Monday, December 24th, 2012

Somehow, I had never seen Billy Wilder’s movie The Apartment until yesterday afternoon. I can’t believe that’s even possible. Way back in prehistoric times, when there were just three television networks and maybe one UHF station that you might be able to tune into if the weather wasn’t too bad, they showed sitcoms and dramas from seven until ten, then there was a half-hour of news, and after ten-thirty almost anything could happen but usually it was Johnny and Dave and a few other chat shows.

At a certain magical hour, though, you could watch old movies on The Late Show or Midnight Matinee. Why would you stay up until midnight to watch old movies? Because this was before you could rent them from Netflix, or from a store, or at all. When I was just a pup, the only way you could watch old movies was to be lucky enough to live near a movie theater that showed them, and back then I lived in a cow town so remote that I had only heard rumors and stories about movie theaters like that. When I discovered that I could watch old movies on late-night television, I used to stay up whenever I could get away with it to watch shows like The Front Page (and His Girl Friday), The Great Race, and The Odd Couple.

So I was pretty sure that, a few minutes into the first scene, I’d recognize the movie, the plot would slowly rise to the surface of my memory and I’d settle into the sofa wrapped up in a familiar wave of nostalgia that was like having a friend come to visit. Only I didn’t recognize the first scene at all, or the next scene, or the next. My Darling B, who is hard-pressed to recall the details of almost every movie she’s ever sat through, sometimes as soon as fifteen minutes after the credits roll, remembered what The Apartment was about, but by the end of the first act I had to admit to myself I’d never seen this one before. It was like unwrapping a Christmas present.

Unfortunately, the movie opened with Lemmon doing an introductory voice-over. I hate voice-overs. The only movie I’ve ever watched that benefited from a voice-over was Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! If it weren’t for that and certain cheesy B-grade murder mysteries, I would fervently campaign for a constitutional amendment banning the use of voice-overs in any movie that wasn’t a documentary, and only then if it were Morgan Freeman, Peter Coyote or James Earl Jones doing the narration.

The voice-over didn’t last more than a couple of minutes, though, thank dog. After that, Lemmon’s face did all the heavy lifting. That man can say more with his face than Shakespeare could with all the words in the English language, including the ones he made up on the fly. There was a scene where Shirley MacLaine broke his heart, only she didn’t know it, and he didn’t say boo about it, but his face went from happy to puzzled, then to shocked and amazed, and I think I saw disappointment and anguish but I’m sure I missed at least a half-dozen other emotions before he finished with heartbroken, put on his hat and coat and left the office to get drunk.

There are very few actors who can play drunk as convincingly as Jack Lemmon, by the way. I’m not sure how he does it, but when his character gets good and smashed, the way he did in this movie, it was so convincing that I felt drunk.

Shirley MacLaine looked like a kid in this movie. I thought at first it must have been her debut, but it wasn’t even close. I should’ve known better. It was obvious from her performance that this wasn’t her first time on the stage. She and Lemmon had some great chemistry going between them, and they lobbed volleys of Billy Wilder banter back and forth with perfect timing. Now I’ll have to find out if they were in any other movies together and, if they were, watch every single one of them.

Then there’s Fred MacMurray. How’d Fred MacMurray get to be a movie star? He’s a handsome devil and he’s got a smooth delivery, but he’s about as emotive as a Ken doll. That worked for him in Double Indemnity (but then, so did his voice-over), but when he’s on screen with a guy like Lemmon he might as well be a block of wood. I got the impression he was in this movie because he was supposed to be handsome enough that Shirley MacLaine might fall for him. Also, he was the bad guy, a role that’s easy to play if you don’t show a lot of emotion.

I have to add that we watched The Apartment by renting it from Amazon.com, streaming it over the internet and playing it on a laptop. Watching old movies has come a long way from the days of The Late Late Show.

The Apartment | 7:23 am CST
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One Comment

  1. 1 B said at 7:57 am on December 24th, 2012:

    If you want to see Lemmon play a really convincing drunk, we should rent “Days of Wine and Roses.” There’s absolutely nothing funny about that one, though.