After enjoying the screwball hijinks of Billy Wilder's classic SOME LIKE IT HOT, I went into his Oscar-winning THE APARTMENT expecting something similar. I was delighted when I realized that this movie turned out to be perhaps an even better film than SOME LIKE IT HOT. If that 1959 film was a slice of comic heaven, THE APARTMENT aims for something a little deeper. At times, it feels less like a comedy, more like a poignant drama, and Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond are able to shift moods with consummate ease.
It helps that the performances are all highly effective, and sometimes, in the case of those of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, kinda touching. This was the first role for MacLaine that really showed off her range, since her character, elevator door-woman Fran Kubelik, runs the gamut of emotions from cheeriness to self-pity. MacLaine pulls them all off handsomely, and I liked watching her throughout. As for Lemmon---well, I must say that some of his physical and speech mannerisms distracted me on occasion (esp. during one scene in which he tries to deal with his bosses by phone over scheduling conflicts regarding his apartment---his physical gestures seeming a little too overdone for my taste), but at least he gets the gist of C.C. Baxter spot-on, and we truly feel for this lonely man whose eagerness to please (and move up in the business ladder) gets him into emotional (and some physical) trouble. I don't think I've ever seen him carry a movie all by himself the way he does here, and this must surely rank as one of his best performances. (I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the performance of Jack Kruschen as Baxter's next-door neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss, who is an uncanny delight whenever he appears onscreen.)
I found the premise itself delightfully imaginative. A man who rents his apartment to bosses so they can cheat on their wives with secretaries: I'd have to rack my brain to think of another movie that used such an original idea for a movie. Of course, a good premise doesn't necessarily add up to anything if the execution isn't there, and in the case of THE APARTMENT, the execution is near-flawless. Wilder and Diamond uses the premise to slyly and savagely satirize corrupt office politics---because of his willingness to give up his apartment for his bosses, Baxter shoots right up the corporate ladder in a matter of days (instead of months or years), and it is only towards the end that he realizes how sour his rise really is. As for the central relationship between Baxter and Kubelik, Wilder manages to mine more touching drama than laugh-out-loud comedy out of it---and the drama always manages to be involving and wonderfully perceptive about human nature. And the dialogue is, of course, wonderfully witty and revealing---though once again the film's final line of dialogue is the script's highpoint.
All of these elements make THE APARTMENT a truly great film. Its Academy Award for Best Picture was richly deserved in 1960, and its status as one of the great American films (No. 93 on the AFI's "100 Years...100 Movies" list) is a testament to its lasting power as both funny, satirical comedy and touching, uncompromising human drama.