Last week, one of the national newspapers' film critics emailed to ask whether I had a copy of The Apartment (pictured) that he could borrow. "The problem is, it's being re-released and I've got to review it and I really don't fancy a trip to the BFI," he said.
I was shocked. I can understand why he wouldn't want to drag himself to a screening theatre to watch the latest Madonna film, but The Apartment? For my money, it's one of the best films ever made. He'd seen it before, of course, but even so. If I had the chance to go and watch The Apartment on the big screen for free, I think I would go.
Made in 1960, it was the high point of Billy Wilder's career, starting with The Major and the Minor (1942) and encompassing Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sabrina (1954) and Some Like It Hot (1959), among others. The Apartment was a comedy, but unlike his previous comic films, it was shot through with Wilder's tragic sensibility. Even Stalag 17, his ground-breaking comedy about life inside a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, was light by comparison.
It is a fair bet that most of Hollywood's writer-directors would have balked at having the female lead attempt to commit suicide. Not Wilder. He was confident enough to take that risk, knowing it could have killed the film stone-dead at the box office. In fact, the inclusion of the suicide scene, in which Jack Lemmon discovers an overdosed Shirley MacLaine, is what lifts it from being just another (very good) romcom into the realm of an all-time classic.
Like Chekhov, who described his plays as "comedies", Wilder knew the key to creating a great work of popular art was to straddle the line between comedy and tragedy. Tragicomedy is the toughest genre of all to pull off – and Wilder himself came a cropper when he tried it again in Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). But when you can make it work, the result is far more satisfying than a drama that falls squarely on either side of the line.
At the 1961 Academy Awards, The Apartment won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. As Moss Hart handed Wilder his screenwriting statuette, he leaned over and whispered, "This is the moment to stop, Billy." "And how right he was," Wilder told his biographer, Maurice Zolotow, 15 years later. It simply doesn't get better than The Apartment.
The Apartment: BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), from 15-28 August