Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment’ continues to hold a special place in our hearts and minds

By Sven Mikulec

It’s not a walk in the park to make a truly wonderful film and then do an equally entrancing follow-up. The pressure is sometimes hard to handle, with the audience’s expectations soaring and studio ambitions, in financial terms, just as demanding. It’s definitely not a walk in the park, at least unless you’re Billy Wilder. After the great success of Some Like It Hot, the legendary director once again joined forces with Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, the 1960 comedy-drama that earned the impressive number of ten Academy Award nominations, five of which turned to gold.

Written by Wilder and favourite collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, The Apartment is a niftily crafted comedy full of smart humor and not the least dishonest, unconvincing romance, elevated by beautiful performances by Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray and a memorable score by Adolph Deutsch, with an especially successful main theme by renowned British composer Charles Williams. The imaginative work of art director Alexandre Trauner shouldn’t be overlooked as well, for his way of staging the interier of the huge insurance company office is very original and refreshing. But most of all, it is the talented cast, a brilliant man behind the camera and one of the best comedic screenplays of the past century that make the film work so well. The Apartment meant a lot for the careers of Lemmon, who proved his diversity by demonstrating the ability to play both tragic and light-hearted roles, and MacLaine, who built a name for herself in the following years founded on the success of this film.

The Apartment is quite frankly a masterfully shot picture based on exquisite writing, a film whose value hasn’t diminished one single bit in over a half of a century, a film which continues to hold a special place in our hearts and minds. Billy Wilder was certainly one of a kind. The Apartment is quite frankly a masterfully shot picture based on exquisite writing, a film whose value hasn’t diminished one single bit in over a half of a century.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay for The Apartment [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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In this short clip, Wilder gives an address in which he talks about his longtime writing partner I.A.L. ‘Izzy’ Diamond. In his speech, Wilder describes how he and Izzy worked as writers, putting in ‘bankers hours.’ The most touching moment comes toward the end of Wilder’s speech when he says this: ‘He didn’t tell for four years that he had that fatal disease. It was only in the last six weeks that he confided in me. Well, it’s lonely now in that office of ours. I look at that empty chair and I miss him so much. On his birthday maybe, I should put the red rose there, like DiMaggio for Marilyn.’ —Scott Myers

Cameron Crowe, director of Jerry Maguire, loves Billy Wilder’s films so much he’s written a book about them. Here, exclusively for the Guardian, he explains how he got the inside track on The Apartment, his favourite of them all.

Wilder’s celebrated collaborator I.A.L. Diamond once aptly described Wilder’s style as a blend of “the sweet and the sour”. Perfected through previous pictures, that happy-sad quality reached a pinnacle in The Apartment. And though Wilder is famously adverse to self-conscious camerawork, anyone lucky enough to see The Apartment on a big screen will find themselves with enormous visual delights as well. Early sequences showing Jack Lemmon at work in the vast insurance company are as striking today as when the film was released. Making Jerry Maguire, I was the very epitome of a strident director, demanding a huge studio set filled with extras to create a similar effect in showing Maguire leaving his sports agency. Only later, interviewing Wilder, did I learn I could have saved a lot of money and set space. Wilder himself shot the scenes on a very small stage, utilising the tricks of visual perspective. Behind Lemmon, the desks get smaller and smaller and so do the actors. At the very back of the office, the co-workers are played by midgets.

Billy Wilder was at the peak of his directing powers negotiating the tricky mix of melancholy and humour. Shirley MacLaine recalls Wilder never sitting, often chain-smoking and pacing while directing. Every word mattered. (Diamond stood nearby, policing the exact delivery of each line.) Sometimes she would take a relieved breath after completing a long speech, only to find she’d left out an “and” or a “then”. The takes continued until the dialogue was perfect. —Cameron Crowe, Billy and me

Alfred Hitchcock sent this letter to Billy Wilder, praising him on his film The Apartment.



The Wilder touch: the director explains his zany method for relaxing actors [PDF]. A brilliant article! Thanks to the great folks at CineFiles.



The Austrian-born filmmaker who would become one of the most important figures of American cinema, Billy Wilder could have been proud of a rich career filled with many movies now deemed true classics. From Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, through Sunset Boulevard and The Seven Year Itch, all the way to Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Wilder is responsible of some of the best works Hollywood ever produced. Respected for his vision and craft, he nevertheless remained something of a mystery to the public. Sometime in the early eighties the great director sent a letter to a young German filmmaker called Volker Schlöndorff, telling him how much he appreciated his film The Tin Drum, hailing it as one of the best works of contemporary German cinema. These two filmmakers then started a friendship that would last for decades and which would, to our immense satisfaction, give birth to a documentary entitled Billy, How Did You Do It? (in the original: Billy Wilder, wie haben Sie’s gemacht?) The title itself is a reference to the famous sign that Wilder proudly held in his office, saying “How would Lubitsch do it?,” a point of reference for Wilder whenever he faced an obstacle in his professional path. Just like he looked at Lubitsch for inspiration, Schlöndorff, who says that during his formative years he was always torn between the nouvelle vague and Wilder, held his role model in very high regard. In 1988, therefore, Schlöndorff brought a camera crew into Wilder’s Los Angeles office with the intention of shooting an “improvised conversation between friends.”

The fascinating result is a true gem of a three-hour documentary: divided into three parts, Schlöndorff’s film is mostly set in Wilder’s office, as the two of them discuss a whole range of themes from Wilder’s incredibly rich career, both in English and German: projects, collaborations, memories, technical details, passions and personal anecdotes. Originally aired on BBC, the film was hidden from public screenings for a very long time, especially in the States, where Wilder the perfectionist didn’t want it to be shown. Schlöndorff and Wilder’s conversations are enriched with clips from Wilder’s numerous films. All in all, Billy, How Did You Do It? is a unique and extremely rewarding opportunity to explore the mind of one of Hollywood’s most significant filmmakers, and we can only express our gratitude to Matt Jones, who pointed us to this invaluable film through Twitter.

Over the years the Writers Guild Foundation has recorded interviews with prominent writers about their careers and about their working lives and practices. Here’s a phenomenal conversation with Billy Wilder.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Photographed by Jack Harris © The Mirisch Company, Inc. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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