Monday, September 24, 2018

Billy Wilder’s Three Moral tales

            Since The Apartment is a romantic comedy, the moral message is presented in a deceptively pleasing package. We’re lulled into not seeing how wrong the characters are in the choices they make. Bud (Jack Lemmon) wants to move up from his peon position in the insurance firm where he works. He does so by letting four executives use his apartment for liaisons with floozies; in exchange he’ll get glowing performance ratings. So he waits outside while they carry on inside. When the sordid shenanigans are over he returns, cleans up the dirty dishes and glasses, the cigarette butts. What Wilder doesn’t show is crucial, but couldn’t get by the censors in 1960: Bud has to change the sheets (and maybe dispose of a carelessly discarded condom). Does he feel disgust about allowing his home to be used as a brothel? What damage is being done to his self respect? Not much, it seems. Though Bud is angry at how the men treat him (with total disregard for his feelings), he’s a willing and compliant participant.
            Bud isn’t the only Nobody who tries to get ahead by using whatever tactic is available; others have done worse. His conveniently-located apartment is his asset. Ambition is the force that drives his actions, and he achieves the success he desires when J. D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), a top executive at the firm, also wants to use his place. This amounts to a windfall: in exchange for the key Bud immediately receives a promotion and is suddenly a young executive with his own office.
            Bud has romantic feelings for an elevator operator by the name of Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). But she has a secret dilemma: she’s having an affair with Sheldrake. When Fran learns that she’s one of a series of employees he has used and discarded, and that his line about divorcing his wife is just part of his smoothie routine, she spirals down into suicidal depression. She takes an overdose of sleeping pill at Bud’s apartment (though she doesn’t know it’s his); he returns to find her close to death. In the two days they spend together, as Fran recuperates, they grow closer. One likes Lemmon and MacLaine, and roots for them. Bud isn’t a bad person, nor is Fran. But how reluctant they are to change their ways! After the suicide attempt Bud remains a doting enabler for Sheldrake. He covers up his involvement in the incident and also lies to Fran, making it seem as if Sheldrake has concern for her. Ambition still dictates Bud’s actions. But there finally comes a point where another emotion trumps ambition, and when Sheldrake again asks for the key Bud stands up like a man and refuses to hand it over. In doing so he loses his job and a shiny new promotion. But moral considerations don’t play a role in Bud’s refusal. He’s not motivated by a realization that getting ahead by shabby means isn’t worth the price. Rather it’s the idea of Sheldrake and Fran in bed together that is intolerable to him.
            As for Fran, near the end of the film she’s still willing to continue her relationship with Sheldrake. And he’s still dangling the prospect of marriage before her. But, from some chance remarks he makes concerning the unavailability of the apartment, she finally sees the light: Bud cares for her, Sheldrake is simply a callous user. Maybe, in her future, there’ll be no affairs with men who promise to divorce their wives and marry her. Maybe, when they make their first overtures, she’ll say, “I don’t go out with married men.” Maybe she’ll bestow her love on someone deserving of it. For it’s the word “love” that Fran constantly uses as her motivation to be with Sheldrake. But is it love, pure and simple? Or does ambition play a role? She lives in an apartment with her sister and cab driver brother-in-law; her job involves standing all day, going up and down in an elevator. She must be aware that marriage to a wealthy executive would be a huge improvement in her life. If Fran’s feelings of worthlessness stem, in part, from guilt at how dishonorably she’s acted, she’s made progress toward those “Maybes.”
            Wilder includes a moral compass in the film in the form of Bud’s neighbor, a doctor who saves Fran’s life. He tells Bud that he must become a mensch. Meaning a decent human being. It’s interesting that, for a story with a romantic angle, Bud and Fran never kiss. Nor, in the final scene, does Fran respond to Bud’s avowal of love with one of her own. She’s wise enough not to make that commitment. Wilder chose to omit a happy ending because neither of his characters have earned it. Or, at least, not yet.

            Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), the protagonist of Ace in the Hole, would readily accept the tag of an amoral man. He routinely walks over people because he’s tougher than they are. He’s a dark, brutish force driven by ambition: he wants to again be a highly-paid reporter for a top New York newspaper. He knows all the angles of the business, but in his career he’s stepped on too many toes, and is now stuck in Albuquerque, working for peanuts at a second-rate rag. Then, on an outing to do a story on a rattlesnake hunt, he chances upon his ace in the hole.
            This ace in the hole is a man trapped deep inside what the Indians call The Mountain of the Seven Vultures. Leo Minosa had been hunting for relics the Indians buried with their dead when the walls collapsed around him; he’s pinned down at the waist. Tatum crawls in, but can’t get close to Leo; he can only speak to him through an opening. Leo is spooked — he believes he’s being punished by an Indian curse. That’s the situation, and Tatum immediately realizes that he has in his grasp the story that could again propel him to the top, could even garner him a Pulitzer. But it will only be useful if it’s an ongoing drama. As Tatum says, “If I had just one week of this . . .” And he manipulates things to get his week. The contractor sent to evaluate the situation wants to shore up the walls as the workers move inside. How long will that take? About sixteen hours. For Tatum, that’s not nearly enough time. So, with the help of a corrupt sheriff who wants to be reelected (and who Tatum promises to write up as a hero), the contractor is persuaded (by threats) to get to Leo by drilling down from the top of the mountain — which would take about seven days.
            Tatum fully believes that someone as young and tough as Leo can hold out for a week. Meanwhile, as the drill thumps away, everything falls into place. His story goes national and crowds of people come in cars and trailers to the scene of the drama. A radio station starts broadcasting from the site, a carnival sets up rides. Reporters from across the country also come, only to find that the sheriff (who does Tatum’s bidding) confines them to a makeshift tent. Tatum has exclusive access to the buried man; this is his story, and if any news outlet wants it they need to get it from him. Finally he receives the call he’s been waiting for, from the New York newspaper he had previously worked at. Not only will they pay him a thousand dollars a day for this story, but he can get his old job back. He’ll again be in the world where he belongs, the world of Lindy’s and Madison Square Garden.
            As part of his manipulation, Tatum wants Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling) to play the role of grief-stricken wife. She’s anything but. After five years of marriage, she has no feelings for Leo. She probably never did. But she’s willing to play Tatum’s game. Minosa’s restaurant/curio shop/gas station, which used to get a handful of customer a week, is now raking in the money. Every vehicle entering the area, every concession set up to sell something to the crowds, has to pay. As she tells Tatum, they both like those rocks pinning Leo down.
            But Tatum has made a vital miscalculation: Leo can’t hold out for a week. On his daily visits Tatum sees a man rapidly disintegrating physically and mentally. After the fifth day a doctor who accompanies Tatum down into the cave says that Leo will be dead in twelve hours if he doesn’t get to a hospital. Tatum immediately changes the plans for getting Leo out: they’ll go in through the front, as first proposed. The sheriff points out how this will raise suspicions. But it’s the contractor who nixes that idea; he tells Tatum that the drilling has caused the walls to be so unstable that they can’t be shored up. It’s too late.
            Tatum had made a second miscalculation: he isn’t as amoral as he thought he was. Leo is a good, simple man; he thinks of Tatum as his friend. For Tatum, his daily descents to see Leo become nightmarish confrontations with his guilt. He too is disintegrating, and his actions become irrational. Leo loves his wife, and he asks Tatum to give Lorraine the gift he had bought for their wedding anniversary. Tatum acts out what Leo would have done; but when Lorraine sees the fur stole she asks how many rats had died to make it. She refuses to put it on. Tatum forces it around her neck, and in doing so he pushes her down on the bed; he’s strangling her. There’s a pair of scissors beside her; she picks them up and stabs Tatum in the stomach.
            The wound needed to be treated, at least to stop the bleeding. But Tatum doesn’t go to a hospital or a doctor. Instead, as Leo had requested, he drives to a church to get Father Diegos, who administers last rites. When Tatum emerges from the cave he gets on a loudspeaker and announces Leo’s death. He tells the crowd that the circus is over, they can go home. Then he calls the New York editor, who’s in a rage because Tatum had stopped sending stories. Tatum says he has another story, the real one: Leo was murdered. The headline: “Reporter Keeps Man Buried for Six Days.” It’s a confession, and the editor is having none of it. Next Tatum returns to the Albuquerque newspaper office and makes the owner an offer to rehire him: “A thousand dollar a day newspaper man, and you can have me for nothing.” Then he falls dead.
            What alternate actions could Tatum have taken? If he had gotten medical care, he could have lived. And he could have written the story he had pursued so fervently; a sharp newspaper man could have milked Leo’s death for the last ounce of pathos it could deliver. He does neither because he had condemned himself — he’s reduced himself to “nothing.” Since Leo died because of his ambition and his decision, Tatum must let his story die and his life’s blood seep out. Few would pass such a harsh moral judgment on themselves.
            As for Lorraine, she felt gypped in life. Her ambition was to get out of the situation she was in. She had married a man just home from the war; he was handsome in his uniform. She wasn’t doing well at the time (she was working at a saloon in Baltimore). Leo told her he owned 160 acres in New Mexico and had a business. So she married him and wound up isolated in the desert, with nobody around but Leo and his parents. What a life. She’s not the only woman who wanted out of a bad marriage. And when Tatum comes along, she sees a way out. He clearly despises her, but he does have sex with her; she feels she can get to New York with him. Instead she winds up killing him, but she can’t be accused of murder; Tatum was strangling her, and she defended herself. But there’s a lack in her; in moral terms, she’s a vacuum. She won’t shed a single tear for Leo; probably she’s incapable of that for anybody. Wilder last shows her missing the bus that would take her out of the place, and then wandering with her suitcase among the cars leaving the grounds. She’s lost.

            In Sunset Boulevard Joe Gillis (William Holden) also has ambition: he wants to succeed as a screenwriter in Hollywood. But when the film opens he’s definitely not on the road to success; instead he’s on the road trying to elude men who are out to repossess his car. When he gets a flat tire he pulls into the driveway of a mansion on Sunset Boulevard. This detour is the beginning of his entanglement in the life of a silent film star by the name of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
            The narrative is told in a voice-over, with Joe recounting what happens, and from the outset (which involves the casket burial of a withered old pet monkey) he sees Norma as demented and creepy. And rich. When she learns that he’s a screenwriter she asks him to look at a script she had written for her comeback film (in which she’ll play Salome). He finds it to be irredeemably bad, but it offers him a way to make some money (he’s broke). Instead of telling Norma the truth, he says that her script is “fascinating.” But it needs work, which he can do, at $500 a week. Though he does struggle with the script, he’ll never receive any money; that’s not how Norma handles matters. She’ll pay him not in cash but in things.
            The first night she has him stay in a room above the garage; the next day, without his consent, she directs her butler, Max, to move all his belongings from his apartment to the room. Joe is not at all happy with this taking away of his freedom; but he was three months behind in his rent (something which has been “taken care of”). Then the repo men locate his car and tow it away. He’s in a trap, one from which he sees no easy way out. Norma, in her imperious fashion, begins to take possession of him. First he’s moved into the bedroom next to hers. Then she begins to give him expensive clothes and jewelry. Joe doesn’t pursue any of these gifts, nor does he want them — they’re thrust upon him. Still, he begins to feel like a kept man, a sort of lapdog, and self-contempt sets in. His perpetual expression is one of distaste.
            Joe has learned from Max that “Madame” has periods of melancholy, and has made several suicide attempts. Why does Joe ignore the possible consequences of involvement with a highly unstable woman? There are those traps — he’s still broke, still without a car. Also, he has decided that his Hollywood dream is over. He had given up trying to write well, but his attempts at formulaic junk have also failed. What lies ahead for him is a return to Dayton, Ohio and his old job at a newspaper. This he wants to delay. In his failure to disentangle himself he shows weakness. He accepts a role that he finds demeaning but that offers him champagne and fine food. He sells out. This is his moral failing. But, as moral failings go, it’s a common one.
            Matters come to a head at a New Year Eve party at the mansion (complete with an orchestra) in which Joe finds, to his surprise, that he’s the only guest. Here, in high spirits, Norma proclaims their grand love. He rejects the idea, she’s shattered and angry. He leaves the mansion and starts walking along Sunset in the rain; he has to be with normal people. He hitches a ride and gets to the apartment of a friend. He finds Artie’s place packed with young men and women having a good time. He knows that this is where he belongs.
             Artie is the ultimate good guy; Joe asks him if he can stay with him for a while — a few weeks. Artie readily offers the use of his couch. So Joe has finally made the decision to get free of the situation he’s in. At the party he meets Artie’s fiancee, Betty, and they’re attracted to each other. When the phone is free Joe calls the Desmond number; he intends to ask that the things that were taken from his apartment be moved to Artie’s. But Max cannot talk to him: Madame found a razor in his room and cut her wrists; the doctor is attending to her. Joe leaves the party and rushes to the mansion. Of the bad decisions he has made, this, because of what it leads to, is crucial. When he arrives at her bedside Norma has both wrists heavily bandaged.
            An element that has been present in Joe’s feelings toward Norma Desmond must now be acknowledged. He has always felt pity and compassion for her. For her loneliness, her empty life, her delusions, her desperate pride. And maybe he feels responsibility for what she’s done. He sits on the bedside, and is gentle. When he says “Happy new year, Norma,” she reaches out her arms and enfolds him. As seen from behind, it’s like a vulture’s grip on its prey. The two become lovers, but what that entails isn’t clear. He has no sexual feelings for this fifty-year-old woman. Maybe her ability to distort the truth to what she wants it to be comes into play. At any rate, she’s happy, invigorated. As for Joe, now in the role of lover, his self-contempt grows.
            By chance he again meets up with Betty; at her urging, they begin to collaborate on a script. At night Joe sneaks out of the mansion and drives (in Norma’s old Isotta Faschini automobile) to Betty’s office on the movie lot. As they work together their feelings for one another deepen. Finally Betty tells him that she doesn’t want to go through with her marriage to Artie. Though she loves Artie, in a way, she loves Joe in another way. They kiss.
            Norma has been aware of Joe’s nightly excursions, and she suspects that a woman is involved. She finds Betty’s name and phone number. When Joe comes home one night he overhears Norma on the phone talking to Betty — letting her know what Joe really is, what his “situation” is. Joe snatches the phone from Norma and tells Betty to come to the house on Sunset Boulevard so that she could see for herself what the situation is.
            Joe’s actions when Betty arrives are based on a moral decision. He plays the role of a kept man who doesn’t want to give up the luxury. He’s casual about it — the cool cynic. He refuses to let Betty get a glimpse of the person she had fallen in love with; he acts as if that person wasn’t the real Joe Gillis. He destroys her feelings for him. Then he shows her the exit.
            He had lied to her because he had come to the point of deeming himself unworthy of someone as decent as Betty; she should marry Artie, a better man than he is. But, after giving her up, he immediately returns to his room, where he begins packing the things he had owned when he first came; he won’t take any of the clothes or jewelry that Norma had given him. He will return to Dayton and his newspaper job. He’s wiping his hands of it all.
            Norma is desperate as she watches him pack; in response to her pleas he’s callous. When she says she has bought a gun and will kill herself, he says, “That’s between you and yourself.” He should have taken that attitude when he was speaking to Max at the New Year Eve party at Artie’s. Now it’s too late. As he leaves the house with his suitcases Norma shoots him, three times, and he topples into the pool.
            The movie had begun with the camera looking up at a body floating face down in the water; at the side of the pool photographers clicked away. The voice-over of the entire movie has been given by a dead man. In this beginning he refers to himself as “The poor dope. He always wanted a pool.” But this isn’t true — it’s a self-deprecating interpretation of his role in this drama. Joe had wanted a respectable job writing scripts for good films; if it led to his having a pool, so be it. He was never a morally corrupt person; he was noble in giving up Betty. And, in his final words about Norma Desmond, he says something that reflects the pity and compassion he had for her, and that played a role in his downfall. Later, as police and reporters and onlookers swarm around, Norma is about to be taken into custody. That’s the reality of the situation — what lies before her is a demeaning series of events. But she’s beyond reality. She’s fully entered her own world, and believes that the crowd and the cameras are there to film her in another great role. (“And then another, and another!”) Joe’s final words: “Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.”