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On June 15, 1960, Billy Wilder’s comedy The Apartment premiered in New York at the Astor and Plaza theatres. The film, featuring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, went on to claim five Oscars at the 33rd Academy Awards, including for best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Using the facade of a romantic comedy-melodrama for The Apartment, producer-director Billy Wilder delivers a blistering commentary on contemporary ant-hill society and its amoral inhabitants. The mood is not always consistent, the pendulum swings from farce to tragic irony, but in whatever key Wilder plays, it may be enjoyed. If there is confusion, it can be discounted for the sparkle with which it is lighted, and the customers will respond to this United Artists release in droves. Whatever the implications, there is humor and romance to please the lease perceptive, and aside from its commercial aspects, The Apartment is an important and provocative film.
The screenplay, by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond is something of a chocolate-covered cherry, flavored with hemlock. Because the story presents considerable immorality without obvious comment, in frank situations and language, it might be confused for an immoral film. The experts in this department may decide it is, but to an amateur it seems to expose the wages of sin as deathly dreary. The picture is not dreary, however, not for a moment. Wilder never loses sight of the fact that whatever the moral of the story, the moral of theatre is to divert the spectator, and for a parable to be effective, it must first and always entertain. The Apartment certainly does that.
Jack Lemmon is Wilder’s hero, an organization man Candide, whose only talisman is his feckless innocence in a degenerating world. Lemmon, trying to get ahead in today’s automation world, where the individual’s only function is to tend and placate machines, tries to personalize himself with his superiors. His only means is to lend his Manhattan apartment to the company’s executives for their tawdry love affairs. This leads to comic and tragic situations.
Shirley MacLaine operates an elevator in the office building where Lemmon works. They meet when she and her lover, Fred MacMurray, one of Lemmon’s superiors, utilize the Lemmon apartment. Miss MacLaine and Lemmon fall in love after she has attempted suicide on admitting the hopelessness of her affair with MacMurray. As part of Wilder’s and Diamond’s general perception, she tries to kill herself with, of course, sleeping pills, handy in every modern medicine chest, odorless, painless, noiseless, as bland as the times and as lethal. In this desperate action, both Miss MacLaine and Lemmon realize in facing death they have been alive, and for some better purpose than for each to serve his machine.
All this is quite a load for a comedy, but where else has social comment ever been so effective? Wilder hones his points to a piercing edge in such scenes as that in a grim saloon, on Christmas Eve, as the faithful ignore the jukebox blaring “Adestes Fideles” to jolt themselves into tranquility at the bar. The vulgar and graceless aspects of modern life, noted in the periphery before, get head-on examination here.
Lemmon is perfect casting for his part. His guileless and amiable good looks might have been chosen by a personnel department test for the role. But he has, too, a rudimentary toughness and kindness that is believable. Miss MacLaine, the girl in the limbo lost, has acute identification, so strong it hurts. The gamine is not the only role she can play, but no one else can play it better. MacMurray, such a sturdy actor, plays a detestable character but with such shading he is conceivable and if not forgivable, at least dismissible.
Ray Walston, David Lewis, Willard Waterman and David White, the quartet who regularly frequent the apartment, each is different but each is uniformly and forlornly odious. On the other side of the coin there is Jack Kruschen, a wonderfully warm and vibrant character, and Naomi Stevens, whose heart is as soft as a matzah ball. Hope Holiday, in a dazzling bit, almost stops the show. Edie Adams, Joan Shawlee, Joyce Jameson and Frances Weintraub Lax create individual characterizations of dimension.
Joseph LaShelle’s black-and-white photography in Panavision gives depth in story as well as space, vignettes crammed but not crowded with information and insight. Adolph Deutsch’s score, particularly a lonesome trombone, is a haunting background. Alexandre Trauner’s art direction is fragrantly correct, matched by set decorator Edward G. Boyle. Daniel Mandell’s editing achieves, among other virtues, an impossible to detect linking of location and studio setups, so meticulous is his shading. Fred Lau’s sound is of the same cloth. — James Powers, originally published on May 18, 1960.
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