Sometimes a movie aquires the title of "classic" over the years despite not being that great. It's just that nobody wants to acknowledge that they don't think it's worthy of the title and go against the masses. Billy Wilder's The Apartment is not that movie. This is, without a doubt, one of the great American movies ever made. It stars one of our greatest actors, Jack Lemmon, in quite possibly his greatest performance. A very young, and very beautiful, Shirley MacLaine, also giving a terrific performance. And Fred MacMurray giving us one of the great "boss" roles of all time. It is also, surprisingly to me, a wonderfully humane portrait of these three lonely people.
What's fascinating about it is that these three people are lonely in three different ways. MacMurray is lonely because he has spent years in an unhappy marriage, having affairs with whatever pretty young woman would have him. MacLaine is lonely because she keeps falling in love with the wrong guys, who promptly reject her once she fully commits to them. And Lemmon is lonely because, well, he doesn't have anyone to care about or to care about him. He is ambitious, and lends his apartment to higher ups in his company, so they can have a nice place to take their girlfriends to (if they can get away from their wives long enough) that's cheaper than a hotel room. But he keeps his sense of humor about him, and flirts with MacLaine's elevator operator whenever he can. These personal relationships begin to become entangled with one another, and it's a credit to the script (by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, for which they won one of the films five Oscars) that it's not done too melodramatically, but isn't played strictly for laughs either. It's a remarkably efficient in its script and in Wilder's direction. Despite running slightly over 2 hours, the movie speeds by without ever seeming to. It actually plays quite laid back, but there's just always something going on, character or story-wise, that we're never bored for a second.
Wilder and Diamond had just come off of making the classic Some Like it Hot, and wanted to work with Jack Lemmon again, so he was cast in this movie. Lemmon has long been one of my favorite actors, but I think he shines more here than he ever really did. He shows us so many different sides of C.C. Baxter that although I was always aware I was watching Jack Lemmon, I also felt like the character I was watching was real. Lemmon had an ease of presence on screen that hasn't ever really been duplicated. He also had eyes that were some of the most expressive we've ever seen in an actor, and I felt his loneliness because he expressed so much of it simply through those eyes and his body language. When he actually comes right out and says that he never realized what a lonely man he was until he fell for MacLaine's character, we get a sense that he really didn't ever realize it, and is probably verbalizing it for the first time. But because of Lemmon's grace onscreen, and his impeccable comedic timing, the character (and therefore the movie) never gets bogged down in the loneliness. It's just part of who he is.
It's very refreshing when you watch a "classic" for the first time and it not only doesn't disappoint, but makes the term "classic" seem insufficient. Although The Apartment will be 50 years old next year, it doesn't feel dated or out of touch. It could've been made this year and it would still have the same impact on me. The way it deals with its characters allows it to stay relevant, because it's about people, and people will always be relevant. Loneliness is a surprisingly universal emotion, and one rarely explored in this manner. As such, this movie will never lose its ability to connect with people. The Apartment is one of the very best movies I've ever seen, and I can't recommend it enough.