the time (albeit not quite so frequently these days, intricate plotting having become a half-forgotten art). One character is talking to another, and inadvertently/innocently/unwittingly reveals some key bit of information that powerfully affects the person who hears it. The listener doesn't interrupt the speaker, however, or otherwise overtly acknowledge the seismic impact of this bombshell. Instead, the scene continues apace in dialogue form, while we, the viewers, privy to knowledge that the speaker lacks, observe the sudden shift in emotion play out on the listener's face. (This conceit generally requires that the speaker temporarily fail to recognize some pretty blatant social cues, but we willingly suspend our disbelief.) For a sublime example, look at the last few minutes of The Apartment, when Mr. Sheldrake casually mentions to Ms. Kubelik that Baxter refused to give up his key, and that for some reason he particularly objected to the notion of Sheldrake bringing Ms. Kubelik there. As Sheldrake obliviously drones on, we enjoy Fran's sudden rush of understanding that she's desired by someone decent—a reaction that gradually builds until it finally explodes into action and she performs a rare distaff version of the fabled final-reel sprint. Immensely gratifying.

But that's not what that made me board this train of thought. Consider an earlier scene, at the Consolidated Christmas party. Fran has just learned distressing news about Sheldrake's extensive history of bedding underlings, courtesy of his current secretary (and erstwhile fling). Nothing unwitting about it—Miss Olsen tells Fran with the express intention of wounding her. But then Baxter returns with drinks, takes Ms. Kubelik to his office, and proceeds to show off a new hat he's just bought. Wilder shoots this sequence using exactly the same visual grammar that Oppositional Processing demands, cutting back and forth between Bud's effusive questions and Fran's detached replies (which Bud improbably fails to register as indifference). The distinction is that she's not reacting to anything he's said. She couldn't care less about anything he's said. She's looking right through him.

Shortly thereafter, she attempts to kill herself.

All of which is a very longwinded way of observing that The Apartment juggles disparate tones as deftly as any movie ever made. What starts out as a sophisticated comedy of manners, drily funny and charming, takes a hard swerve into paralyzing sadness...and then somehow miraculously continues in both modes simultaneously, without diluting or undermining either. It's a heartwarming romance that pivots on suicide, earning smiles even as it takes despair seriously.

Happy endings are never so effective for me as when they claw their way out of genuine, deeply felt heartache (see also Buffalo '66); "Shut up and deal" works so beautifully in part because Fran is still too emotionally raw to reciprocate Bud's profession of love, even though it's clear that she will in time. Lemmon, the quintessential ineffectual male of the era (love the bit where he has to dig into his pocket for the key three times, pulling out wads of tissue on the first two attempts), and Maclaine, seemingly too winsome to lose all hope, are both ideally cast, and the film's shrewd, masterful narrative structure affords them nearly equal weight, using MacMurray as a fulcrum. Plus the thing just looks flat-out gorgeous, even managing (in shots of Bud's initial workspace) to emphasize depth via widescreen compositions. My one tiny complaint is the gratuitous cuteness of Fran thinking the champagne cork might be a gunshot, which actually now that I think about it kinda does undermine the gravity of her own suicide attempt, and is really just not necessary. Oh, and I want to know how Bud has an apartment on W. 67th for what would be $715/month adjusted for inflation. Otherwise, nirvana. Amazing to think that Wilder's 1959–61 run overlapped with Hitch's from 1958–60. What a time to have been alive.