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I suspected this after watching films like Sunset Blvd., Sabrina and Some Like It Hot, but The Apartment has confirmed it for me – Billy Wilder was a blooming’ genius!  Here, Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a mild-mannered bachelor, who lets the married executives at the insurance company where he works, use his apartment for their extra-marital trysts, in the hope that they will help him gain a promotion.  However, things get complicated when he falls for Fran (Shirley MacLaine) the girlfriend of one of his boss Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).  The film blends drama, romance and comedy.

Jack Lemmon is just superb in this film – he always seems able to create such vulnerable and sweet characters, and has such a wonderfully expressive face, which means that roles like this suit him completely.  I loved his interaction with Shirley MacLaine, who was also wonderful.  As we saw the pain that both characters go through – C.C. when realising that Fran is involved with his boss, and Fran’s heartbreak at being the ‘other woman’, the sadness is almost palpable.  Fred MacMurray was fine as said boss, although completely unlikeable (which was exactly the way he was meant to be).

There were some funny moments, and a lot of poignant moments with people not being able to say what they so desperately want to say, and Baxter being forced to make himself look like a heel in front of his neighbours, and certainly there were scenes which made me cry.  The ending though was perfect – although I’m not giving anything away…if you haven’t seen this film, you should, and you ought not to know what is going to happen! This is a grown-up love story, far from being a fairytale romance.  It has cynicism, sadness, anger, laughter, hope and revelation, and is quite simply a must-see film.

Year of release: 1960

Director: Billy Wilder

Producers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, Doane Harrison

Writers: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond

Main cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen

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You know when occasionally you watch a film, and you think it sounds okay, but then it totally exceeds your expectations and you’re just blown away by it?  Well, Sunset Boulevard (aka Sunset Blvd.) was just such a film for me.

William Holden – who also narrates the film – plays Joe Gillis, a small-time screen writer, down on both money and luck; as we find out right at the beginning of the film, Gillis won’t be alive by the end of it.  He meets former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who cannot and will not accept the truth that her star has long since faded into obscurity and she has been all but forgotten by both the film industry, and movie-goers.  Determined to have another hit film, she hires Joe to help her edit her self-penned script, but she soon becomes obsessed with him, and Joe finds himself less a guest, more a prisoner, at her dilapidated home, with only Norma and her mysterious butler Max for company.

As you may have guessed, I loved this film.  The storyline is a caustic and witty dig at a fickle Hollywood.  The fact that viewers are informed by Joe’s voice-over right at the start of the film, that he will not survive to the end, fills the ensuing scenes with a bitter sense of doom, and the contrast between Joe the narrator, who knows his fate, and Joe the character who we see on camera, who is unaware of what will befall him, is very effective (A similar idea was used years later in American Beauty, also with excellent results, although Sunset Boulevard was, for me, a much better film.)

Gloria Swanson was excellent as Norma Desmond, and at times was difficult to watch.  I disliked her character, but couldn’t help feeling great sympathy for her.  Deserted by her fans and her colleagues, she is losing her grip on reality.  At times, she was manic and unpredictable; at other times, she showed tenderness and extreme vulnerability (the scene where she entertains Joe by dressing up as Charlie Chaplin is both sweet and disturbing, as her happy mood turns to anger).  Swanson was nominated for an Oscar for her performance; the same year Bette Davis was nominated for her role in All About Eve – both lost out to Judy Holliday for her role in Born Yesterday, which also starred William Holden.  He was also nominated for Sunset Boulevard.

William Holden shows his real talent for acting here.  A not altogether likeable character at the beginning of the film, he nevertheless gets the audience on side, as he and they come to realise the untenable situation in which he has found himself.  He imbues his character with passion, tenderness, ruthlessness, and resignation – oh, and he’s darkly funny too.

Eric von Stroheim is perfectly cast as Norma’s taciturn and mysterious butler – this role could easily have been a caricature in different hands, but he plays the part brilliantly.

The main cast is rounded out by Nancy Olsen as Betty Schaefer, a young writer who wants Joe’s help on a script; she is perfectly cast as a feisty but tender young woman who is dragged into Joe’s nightmare world.

In short, my opinion for what it’s worth, is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this film.  It’s gripping – I felt unable to turn my eyes away from the screen; it’s sad, it’s tragic, and it’s bleakly funny.  It was a real victory for director Billy Wilder, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time.  Very highly recommended.

Year of release: 1950

Director: Billy Wilder

Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.

Main cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen

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This is Billy Wilder’s fabulous 1954 movie – based on the play ‘Sabrina Fair’ by Samuel A Taylor – starring the luminescent Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina Fairchild, a young girl who is in love with David Larrabee (William Holden), the younger son of the family her father is the chauffeur for.  David, who is irresponsible and a playboy, hardly knows Sabrina exists, but when she comes back from two years in France and is now a sophisticated young woman, he falls for her – despite being engaged to another woman with whose family, David’s older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) is hoping to secure a business proposition.  In order to keep David and Sabrina apart, and thus protect his business, Linus starts spending time with Sabrina to keep her away from his brother.  But then, he finds his own feelings towards her changing…

Okay I admit it – I am a little bit in love with Audrey Hepburn.  She has such an incredible charm, and she is perfect for this role.  She plays the part to perfection and it’s easy to see how not just one, but both brothers would fall in love with Sabrina.  William Holden (who fell in love with Audrey while they were making the film) is also excellent as the rascalish David; despite everything he’s hard to dislike, because while the character is selfish and irresponsible, he isn’t malicious – and he provides some great comedy.  Humphrey Bogart was a last minute replacement for the part of Linus – originally the role was supposed to be played by Cary Grant.  While I think Grant was a terrific actor, I actually think that Bogart might have been a better choice for the role.  Sabrina is supposed to be surprised by her growing feelings for Linus, because she has been in love with his younger brother for as long as she can remember.  Linus is an unusual choice of partner for her….but who could be surprised by anyone in a movie falling for the charming and handsome Cary Grant?  Linus was not supposed to be handsome and charming.  If Bogart seems a little cold in this role, I’d guess that that might be intentional.

This film is over 50 years old now, it’s black and white and all of the stars are sadly no longer with us (all dying relatively young).  Yet, it still has plenty of sparkle and feels fresh; it’s an absolute pleasure to watch.  There are moments of tenderness, but there are some very funny scenes as well, and an excellent supporting cast (most notably John Williams and Walter Hampden).  I loved watching Sabrina’s and Linus’ respective surprise as it dawned on them that they had feelings for each other.

Overall, this is a very sweet, humorous and clever romantic comedy, which deserves it’s status as a classic.  It’s probably more geared to a female audience, but I would certainly recommend it to anybody who likes good movies.

Year of release: 1954

Director: Billy Wilder

Writers: Samuel A Taylor (play), Billy Wilder, Ernest Lehman

Main cast: Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Humphrey Bogart

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Click here for my review of the 1995 adaptation.

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