Sunday, July 12, 2009
Thoughts on Billy Wilder and The Apartment
If, for the rest of your life, you could only watch one director's films, who would you choose? Spielberg, so you could keep the Indiana Jones trilogy, E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park and others? Scorsese for Goodfellas et al? Hitchcock for all the great suspense?
I think I have to go with Billy Wilder. Listen to this line-up: Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend, The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, One Two Three!, Witness for the Prosecution, Sabrina, Ace in the Hole, and Stalag 17. Every one of those films is an undisputed masterpiece, and they run the full gamut from stylish film noir (Double Indemnity) to raucous farce (Some Like it Hot) and touch on every note in between. It's truly a resume to marvel at.
I first thought about this when I stumbled across One Two Three last month, a movie I discussed at length in the "Screwball Comedy" post. Wilder's position at the forefront was cemented with my re-viewing of The Apartment tonight. A surprise Best Picture winner in 1960, The Apartment stars Jack Lemmon as a office worker who gets ahead by loaning out his bachelor pad to his philandering superiors, including the top man, Fred MacMurray.
(MacMurray may have the greatest disparity between memorable roles of any actor in history. He is utterly convincing as the loving dad in My Three Sons and endearing as The Absent-Minded Professor, but equally believable as the murderous Walter Neff in Double Indemnity and here as an unpardonable heel, stringing along mistresses, and thinking of no one but himself.)
The Apartment may well be the culmination of all of Wilder's talent. If not necessarily his best film (there are many possibilities to pick from) it is the one which incorporates the most elements and the most life. The Apartment is generally labeled a comedy but also features compelling drama, tragedy, and one of the most touching and yet realistic and mature romances I've ever seen in a movie. It is unerring in it's attempt to portray a complete human drama. The characters are remarkably well-drawn, giving further testament to Wilder's acumen as a screenwriter.
Much of the success of The Apartment is due to the performances of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon is perfect as the sweet, well-meaning but still flawed C.C. Baxter. Lemmon is so good that he can make you root for a character that pathetically plays up an unfounded reputation as a playboy and spends much of the movie scheming to get ahead. MacLaine is also phenomenal in a role that could all too easily have turned melodramatic in the wrong hands. As the love-crossed Fran Kubilek, MacLaine plays a woman conflicted by her disastrous romantic past, unwilling or unable to keep from falling in love with the wrong man.
Wilder's script is well-plotted and very tight, with everything occurring for a reason and no wasted moments. His ability to use dialogue to explore characters is unmatched. Lemmon's repeated use of the unnecessary suffix -wise ("That's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise")is humorous and revelatory, as is MacLaine's adoption of it halfway through the movie.
All in all, The Apartment is a centerpiece in Billy Wilder's remarkable canon. 9.6 out of 10.