The Apartment Review

The idea of whether a perfect film has ever been created is in itself a difficult query, not least of which because of the inherently subjective nature involved in watching movies. My flawless choice is your respectable golf clap of a viewing. So if I had, say, three particular films in mind that constitute the medium’s utter perfection, things that I’d hardly want to know someone who couldn’t find satisfaction in each, then hopefully I’d be met by sincere indulgence instead of vocal anger or straitjacket insinuation. A hypothetical lead-off hitter might be Citizen Kane, sure to reach safely on sheer reputation-based admiration if nothing else. Rear Window would be a solid two-spot, if for no other reason than the near impossibility of completely dismissing Hitchcock in any film-related discussion. And at the pivotal three hole? Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, of course.

I do, unabashedly, find Wilder’s film to be positively perfect. You might say I absolutely adore it, film-wise. Few movies have such a keen, unforgiving and unapologetic arsenal of laughs, tears and nearly every emotion in between. Wilder oscillates with quiet ease between the witty and the wistful, back and forth from cynical humour to a warm cinematic embrace of the viewer and the protagonist. There are countless other films that succeed in combining pathos and unironic laughs, but few, if any, do it better. Do you not crack a smile when C.C. Baxter tries to somehow impress Fran Kubelik with his newly-purchased bowler hat? It’s both hopelessly hilarious and hilariously hopeless at the same time. And does Miss Kubelik’s midnight ditching and subsequent run through Manhattan not choke you up just a little?

As in Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., and Stalag 17, Wilder here opens The Apartment with a voiceover, spoken by C.C. Baxter, who’s usually just called “Bud” and is played by Hollywood’s great everyman Jack Lemmon. Baxter works on the 19th floor of Consolidated Life of New York (one of the top five insurance companies in the country) and lives in a modest bachelor apartment on West 69th Street in Manhattan. His dilemma is initially simple: he lends his apartment key out to the higher-up executives for nightly trysts away from their wives while he spends a few, non-overtime hours at work or standing out in the cold. There aren't any moral qualms involved for Baxter, but he's starting to feel weary nonetheless. Instead of being trapped inside something, he's on the outside looking in of his own home. Someone else drinks his liquor, eats his cheese crackers and warms up his bed.

Persistent sniffles are apparently a small price to pay for advancement, though Baxter assures us he’s not overly ambitious. Still, I’m not sure I entirely believe him. Part of the masterful ambiguity that Wilder is perhaps not given enough credit for comes from the question of Baxter’s exact motivations. Is he really allowing a quartet of higher-ups to use his residence at will because he can’t say no, or is the lure of a private office and access to the executive washroom a motivating factor? I’m inclined to believe the latter, judging from his reaction of great pride upon receiving a pair of promotions. Baxter is obviously a man of extreme weakness when it comes to turning down those in positions of power (which makes his final denouement all the more exceptional), but he’s also quite shrewd. When still buried amid a sea of calculator-filled desks, he excitedly wagers with a co-worker who’s tenured twice as long that a request from Mr. Sheldrake will lead to a promotion and not a termination.

Sheldrake is Baxter’s boss, the head man at Consolidated Life, situated on the 27th floor and played by Fred MacMurray. He learns about Baxter’s apartment arrangement and wants in. What Baxter doesn’t realise is that Sheldrake’s lady friend is Fran Kubelik, the elevator operator Baxter has developed a crush on. She’s played by Shirley MacLaine, who’s remarkably cute and tough and sympathetic and confused all at once. Without MacLaine’s essentially flawless performance and Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s miraculous original script, Miss Kubelik could have been easily dismissed as stupid and insensitive. But then we’d have a different movie altogether and not one where the female lead radiates a charismatic charm to match her male counterpart’s clueless and irresistible likeability. That’s how it works when everything’s perfect. Every last piece must be without flaw, puzzle-wise.

The work by Wilder and Diamond is remarkable, to be sure, but it’s made even more so by realising how exceptional the high-energy films that sandwich The Apartment are. Some Like It Hot and One, Two, Three are both full-blown comedies that strive for little more than repeated laughs, occurring at a rapid-fire pace. They’re both milk-snorting funny, but neither contains the tender emotion or unflinching humanity contained within The Apartment. In truth, nothing in Wilder’s rarely blemished career has the absolute warmth minus acid found here. The writer better known as a director and most often denigrated as a writer could churn out bile with the best of them (see Ace in the Hole and Sunset Blvd.) in addition to his funnies, but he most often settled on one or the other, without the comprehensive balance achieved in The Apartment.

In terms of poignancy, the only other film in Wilder’s oeuvre that really hits all the marks is Avanti!, an underrated, late-career master work from 1972 that also stars Jack Lemmon. The difference there is that Lemmon has reached middle-age and his restlessness has taken on an entirely new meaning. The Apartment captures actor and director in early and mid-career, respectively, where one is in full stride and the other is just catching his. Both still had something to prove, despite already dusty Oscars on their mantles. Lemmon was a comic actor who’d further cement his acting chops two years later in Days of Wine and Roses. Wilder was a versatile writer/director who’d been burned by creating an audienceless piece of grade-A dynamite with Ace in the Hole in 1951 and responded by adapting proven favourites and crowd-pleasing fare throughout the rest of the 1950’s.

But The Apartment changed things for both men, winning Oscars for Wilder and nomination plus recognition for Lemmon. The film deemed a “dirty fairy tale” by critic Hollis Alpert is really neither and instead announces itself early on as a wildly cinematic story of loneliness, ambition, unrequited love, and carefree emotion via King Vidor’s The Crowd and David Lean’s Brief Encounter. The latter film is what supposedly inspired Wilder in making a story about the guy who lends out his apartment for extramarital affairs, but the former lent its corporate cog visuals to some stunning images. The art direction garnered an Oscar for Alexander Trauner and the ingenuity subtly layered in the office and apartment settings breathes life into the picture. Joseph LaShelle lost the Best Black and White Cinematography Academy Award to Freddie Francis for Sons and Lovers, but the photography and lighting here is truly extraordinary and does well to disprove the frequent criticism that Wilder was a writer foremost and a director by default.

Every last shot in Wilder’s film is exceptional and conveys the exact feeling needed at any given point. Frames are cherished without calling attention to themselves. Beautiful anamorphic images are deftly positioned and presented with humble, clear-eyed efficiency. Without shorting LaShelle, I’d ascertain that Wilder absolutely gets kicked to the curb in terms of his visual acumen and it’s simply not fair. Disparaging the aesthetic achievements of Wilder’s films is merely an unwelcome, inaccurate way to find fault with a director whose scripts are often beyond reproach and require some other filmic aspect to criticise. That myth has no clothes and resists such patently unfair falsities. Watch the deep perspective office floor shots reminiscent of the inner workings of a beehive or the effortless, yet exquisite scenes inside Baxter’s apartment following Miss Kubelik’s prolonged sleep and tell me they’re not some of the finest examples of Scope black and white presentation Hollywood ever produced.

Then come back and try to chip away at Wilder and Diamond’s impeccable script. The structure by itself is worth marveling at, moving swiftly from hangdog introductions and pretend contentment to stark suicide attempts met with silent infatuation and brief disappointment. The thing positively moves and for a film that denies easy characterisation among the classic genres, the pacing is generally bulletproof. An abrupt overdose brings matters to a crashing halt, and is really the only thing that threatens the film’s perfection, but it’s not a significant barrier. The seriousness in attempting suicide, whether we’re in 1960 or present-day, can’t be glossed over and here it sets up the crucial shift between interest and adoration for Baxter. It also provides a pivotal point in the narrative map.

Baxter is given a collection of moments to fuel his unrealised loneliness and he selects Miss Kubelik as his object of desire. I’m not sure who’d have the two sizes too small heart to blame Baxter for his choice, but I also don’t think the squishily perfect ending is entirely definitive. We know Baxter’s a romantic at heart, prone to falling in love, and Kubelik habitually picks the wrong men. His feelings are as fully hatched as they’ll get, but hers are comparatively embryonic. “Shut up and deal,” sure, and I love to think of the two making it all work together, but I’m also a Wilder cynic. A rejection of Sheldrake isn’t an automatic embrace of Baxter. For such a dreamy sigh of an ending, Kubelik’s cute response leaves things decidedly open-ended. Maybe they stay together for decades. Maybe they never take off. Perhaps she becomes a French prostitute and he’s a local police officer who loses his job and takes up residence in her Parisian apartment. We just never know and somehow that makes it all the more perfect.

The Disc

The R1 disc of The Apartment that MGM released back in 2001 looks significantly worse than this new Collector's Edition transfer. Sharpness and contrast are strikingly better and the greyscale has gained noticeable improvement, as well. There is some slight flickering, most evident near the end of the film when Baxter is alone in his apartment, but the print looks exceedingly clean with very little damage or dirt. The film is progressively transferred and presented in anamorphic widescreen, roughly somewhere in the 2.29:1 aspect ratio that's close enough to the usual 2.35:1. The framing has been altered from the earlier release, with this recent version containing a tad more information on the left-hand side. Another small difference is that this one looks comparatively stretched vertically, but not to a substantial degree. Everything looks ever-so-slightly thinner as a result. It's not something I'd imagine most people will be aware of, but it might be noticed if you're looking for it. The counterargument is that the first release may be vertically compressed. Regardless, it's nitpick level complaining and the overall image quality on this release looks so much better that seeing a slightly wispier Shirley MacLaine isn't enough to dampen my enthusiasm.

Even though an unnecessary English Dolby Surround 5.1 track has been tacked on, the original two-channel English mono is also included. I didn't hear anything worth complaining over, and the mono should be the preferred option. French and Spanish mono tracks are also offered. Bright, golden yellow subtitles are optional in English and Spanish, but not French.

Originally reading the list of supplements MGM attached to their R1 Collector's Edition release elicited a grateful shock and actually going through them confirms that some real effort was put into this disc. That's not to say it was necessarily successful. Bruce Block contributes a feature-length commentary that means well, but doesn't really rise above two-hours worth of well-informed description. Labeled on the back of the DVD case as a film producer and historian, Block has an annoying tendency of both speaking the obvious and drawing attention to what's just about to happen on screen. He really likes to point out how fully-scripted nearly everything in the film is and the frequent callbacks used to set up various recurring bits. A few perceptive observations struggle to offset the ratio favouring time better spent doing something else versus listening to Block rattle off details of the production history and pellets of trivia that will be known already to most Wilder fans. It's a shame major studios resist including a booklet with detailed essays similar to what Criterion does in R1 or Masters of Cinema, Second Run, and BFI excel at in R2. Being able to read insightful and informed opinions at one's leisure would surely be a better use of time than sitting through someone spout on for two hours about lighting a gas stove and how many takes this or that shot was filmed in.

On the plus side, a half-hour featurette entitled "Inside 'The Apartment'" is a real treat for fans of the film. It has several voices contributing to a discussion that ranges from the film's allegedly sordid nature and reception upon opening to its success spinning through different moods and genres. Critics, biographers, actors, including a slightly archival interview with Shirley MacLaine, all add a little something to make it a highly enjoyable, and reasonably thorough look at the film. "Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon" (12:48) is a shorter piece that tracks the actor's career from the New York stage and fluffy comedies at Columbia to being loaned out to Warner Bros. for Mister Roberts, winning the Oscar, and getting noticed by Billy Wilder for Some Like It Hot. His son Chris Lemmon anchors the tribute and it has interviews with a few other holdovers from the first featurette.

Strangely missing is the original theatrical trailer, which was present on the first DVD release in both R1 and R2. Also absent is any kind of taste in the MGM/Fox cover art department. Whoever created and approved the final design should lose their executive washroom key. The cover looks horribly inappropriate and actually inspires purchasing doubt.

Final Thoughts

The Apartment won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and was nominated for five more. I didn't mention that in the review because the Academy has actually hit paydirt in finding any given year's finest film maybe half a dozen times in their 80-year history. This was one of those rare instances. The film is absolutely perfect and there's nothing that feels amiss or wrong in the entire picture. Every last decision by Billy Wilder and his cast and crew was the right choice. The recent R1 Collector's Edition DVD from MGM is a good one, with an improved transfer, a nice retrospective featurette, and a low price tag. You can hold out for the "Junior Executive Edition" with bowler hat packaging, or, in the meantime, you can enjoy one of the finest films to ever emerge from a Hollywood studio looking better than it has before on home video.

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Last updated: 23/04/2018 22:23:13

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