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The Apartment

The best writer of the 20th century wasn’t Earnest Hemmingway or John Steinbeck or Kurt Vonnegut. It was Billy Wilder. When Oscar nominations came out, nearly every year Wilder’s name was on the list, and his name was in the envelope on Oscar night several times as well, for best screenplay, best director, and twice for best picture. We turn our attention now to one of those two winners, 1960’s The Apartment.

Jack Lemmon plays C. C. Baxter, and insurance company employee who works his way up the corporate ladder by letting his superiors borrow his apartment for trysts. Things get complicated when the big boss weasels his way in on the action, and get even more complicated when Baxter finds out the woman Mr. Sheldrake is hooking up with is the very same elevator operator Baxter has a crush on, Miss Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. Sheldrake’s constant promises to leave his wife prove to be false, and after a tough holiday office party, result in Miss Kubelik trying to kill herself. Baxter nurses her back to health and as a reward is promoted to Assistant Director. Though Baxter puts on a brave face, telling Miss Kubelik "Mr. Sheldrake wasn’t using me, I was using him," his promotion means little without her, so he quits. And after Sheldrake finally does leave his wife and prepares for a life with Miss Kubelik, she decides that Baxter is the one she needs to be with.

Wilder could do comedy, drama, romance, noir, and just about anything else, and his comedic chops are in full swing here. You get the physical comedy of Baxter straining spaghetti with a tennis racket ("you should see me serve the meatballs") plus the conceptual comedy of the neighbors thinking the womanizing and boozing was all Baxter, instead of his guests. There are even the recurring jokes, like Baxter’s guest describing their dates, then Baxter overhearing the date tell her side of it to one of her friends. This is one you don’t pick up on the first viewing, but it is quite funny. Also funny is the companywide habit of adding "wise" to every word, cresting with one executive’s memo "Premium-wise and billing-wise we are 18% ahead of last year, October-wise."

Fred MacMurray, one year shy of becoming a sitcom dad on My Three Sons, reunites with Wilder for the first time since Double Indemnity, and is wonderfully sleazy as Sheldrake. Meanwhile MacLaine and Lemmon are wonderful in the leads and Jack Kruschen does well in a limited role as Baxter’s neighbor and conscience.

After eight months of watching one epic after another that beat a sweet little romantic comedy on Oscar night, it fills my jaded heart with a small amount of joy to see that once upon a time the tables got turned. You know what else was up for the big prize that year? The Alamo, staring John Wayne as Davey Crockett which no one remembers. Not many even remembered it at the time, it made a whopping $2 million at the box office, exactly one-sixth its budget. Spartacus was also released in 1960, and perhaps we owe Ben Hur a debt of gratitude for winning the previous year, thus turning the voters off of even nominating Spartacus, but I have enough faith that The Apartment would have won anyway. Others not nominated, but very deserving were Magnificent Seven (which is good, but not as good as Shichinin no Samurai), Inherit the Wind and Psycho, and let it be known that in the best director category, Wilder beat Alfred Hitchcock head-to-head. Among the movies that should not have been ever made, Glen Ford’s remake of the 1931 best picture winner Cimarron, thus becoming Hollywood’s first remake that shouldn’t have been made of a movie that shouldn’t have been made.

Nothing in there is good enough to beat out The Apartment. Sure, Psycho is good, and gave birth to an entire genre, but it isn’t Hitchcock’s best. The Apartment may not even be Wilder’s best (Some Like it Hot is, in my opinion, though Wilder may not have agreed due to his intense hatred for Norma Jean) but it is one of the better romantic comedies of all time.

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