MGM // 1960 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // March 10th, 2008
From the world's greatest collection of film classics, we proudly present Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray in The Apartment! But first, a word from our sponsor...
A note for student screenwriters: if you want to learn how to mix comedy, drama, and sentiment in the most perfect way possible, your first assignment is to watch and study The Apartment...no exceptions! This 1960 Oscar winner for Best Picture of the Year was the second film in what I like to call the Wilder-Diamond "consecutive masterpiece" trilogy. The first is 1959's Some Like It Hot, which is considered the funniest farce of all time by many, and the last one is 1961's One, Two, Three which I consider the most underrated farce of all time. Both were written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, and while Wilder had already scored success after success -- with such films as Double Indeminity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Blvd. -- it was their union that truly produced cinematic magic. While the other two films I mentioned they worked on were pure farces, The Apartment is really a highly sophisticated comedy-drama that examines infidelity in the corporate world of N.Y.C. Even though the film is dated in terms of fashion and technology, the themes still resonate well into the 21st century. Previously released by MGM in 2001 as a barebones disc, the studio has finally churned out a much-deserved Collector's Edition, which has much to savor, bonus-wise.
Vulnerable schnook C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot) is one of thousands employees at a life insurance company. He lives in a simple, comfortable apartment near Central Park. His ambitions are high. He wants to climb the corporate ladder, and works overtime without being paid. Sounds pretty serious, huh? Actually, the truth is that he cannot go home, because this is another night where it's being occupied by a married executive in his firm entertaining a young lady. To be honest, Baxter is acquainted with four executives at his company who make reservations to spend a different weeknight at his apartment to drink some liquor and have sex. There's an advantage for Baxter, though: promotion and advancement! When he goes to meet the big boss man Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, Double Indemnity), he is practically forced to confess his "Mama-sun" practice, which he thinks will get him fired. As luck -- good or bad -- would have it, he ends up helping Mr. Sheldrake out with an affair that he is continuing with elevator operator Fran Kubilek (Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment). Fran loves Jeff, but is confused in terms of what his plans really are, considering the fact that his wife in White Plains has no idea of his adultery.
On the other side of the spectrum, Baxter likes Fran, even though he doesn't have a clue that she is, in fact, the girl that his boss is taking to his apartment night after night. On Christmas Eve, things begin to spiral out of control, with Fran realizing she is only the recent in a long line of girls that Sheldrake has been playing around with. To make matters worse, Baxter himself falls in love with her...just before realizing who she has been going to his apartment with.
Film-wise, the utlimate theme is expressed by the minor character of Dr. Dreyfuss, who is Baxter's neighbor. Thinking that Baxter is a gigalo is who makes a lot of racket every night with a different girl, Dr. Dreyfuss tells him to "be a mensch." Of course, he is begging him to be a human being for once. Even though the doctor is wrong in the cause, he is right in the request. Baxter's morality is tested many times in the film as he loans out his apartment key out to these executives, and thus his humanity is threatened because of his actions. That being said, Baxter is a unique character in that he walks the fine line between being likeable and sincere, as well as being immoral slime looking for an easy way to climb up to the corporate ladder's paramount. However, he's a saint when compared to Sheldrake, who not only lies, but also cheats and manipulates to no arrogant end. At the time, the subject of adultery in films was considered taboo, and Wilder was one of the first filmmakers to bring the reality of it to the screen, despite the Production Code's goal to maintain sanction of marriage in scripts. In 1955, Wilder had made The Seven Year Itch, a film which explored the infidelity of a married man -- who pursues Marilyn Monroe, no less -- though the script was heavily doctored from its stage origins that any suggestion of infidelity was eliminated . When the 1960s, came around, realism began to seep into the movie-going American conscienceness with no subtlety, which made The Apartment all the more groundbreaking.
Script-wise, the team of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond was able to get away with portraying this reality without ever getting graphic. Their brilliant use of exposition allowed for not only simple story twists, but rather to pay-off elements so powerfully which were only hinted at before; this is exactly why I say The Apartment should be a staple for any serious amateur screenwriter's education. The writers not only avoid cliche and predictablity, but also syrup or farce, both of which wouldn't seem right in this kind of film. The Apartment has a delicate balance of light comedy and dark drama, which in some stories would be a risky route to take, but it works amazingly well here because it all feels natural. When Sheldrake recieves a present from Fran and he asks "What is it?," you don't question it because he would make that d'oh inquiry. One of the most powerfully real scenes comes afterward, when Sheldrake gives her a $100 bill as a Christmas present -- and, no, I will not give away the metaphoric significance of it if you have not seen the film. True, while the Oscar-winning screenplay of The Apartment has been cloned into many films since its release -- including two Michael J. Fox pictures, The Secret of my Success and For Love or Money -- it still retains its incredible ability to juggle laughs and sentiment without compromise.
Cinematography-wise, the stark, shadowy black-and-white look of the film was captured by Joseph LaShelle, who did many of Wilder's pictures, including The Fortune Cookie, for which he earned an Oscar for. The film isn't afraid to use noir elements as well as bright lighting in equal doses, and one example is when the film zigzags between a drunk Lemmon in a bar on Christmas Eve and Sheldrake dealing with a teary-eyed Fran in the apartment. One thing I never noticed before listening to film historian Bruce Block's fine commentary track -- and believe me when I say I've seen The Apartment numerous times -- is that it was intentionally shot to include Lemmon and MacLaine together in frame, while LaShelle cut back and forth between scenes which had MacMurray and MacLaine only. The Oscar-winning art direction-set direction by Alexandre Turner and Edward G. Boyle, respectively, is photographed well, with the forced perspective look of the life insurance office on the 19th floor where Baxter works as a great set-piece. Nothing about the apartment itself is enhanced; it remains -- like its resident -- quaint and lonely, as it should be. While the film is set in N.Y.C., very little of was shot on location, as most of it was on soundstages (the apartment itself was the second floor of a home, actually), and it all looks seamless.
Acting-wise, every single performance is world class. It should be no big news that the late Jack Lemmon was a gifted, superb performer who could do comedy as well as drama with equal effectiveness. Wilder loved him so much that he wrote the Baxter character specifically for Lemmon; to the director, there was just no second choice. Block notes in his commentary how Lemmon's unique knack for physical comedy worked in his first meeting with Sheldrake, with the masterful use of a thermometer and nasal spray. Plus, how can you not love a guy that drains spaghetti through a tennis racket? However, watch him in the scene talking to MacLaine about a love in his life that never got consummated and you will see his great dramatic touch as well. Matching Lemmon is a fresh, 25-year-old Shirley MacLaine who is, in my opinion, cute as a button. She remains exquisite all the way through by getting into Fran's head and becoming the emotional catalyst to Baxter. Both were nominated for Oscars, though it would be many more years later until each of them won -- him for Save the Tiger and her for Terms of Endearment. Among the standouts in the supporting cast are Ray Walston as an executive who goes ga-ga over a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, Jack Kruschen as the neighboring doctor with a good heart, Naomi Stevens as the doctor's wife with an acid tongue, and Hope Holiday as the kooky Mrs. MacDougall.
Supporting-actor wise, I must give a special mention to Fred MacMurray, whom I firmly believe is the most underrated actor of all time. Originally, the role of Sheldrake was to be given to character actor Paul Douglas, though he died of a heart attack before filming began. MacMurray was now working at Disney at the time (he starred in The Shaggy Dog the previous year), and initially turned The Apartment's antagonist down for two reasons: a) it wouldn't be good for his "family-friendly" image and b) being upset at Wilder for "always choosing him as a last-second replacement." In my opinion, MacMurray can do no wrong, whether he is the hero or the villian or something in between, and he's watchable even in the smallest roles. Even though he was never typecast as an arrogant idiot, he played that role several times, most notably in The Caine Mutiny as the Navy officer who suggests to start a mutiny against the crazed Capt. Queeg...but then bails out of the investigation and refuses to take responsibility. Sheldrake exhibits charisma on the surface, though it's all manufactured just to get what he wants. (Oh, yeah, it also helps a lot when he has a large bank account.) Even though Sheldrake has been involved in affairs before, he feels at times inexperienced and ends up not thinking before acting, as with giving Fran the $100 I mentioned earlier. MacMurray's role in the The Apartment may very well be the best of his career, and what's sad is that he didn't even get nominated (Kruschen got a nod instead).
Video-wise and audio-wise, MGM had improved upon another catelog title which had been previously released, DVD-wise. The initial 2001 disc was fine visually and sonically, but only had an original theatrical trailer as a special feature, which is absolutely insulting for a Best Picture winner. Seven years later, MGM decided to rectify that by releasing a Collector's Edition, which has an audio commentary, a documentary, and a perspective on Jack Lemmon, who died in 2002. The 2.35: Anamorphic Widescreen print is the same one from the previous disc, but the results are impressive all the same, with almost no marks or edge enhancement. The Apartment has also been given a new Dolby Surround 5.1 Surround track, which gives more power to the soaring, romantic score by Adolphe Deutsch. However, there are still mono tracks provided in English, French, and Spanish, along with subtitles in English and Spanish. Film Producer and historian Bruce Block leads the bonus featues with a full-length audio commentary and provides many details about the film's production -- including a cut scene where Lemmon is reading a Playboy and gets the idea to buy a bowler later in the film. The 30-minute documentary "Inside the Apartment" avoids repeating info in the commentary and has some revealing interviews with MacLaine and other cast members, including Hope Holiday and Johnny Seven (Fran's brother-in-law Karl). Finally, the 12-minute Jack Lemmon remembrance is hosted by his son Chris, and provides some interesting tidbits about the late actor. There may be only three bonus features, but they all serve the DVD well and are worth jumping into.
While it would have been nice for MacLaine to join Block on the commentary -- and perhaps another bonus feature or two -- this new DVD of The Apartment has absolutely no complaints from me. Just be sure to not watch the film on TV with those damn commerical interruptions, lol.
And now...The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray. But first, a word from our alternate spons...[the announcer gets shot in the knee and whacked over the head several times with a tennis racket].
Winner of five Academy Awards, The Apartment has gone on to be on several AFI lists, and it also happens to be #100 on the International Movie Database's most popular films. And it's no surprise, either. For fans of the film (like me) who have been waiting for a Collector's Edition, this is well worth the buy at only $15.
The court finds the film and MGM not guilty, verdict-wise and...otherwise-wise. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2008 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #32
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary from Film Producer/Historian Bruce Block
* "Inside the Apartment"
* "Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon"