Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Billy Wilder's The Apartment still packs a punch (+trailer)

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Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine in The Apartment.
Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine in The Apartment.

Last week I talked about seeing Black Narcisuss on the big screen as part of Event Cinemas' Retro Showcase, which runs over the next couple of months.

Another one of the films I was particularly excited to see in the line-up was Billy Wilder's 1960 classic The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine.

I love watching old movies, but I'm not ashamed to admit it can sometimes require slightly more patience than watching a contemporary film.

This manifests principally whenever I rent or buy old movies on DVD - it's too easy to stop the film if it doesn't grab me right away. Having the power to stop the film makes it harder to get through them.

So I find it much easier to watch old movies when they are broadcast on television - Sky's TCM channel is one of the only places you'll find 'em these days, and it's awesome.

But the best way to watch old movies is when you have no power to stop the movie at all - like at the cinema. Sitting in the dark while the film rolls out inspires otherwise unknown patience in me, and feels like the purest way to see any film, despite the rise in quality of home theatre set-ups.

Every film lover has gaps in their repertoire, and The Apartment was one of mine. I knew it by reputation, and it had always been near the top of my list of films to see. Director Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot) is one of the most revered figures in Hollywood history, and writer IAL Diamond (Some Like It Hot, The Front Page) one of the most respected screenwriters ever.

Writer/director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Say Anything) has always been a highly vocal fan of Wilder, and even published a book of interviews with the man. He's often cited The Apartment as one of the main influences on his 1997 hit Jerry Maguire.

So anyway, I leapt at the chance to see it on the big screen (there are still plenty more screenings) and it very much deserves its reputation as one of the greats.

Jack Lemmon stars as a "schnook" named Baxter, a cog in the machine of a giant insurance company in New York City. Baxter's problem is that his various superiors all use his apartment to have trysts with their mistresses, so much so that he can barely ever get into his own home.

He's unhappy with the situation, but sticks with it because his bosses keep dangling the prospect of a promotion in front of him. Things get complicated when the promotion comes through and Baxter decides to pursue his longtime crush, elevator operator Fran (Shirley Maclaine).

The Apartment is a slick, snappy outing that remains utterly charming throughout. Lemmon is at his sympathetic best, and the chemistry between him and Maclaine is great.

The film also looks amazing. It was shot in the superwide anamorphic 35mm format in black and white, which suits New York perfectly. Every shot of The Apartment is a masterpiece of functionally elegant composition.

The huge office building sets are truly something to behold, and it's interesting to compare how the company is portrayed with how similar things are presented in the early '60s-set Mad Men.

It's not hard to discern the influence on Cameron Crowe's work - the conflict mainly comes from the main character's flaws and he has our empathy from the get-go. Pride and self-respect have large roles to play. But it's not all sunny.

The Apartment sits in a transitional period for films about matters of the heart. It's a step beyond the formal cliches of the romantic Golden Age films, and has one foot in the darker, more grounded romances that started to trickle out in the late '60s.

Wilder was a forward-looking filmmaker, and it lends The Apartment a timeless quality.

If you've never seen it, make sure you check it out at the Event Cinemas Retro Showcase.

* Which films from the Showcase are you excited about seeing? Do you find watching old movies much easier on the big screen than on DVD? Comment below!

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