The Apartment (1960)

“And the girl…?”

The romantic comedy changed with those three little words in “The Apartment.” Shirley MacLaine played “the other woman,” the scandalous character who always broke up the true love. But here, she was the lonely girl forgotten by the love of her life, cast out, neglected and contemplating suicide. How did we miss her?

Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” is one of the groundbreaking comedies of all Old Hollywood. It gave the screwball comedy severity. Its characters were lonely, depressed and scummy, and it found a funny color amidst all the blue, proving to be heartwarming and filled with emotional pathos.

Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, an office drone in a movie that would inspire the image of the working man for decades to come. The desks stretching to infinity was inspired by King Vidor’s silent film “The Crowd,” but Wilder’s numerical facts of a singular employee in a massive insurance company seem to paint a broader picture of his workforce servitude.

To move up in the world, Baxter has agreed to a deal with the executives. They can use his apartment as a haven to take their mistresses. The company’s head-honcho, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), promotes Baxter for the same reason, but his mistress is the lovely Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), the spritely elevator girl with the short haircut Baxter has a crush on.

The interesting thing about Baxter is that he’s living a lie that he’s not actually living. His neighbors and his landlady both think he’s a rambunctious party animal bedding a new girl each night and polishing off several bottles of liquor as well. He does need to wake up and smell the coffee, but for different reasons than his neighbors believe. We see him living completely mundanely, changing the channels on TV in the hopes of watching “Grand Hotel” only to be teased with more commercials. And in the short time he earns these new promotions, he earns none of the extra money, still straining pasta with a tennis racket and washing martini glasses by hand. When he takes another lonely woman home from a bar on Christmas Eve, he’s doing so out of complete depression. He’s like the guy not invited to the party but forced to clean up afterwards.

Only Jack Lemmon could play such a part, the loveable sad sack capable of showing deep emotional range. It seems obvious today that he could blend comedy and drama so thoroughly, but “The Apartment” put him on the map following the total screwball that was “Some Like it Hot,” earning him the opportunity to play an alcoholic in “A Day of Wine and Roses” and later other roles of equal complexity.

Lemmon doesn’t always have too many big punch-lines or zingers at hand, but his subtle acting touches make the dialogue brim with comedic energy. Watch when Mr. Sheldrake asks in so few words if he can have the key to his apartment for the first time. His face drops slowly and without breaking eye contact pulls one, then two tissues out of his pocket, and then the key.

He also is the key to letting Wilder’s narrative twists come together so smoothly. The look in his eyes as he sees that broken mirror for the second time says the world, and when Fran speaks the words, “I like it that way. It makes me look the way I feel,” we realize we have two very lonely people in a community of scumbags.

I would bet most audiences would not be prepared to see an attempted suicide in a romantic comedy such as this. Fran is really a tragic figure, constantly acknowledging the deep hole she’s dug herself into. “When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara,” she says. How many other girls do we see this in today? In the movies alone, I saw it just recently in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” “We accept the love we think we deserve.” It’s a problem that didn’t have a label before “The Apartment.”

“The Apartment” went on to win five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. It was the last film shot in black and white to win Best Picture until “Schindler’s List,” and the deep focus cinematography rightfully isolates these tragic figures, making their world look bland and empty.

Sadly Billy Wilder’s best years were likely behind him, but both this and “Some Like It Hot” were massive hits, and they catapulted Lemmon and MacLaine to more fruitful careers. Today the film is cited as a director’s favorite, ranking at #44 on the 2012 Sight and Sound Director’s Poll, voted for by artists like Michel Hazanivicius, Lone Scherfig and even Francis Ford Coppola.

What I like about the film is summed up in its ending. Fran makes a teary-eyed dash to Baxter’s door, only to stop short when she believes she hears a gun shot. The noise was actually a champagne bottle popping, and the movie ends not with a kiss or a token love speech, but a simple game of gin rummy. “Shut up and deal,” she says, granting the movie its heartwarming end while maintaining its wit and dignity.

Most Old Hollywood comedies were straight screwball. This one showed us that even sorrowful comedy could be ever so sweet.