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Craft

The real deal: Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."

Every time we check into "The Apartment," which is at least once every other year during this Christmas-to-New Year's stretch, we exit two hours later shaking our head in wonder.

Where did this class of smart, perfect-pitch adult comedy run off to in the 56 years since?

Can't anyone standing behind or in front of a camera today put away the things of comic book childhood and gross adolescence and grow up a little bit, without pandering — either to our demand for short-cut emotions or to the baser instincts that now prevail, from barrel's bottom to the man at the top?

Looking at what passes for alleged smart adult comedy today — let's, in the spirit of these faux-times, call it fake smart comedy — we see a lot of self-satisfied wallowing in knee-jerk irony, arrested edginess and smugness by the smirk-load.

Curiously, at least for those of us who love it and are deeply moved by it, "The Apartment" — the New Year's weekend attraction at the Normal Theater for perfectly timed reasons (7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday) — was not universally embraced in 1960.

In that year of the Mad Men, it was slammed by many an easily bruised sensibility for its alleged brittle cynicism and jaded world-view: the hallmarks of writer-director Billy Wilder, whose acerbic touch is at the hard hearts of "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend," "Sunset Boulevard," "Ace in the Hole," "Some Like It Hot" and a half-dozen more where they came from.

From our perspective 56 years later, few films more richly evoke the mood of young urban professionalism and evolving mores in America during the Kennedy years.

It's all there, nutshell-wise (for non-fans of the movie, the latter hyphenate is a salute to the most adroitly developed running dialogue theme in the screenplay by Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond).

Moreover, its holiday time frame — Christmas to New Year's — renders it the most honestly felt seasonal movie respite we can think of, from its widescreen office party bacchanals to its prevailing tone of end-of-year/road regret. 

Jack Lemmon, in control of himself and his mannerisms as he would never be again, plays a rising young Manhattan professional named C.C. Baxter, who gets ahead by loaning out his apartment key to philandering office executives who need a pad to dally in with their latest pick-ups (usually from the office secretarial pool).

Little does Baxter realize that the perky company elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) he's fallen for is the mistress of the high-ranking head of personnel (Fred MacMurray) — a regular borrower of Baxter's key.

For Wilder, fresh off the triumph of the previous year's "Some Like It Hot" (also with Lemmon, but in a completely different key), "The Apartment" climaxed his Hollywood career by earning more Oscar nominations and wins than any other credit on his estimable resume. 

In tandem, Wilder and Diamond fashioned a provocative script that managed to incorporate everything from illicit sex to suicidal urges to executive pimping ... the very elements that alarmed those with two feet still in the Eisenhower era.

Yet Diamond and Wilder folded these potentially abrasive elements into the mature, deeply felt framework of a gorgeously shot (in black-and-white) romantic comedy, complete with some of the sharpest dialogue ever exchanged on screen, a fat ensemble of inspired performances, and a music score that walks hand in hand with the characters.

The score is dominated by Charles Williams' main theme, now known as "The Theme from 'The Apartment.'" It's this film's version of "Casablanca's" "As Time Goes By," in that it's the bonding melody for two of the film's key characters — its tempos and shadings are inseparable from the movements and interactions on screen.

If you've never spent a night in Wilder's "Apartment," you're in for a rare treat seemingly no longer attainable ... adult romantic comedy-wise.

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Dan Craft is Pantagraph arts and entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-820-3259 or via email at dcraft@pantagraph.com

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