Our reviews of The Apartment: Collector's Edition (published March 10th, 2008), The Apartment (Blu-ray) (published February 9th, 2012), and Billy Wilder Film Collection (published March 17th, 2008) are also available.
"Movie-wise, there has never been anything like it—laugh-wise, love-wise, or otherwise-wise!"
I turned on the TV this morning to find that Jack Lemmon has died at the age of 76. Lemmon was a gifted actor and, it seems, a genuinely wonderful person. It's very hard to describe the loss of someone who has given us so many laughs and touched so many hearts, but whom many of us didn't know. Perhaps the loss feels so personal because Lemmon played the consummate everyman—he was one of us. Thankfully, his many films and performances will live on as testaments to his great talent. Lemmon made so many great films over the years, but The Apartment uniquely shows his comedic and dramatic abilities. I believe it is his best work.
Fresh off the triumph of 1959's Some Like It Hot, legendary director Billy Wilder and his writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond were pressed to create another hit screwball comedy. Instead the team conceived a darkly comic morality tale about office and bedroom politics. The Apartment won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director of 1960, and is considered one of the 100 Greatest Films by the AFI. The Apartment makes a very welcome, if somewhat disappointing, DVD debut thanks to MGM.
Facts of the Case
C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works diligently on the 19th floor of Consolidated Life Insurance of New York. He's got a good job, a decent salary, and a great apartment, location-wise. But that's his problem: his apartment is so conveniently located that Bud's superiors are always using it as a rendezvous for their extra-marital trysts. Bud's bosses (including a hilarious Ray Walston) placate Bud with promises of career advancement. These promises are all Bud has, for though his apartment is always crowded, he's the loneliest guy in the building.
When he's not juggling the apartment (and his nosy neighbors), Bud unrequitedly pines for Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a beautiful, enigmatic elevator girl. When J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the director of personnel calls Bud in for a meeting, Bud figures his generosity has paid off. Instead, Sheldrake asks for Bud's apartment key. It's not long before Bud's arrangement with Sheldrake results in a promotion. But Bud soon learns with whom Sheldrake is sharing the apartment (and Bud's bed)—Fran. After several months of an affair, Fran realizes that Sheldrake will never leave his wife and, in deep despair, swallows a load of sleeping pills. Bud returns from a Christmas Eve bender to find Fran unconscious. As he nurses her back to health Bud must make a choice: continue to play ball with Sheldrake for the sake of his career, or give it all up for the woman he loves.
I think it's only fair to make a disclaimer up front and say that The Apartment is my favorite film. I love so much about this film that objectivity simply isn't possible. So I'll just do my best to make you understand why I think it is so great, and if I can convince you to rent this disc, or even buy it, then I'll have done my duty.
Billy Wilder conceived of the idea for The Apartment while watching David Lean's Brief Encounter, the story of an illicit affair, where the participants met in a friend's apartment. Wilder found himself more interested in the story of the apartment's owner than the couple. While working on Some Like It Hot, Wilder found in Lemmon the perfect comic everyman, and began conceiving their next collaboration. The stroke of genius was to combine the strategies of the bedroom with that of the newly-emerging corporate structure. With The Apartment, Wilder asks us how far we are willing to go to get ahead. No doubt this question is still as relevant today as it was in 1960.
No one is innocent in a Wilder film, not even the hero (if you don't believe me take a look at Sunset Blvd. or Stalag 17). In The Apartment, Bud's Achilles Heel is his ambition. In another actor's hands, Bud might simply be an unsympathetic opportunist, but to Lemmon's credit, he manages to walk the fine line between comedy and pathos here (while delivering probably his greatest performance ever). If your heart doesn't nearly break when Fran wonders aloud to Bud why she doesn't fall in love with guys like him, get out the EKG, because it just might not be there. That's about as sappy as the caustic Wilder ever allows things to get. Indeed, The Apartment is one of the most un-romantic romances of all time. It deals with infidelity on several levels, suicide and careerism—not typical romantic elements, but it works because it is true to life. Many of us work out our romance from the pit of despair, much like Bud and Fran.
MacLaine also gives a beautiful, intelligent performance. She captures the essence of a girl whose heart won't catch up to her head when it comes to romance. Fred MacMurray considered refusing the role of Sheldrake because it might hurt his career as a Disney leading man. We should be glad he did not. Even though Sheldrake is a jerk who is willing to lead Fran on, MacMurray's likeability keeps him from being a black and white movie villain.
Incidentally, Wilder always has the best closing lines in the business ("Nobody's Perfect!" from Some Like It Hot takes the cake). The Apartment is no different. This time Fran gets the honor.
The Apartment is presented in its original aspect ratio, an immense 2.35:1. This much screen space only serves to further Bud's loneliness and isolation from the rest of the world. He swims among a sea of desks and typewriters that stretch on into infinity. It's truly a film that must be viewed in widescreen, and to MGM's credit, The Apartment has previously been available in a widescreen version on VHS. When comparing the widescreen DVD and VHS, the DVD of course comes out ahead. The DVD has been given an anamorphic transfer, which is not to say that it is in pristine shape. The film is forty years old and shows it in some places. There are frequent blemishes and scratches. I also noticed several instances of edge enhancement, but overall, it's an acceptable offering.
Audio-wise, The Apartment is adequate, presented in Dolby Digital Mono in English, French, and Spanish. Dialogue plays crisply and the now-famous theme song plays melodically through the front speakers. There was no distortion of effects or dialogue, with music mixed equally well. Also available are English and Spanish subtitles.
Unfortunately, The Apartment DVD is without any special features. This really frustrates me. I realize that not every film is worthy of great supplemental treatment, but how many Best Picture winners can any one studio claim? I'd think that MGM would make the most of this one and give it full-blown Special Edition treatment. It would've been terrific to hear an audio commentary by Lemmon and MacLaine. Even Billy Wilder is still around to give input. This is an inexcusable missed opportunity by MGM (even more so now in light of Lemmon's passing). What we do get is the original theatrical trailer presented in full frame, which would make Robert Zemeckis proud (it gives away the ending of the movie). Though it's nice to have this trailer, it's not in the best of shape.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though, as stated above, I have some concerns about the DVD presentation, it's simply not possible in this case to say anything negative about the film itself.
One of the greatest pictures of all time deserved more attention from MGM, but a film like The Apartment would be a worthy buy even if you had to spin the disc by hand. At least MGM's price ($14.99 or so) is right on the money. Do yourself a favor laugh-wise, love-wise and otherwise-wise and pick up The Apartment right away.
MGM is guilty and must make restitution! The Apartment is free to go!
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Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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