A review requested by Benjamin Ross Johnson, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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The foremost skill of the great writer-director Billy Wilder, I think, is his ability to take some of the most genuinely caustic, vicious cynicism ever found in the Hollywood film industry, and wrap in such buoyant dialogue, bedecked with witty curlicues and daring turns of phrase and impressively forward smuttiness, that it still manages to be fun to watch, even though you're being confronted with some of the most sour depictions of unpleasant people in all of mainstream cinema. And there is no film where that is a more central concern than his 1960 film The Apartment, the film for which he won his second Oscar for directing, his third Oscar for writing, and his first for producing a Best Picture winner (though it was not his first film to take that award - The Lost Weekend beat it by 15 years). Impressive numbers all around, and even more impressive in the face of how unbelievably cruel The Apartment is: very nearly the cruelest of a cruel filmography, behind only the bilious Ace in the Hole from 1951.

None of this should be taken as anything but the highest praise, I hope you understand. Though even for such an irredeemable lover of acid-spitting cynicism as I am, The Apartment is a whole lot to take. It's probably no bleaker in its outlook than Double Indemnity or Sunset Blvd., two of his other best-known films, but it lacks the jokes they use to leaven that bleakness somewhat. This is ironic, given that Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. are not, formally speaking, comedies, and The Apartment, formally speaking, is. But it's a comedy that's using all of its prodigious sense of humor to focus our attention on the rotten culture at the heart of the story, and at the heart of the post-WWII economic boom in the United States, rather than to ease the pressure a bit.

The film makes it clear extremely early on what it's going to be doing, opening with one of the finest bits of screenwriting in any of the collaborations between Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, as C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) rattles off statistics about the population of New York, letting us know that he's got all of these data points at his fingertips because he works for an insurance company. After a few establishing shots of the city, we get to see Bud in his element, with a shot of the 19th floor of Consolidated Life itself. It is, simply put, one of the great images of office life in all of cinema, so perfectly positioned by Wilder and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (who received one of the film's ten Academy Award nominations, though not one of its five wins) that it has effectively become the template for filming the inside of an office in the intervening decades. The camera is set slightly high, so that the ceiling of the room can be captured at the top of the frame, and it points straight down an enormous space that seems to stretch into infinity, past row after row of office drudge scrabbling away at their desks, with every rectangle in the room creating a series of soulless, inorganic boxes within boxes within boxes. It's an image that could not possibly make those dozens and dozens of desks look any less appealing, nor the people sitting at them seem any more dehumanised. And then it dissolves to a shot of Bud alone at his desk, the vast white emptiness of the room somehow even more crushing and miserable than the dizzying activity was.

It's not just a hell of an introduction to our character, a ground-down office drone whose desire for advancement has led him to happily sign over every molecule of his personal life to the bosses; it's also a great introduction to the moral universe that the film will be about. The Apartment is all about urban white-collar America in 1959, serving as such a perfect time capsule that I assume the filmmakers at least partially had to think of it that way. And what they see in this world is nothing good. It is a top-to-bottom poisonous culture of glad-handing, sucking-up, self-negation, and total amorality. The apartment of the title is Bud's, but as he tells us in that opening monologue, he doesn't spend much time there himself; he mostly loans it out to the managers on his floor, to have affairs with their mistresses. This is, in his mind, being a team player. And it works well enough for him to get a promotion, where he'll answer directly to personnel manager Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, superbly oily and smarmy), who also expects use of the apartment. Everything is going so great in Bud's life that he decides it's finally time to ask out the elevator operator he's been crushing on, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine); the only problem is that she's Sheldrake's current mistress, and while he has absolutely no interest in her beyond consequence-free sex, she's fallen in love with him pretty hard. Upon realising this, Bud does the only thing a red-blooded American man in his situation would do: he immediately stops pursuing Fran and lets Sheldrake continue unabated in his abuse of the meek woman.

The film is unabashedly sordid, and strikes a magnificent balance in portraying Bud himself: Lemmon plays him as an affable everyman charmer, but he's generally presented with a fair degree of open contempt, considering that we're also meant to find him to be a sympathetic point of identification. One of the most crucial lines of dialogue in a script packed with good lines comes when Sheldrake is moaning about his female troubles: "Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you're gonna divorce your wife. Now I ask you, is that fair?" To which Lemmon replies in the bright tones of a born yes-man, "No, sir, it's very unfair. Especially to your wife." And there's something about that "especially to your wife" that is so very immaculate in the actor's line reading. It's of course sardonic and cutting, the witticism of a court jester wondering just how far he can go in insulting the king to his face. But there's also something obviously pathetic about it, with Bud unable even to strike a moral stance without having to bury it beneath mindless pep and agreeableness. He's a miserable schlub, but he also plainly assumes that if he just keeps absorbing abuse, he'll eventually get something out of it beyond just more abuse.

In this, he's a perfect match for Fran, who benefits from the best performance of MacLaine's career: it's a beautiful mixture of dejection and irritation, hoping against hope that if she lets the awful Sheldrake insult her over and over again, he'll eventually see her loyalty and love. It's a performance that exists mostly in MacLaine's face: when Sheldrake hands her a hundred dollars in lieu of an actual Christmas present (oh yes, that's another part of what makes The Apartment so wonderfully nasty: all of this sexual bartering and interpersonal meanness takes place during the Christmas season in 1959, and the sets have enough brightly-lit trees scattered throughout that you never forget it), as simple a thing as the affronted way she moves her eyes down to the money tells us a great deal about who Fran is, and exactly where her breaking point is.

The whole film does an impeccable of sketching out Bud and Fran as downtrodden and anguished - suicide enters the plot midway through, and it's not treated with any humor despite Wilder having demonstrated a willingness to go for such black comedy elsewhere in his career - and the former, in particular, as having been himself corrupted by the same world that is going to firmly prevent him from ever being more than a punching bag. Indeed, The Apartment is so good at depicting the lacerating cruelty of the world of offices and managers and entitlement that it has a hard time reversing course to depict the sweet, nurturing affection between the two leads. It doesn't really seem that Wilder and Diamond actually believe it can exist. And this is maybe the single major flaw that keeps me from ranking this among the very top films of the director's canon: not that it is nasty per se, but that its attempts to soften that nastiness simply aren't sufficient. The most successful place it does that is with Bud's neighbors, a pragmatic but morally righteous doctor (Jack Kruschen) and his morally righteous and openly judgmental wife (Naomi Stevens). They are the two sources of absolute good in the movie, but even this doesn't really let air in: their contempt for Bud, which he never tries to contradict, mostly serve to make our hero seem even more pathetic than the rest of the scenario.

Still, a black-hearted satire this smart, cutting, and hilarious is good even if it can't quite find a way out of its nihilism; indeed, this might very well be what makes it a good satire. The Apartment has done fantastic work in making the offices and the apartment itself seem hopelessly poisoned by the go-go-go attitude of successful American capitalism: the anarmorphic widescreen frame leaves everything looking a bit distorted and boxy, like a series of terrible, dismal shadowboxes, and it's not afraid to throw some heavy shadows that make domestic spaces seem gloomy and lifeless. And the way it captures the brittle speech of people who've given up their personalities for commerce is hilarious and damning. It's never been and will never by my favorite Wilder film, but it's hugely bracing, and still actively dangerous after more than a half-century; satires of corporate culture have continued to come out without pause down the years, but they're very rarely this merciless. It's not as savagely modernist asΒ Psycho, the other big evergreen classic from 1960, but for something this old and this across-the-board dated in its attitudes and milieu to still feel this fresh is by every means a major achievement.