A Case for Watching Old Movies

I’m not going to lie. This is going to be an article encouraging you to watch old movies. I understand that’s not your interest today and maybe it never has been. I hope that you will hear me out nonetheless. There are a lot of things in old movies that people can take issue with. (I am sure that if you dislike old movies you will know what I’m talking about.) But if you’ll allow me, I’d like to try to show you what you’re missing. The example I’ll use is a scene from The Apartment, a black and white movie from 1960. It’s referred to as a masterpiece in some circles.

The movie is about an employee at a big financial corporation. He is trying to gain favour with his bosses in hopes of a quick promotion. He does this by letting these bosses use his home for their extramarital affairs.

The scene I want to talk to you about comes midway through the movie. Let me set it up for you. (Mild spoilers below.)

A girl has been staying with our hero for two days now. She is our hero’s boss’s ex. Our hero’s name is Calvin Clifford ‘Bud’ Baxter, by the way, and he’s as deeply in love with this girl as a man can possibly be. But Franz Kubelik’s brother-in-law gets wind of where she is, and being an orthodox man, he feels it is unladylike for a woman to stay with a man she isn’t married to. So he takes Kubelik home, but not before punching Baxter for his troubles. However, Baxter doesn’t mind. He would’ve accepted a lot more than a black eye for two days with this girl. That’s our heroine, by the way, in case you haven’t already guessed. So, the next day we see Baxter sporting a pair of black sunglasses and a huge smile. He’s going to tell his boss some good news: ‘No need to worry about Ms Kubelik, I’m going to take her off your hands’, he rehearses.

So here’s the clincher I mentioned earlier.

Baxter walks into his boss’s office but before he can speak, his boss, Jeff D. Sheldrake, tells Baxter he’s getting a divorce. Quite a kick in the head, he says. Naturally, Sheldrake’s interest in Ms. Kubelik has been renewed. Baxter says nothing. Sheldrake offers him a promotion for his help. He hesitantly accepts. He removes his sunglasses and Sheldrake notices his black eye. As the scene closes, Baxter explains, “I got kicked in the head too.”

These movies may have been discussed to death already, but the point I’m trying to make is – you don’t have to be a film historian to enjoy these movies.

In my novice opinion, on some level, The Apartment is about how capitalism reduces the meaningfulness of human life. In this scene, Baxter faces a choice – his personal life or a promotion (his professional life). We can see that he’s visibly upset even though he got what he initially wanted. A promotion is good and all, but it’s no Kubelik.

A scene from ‘The Apartment’. Credit: Youtube screenshot

What really turns this scene into a gut punch of a moment is the timing of Baxter removing his glasses. Before he delivers the punch line and removes his glasses, we suspect he’s hurt, but once we can see his entire face, we know he is. His inner pain and black eye are revealed at the same moment, making us conflate both.

Billy Wilder, the director, was a master at creating such layered scenes. A lot of us have the great advantage of growing up in a time when cinema is well past its infancy. Old masters and not-so-old-ones like Wilder brought filmmaking to the point it’s at today, and showed us the significance of things like framing shots. We’re familiar with filmy dialogues and Bollywood’s dance numbers, but hopefully, I’ve convinced you to try out something else (if not actually new). If so, you can send me a fruitcake next Christmas.

Sureet Singh is a 21-year-old economics student from NMIMS, Mumbai. Find him on Twitter @_kenoshakid