In every field there is a master. Who that master is, is subjective. Each person has a favourite artist, musician, writer, Doctor Who, footballer, chef, talk show host, etc. and each person could argue why that person is the master of their trade. Sometimes it can be based on a single work. For example one of our writers recently saw Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid. After spending an hour staring at it, taking in every single inch of it and locking it in his mind he decided that Picasso is the master and will now hear no other arguments.
Another example would be The Apartment. Billy Wilder is the master. Master of dialogue, comedy, drama, noir, the one-liner, and the long speech. Find us another writer/director with his track record in shifting genres. You want the best noir movie? Double Indemnity. You want a meta-drama about Hollywood with some murder on top? Sunset Boulevard. You want a comedy with mob undertones that manages to balance tension, musical numbers, farce, and murder? Some Like it Hot.
But, for all Wilder’s achievements, and they are many, his crowning work, his masterpiece, is The Apartment. Released in 1960, it won five Oscars, including best screenplay, best director and best picture. Not bad for a slight romantic comedy with no real world drama, no gimmicks, and no message save for simply “be a mensch”.
The Apartment is the story of C.C. Baxter, a low level employee at an insurance conglomerate who has a great little apartment in the city which he lends out to his bosses for them to take their mistresses. He is downtrodden, patronized, and always has a cold. He spends his days working and his nights roaming the city to give his bosses the place for the night, or he’s stuck cleaning up after them, getting rid of their bottles and washing their dishes.
It is a weird mix of deep seated cynicism and puppy dog romance. The Apartment presents us with a world that is both full of awful people being awful and also the promise that doing the right thing is the way to go. It is a movie remembered as a side splitting romantic comedy but it also revolves around adulterers and hinges on a sequence of a poor, used woman trying to commit suicide. Wilder was a realist. He understood that the world is a terrible place, but he could see the good in it too. C.C. Baxter is that dichotomy. He is a nice guy, he is our hero, but for the most part he is a man who facilitates his higher ups to continue their affairs in exchange for the chance of a promotion. He is a man who has realised that being the good guy is not enough and morals get in the way of scaling the corporate ladder. It is only when he sees the callous treatment of Miss Kubelik that he begins to take his neighbor, Dr Dreyfuss’ advice to try and be a mensch, a human being.
You know who else was a master? Jack Lemmon. Lemmon’s fast talking portrayal of C.C. Baxter is the lynchpin of this fantastic movie. He is man being carried along by the tide and doing what he can to steer his ship, all while having a terrible cold and a broken heart. Lemmon had the quips, the expressions, and a mastery of subtle physical comedy that puts a lot of other actors to shame. If you’re an actor who wants to know how to do comedy right then you double feature The Apartment and Some Like it Hot and take notes. Take notes about Lemmon’s performance and, if acting isn’t your thing, take notes about Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay. Learn how to have wall to wall gags and emotion and story and balance them all together like a master.
Finally, there’s another thing Wilder was the master of: ending a movie. The endings of Some Like it Hot and Sunset Boulevard are a master class in how to have your audiences leave the movie talking about it and The Apartment is no exception. There are romantic comedy writers who would cut off their leg to write an ending as good as “Shut up and deal” and Wilder and Diamond did it effortlessly.
55 years later and this movie is still tops movie-wise, dialogue-wise, everything-wise. It is like watching Picasso paint Guernica, Fleetwood Mac record Rumours, or Dixie Dean play for Everton in 1927. It is a cavalcade of masters at the top of their game and in another 55 years we’ll still be singing its praises.