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I am on a roll, 1960 has become a much better film year lately. Enter Billy Wilder and good becomes great.
Billy Wilder has become one of my favorite directors. I cannot remember ever being disappointed by his movies. On the contrary, I see his name on the credits and I know I am in for something different in the best sense possible. Lübitch may have had the Lübitch touch, but Wilder had a keen eye for thinking outside the box and present stories or genres we may think we know in way we did not expect and just nail it. Take “Sunset Boulevard”, “Ace in the Hole”, “Some Like it Hot”, “Double Indemnity” and on and on. This is all brilliant stuff.
I am not sure “The Apartment” is his best movie ever. With a list like the above that is a tall order, but it is on par with a lot of the good stuff and that says a lot.
“The Apartment” is Billy Wilder’s take on the classic romantic comedy. In such movies there is a boy and a girl and usually some other boys or girls involved. The boy and a girl go through a lot of misunderstandings, but always gets each other in the end and in the process, we get a lot of laughs. It never gets really dangerous. In Wilder’s hands it gets a lot stranger.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is working on the floor of a massive insurance company. He has somehow gotten involved in a scheme where his bosses borrow his apartment for their extra-marital activities. Baxter is a push-over and the bosses are holding out the prospect of promotion and as a result Baxter is a stranger in his own home. This could easily be pathetic or sycophantic, but Jack Lemmon presents a character who is quite innocent and just happen to be that unlucky guy who got rolled into this and cannot get out again, although pressure from health (spending a night out in the cold) or disapproving neighbors is making him utterly sick of this arrangement. Yet Baxter has enough integrity to play along and be discreet.
The scheme is fun and weird and leads to a lot of laughs as we watch Baxter struggle to cope with his predicament.
This whole arrangement moves up a notch when top dog Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) enters the scene. He also needs an apartment for his dates and raises the stakes significantly. Baxter gets promoted off the floor and decides it is time to make a move on his own crush, the elevator girl Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Unfortunately Kubelik is the very girl Sheldrake is currently dating. This can only go completely bananas and of course it does. To whom does Baxter own his allegiance? The girl he loves or the boss who patrons him?
There is a lot of old school screwball here with confusions, mistaken identities, rapid and witty dialogue and so on, but Wilder takes it so much further. It is never a secret to us what goes on in that apartment. This is not for children, though they all have a swell time doing it. We have a suicide attempt and sleazy nepotism and I am pretty this was all more than the audience was used to in 1960. And in the midst of all this Baxter still comes out as a nice guy we want to care for.
Shirley MacLaine is also perfect as the girl who is caught up in this scheme. She can be tragic and comic at the same and that is a rare skill. When the movie turns from comedy to romantic comedy it never gets as sweet and cloggy as the story suggests, but actually rather painful. Here are two people who are used to be pushed around realizing that this is the end of the line.
Analysis aside, what really matters here is that I thoroughly enjoyed myself from start to finish. I normally chop up a movie to fit into an otherwise busy schedule, but I could not do that with this one, I had to watch it to the end and that tells me more than anything else that this is top notch. The last time I succumbed to that was also Wilder. Hail Wilder, Hail the King!