Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Perhaps Billy Wilder's greatest romantic comedy, The Apartment was alternately savaged and praised
by critics when it emerged in 1960. This story of a nice-guy rat in the big-business rat race
succeeds on as many levels as a film can. Wilder retained his nasty streak of cynicism while evoking
the heart-tugs of his mentor Ernst Lubitsch, and taught a generation of men that it aspiring
to 'mensch' status might be a good idea, personal outlook-wise.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has found a unique way to climb the corporate ladder: by lending the
key to his apartment to his philandering superiors. This works fine until the big boss Mr.
Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) finds out, but instead of getting canned, Baxter starts loaning Sheldrake the key on
an exclusive basis. Baxter doesn't mind sleeping on park benches or getting a bad reputation
with the neighbors, but when he finds out that Sheldrake's promiscuous partner is his own dream
girl, elevator operator Fran Kubelick,(Shirley MacLaine), Baxter has to choose between his heart and his
Who would dare malign cinema master Billy Wilder, you ask? Lots of critics. Andrew Sarris said he was
'too cynical to believe his own cynicism." Others mauled him for savaging poor Shirley MacLaine,
and condemned her midnight Christmas Eve suicide attempt as the nadir of poor taste.
But oh, are they wrong ... The Apartment is a gem of construction, character development, and
thematic clarity. Sure, C.C. Baxter starts out morally compromised.
His only hope of getting ahead involves dirty business (would anyone be shocked
by Baxter's gimmick today?), and C.C.'s hindsight explanation is that it snuck up on him. The view of
the business world is as cold-blooded as anything in Double Indemnity; there's not a doubt
that the my-way-or-the-highway mindset is not only accurate, but mild compared to how big companies run
today. The same things sorts of things happen, but the added impersonality of ghoulish Human
Resources departments would keep any of the duped aspirants from ever finding out exactly why the
favored 'buddy boy' got his promotion.
Jack Lemmon is perfect, as he never was before or since - just experienced enough to not be a naive
dolt, but not yet grating (The Out-of-Towners) or insufferably obvious (April Fools,
Save the Tiger). Shirley MacLaine is adorable, whether showing her spunk
in the elevator job, or trying to be discreet about her guilty philandering. And Fred MacMurray
plays a heel as only he can, the father of My Three Sons with hardly an inflection
altered - just a
switch of morals. This trio is supported by what must be the best supporting cast in film history, led by
Ray Walston as the sneering Mr. Dobisch, Jack Kruschen (so lousy in the same year's Angry Red
Planet) as the wise Dr. Dreyfuss. Hope Holiday's Christmas Eve bar scene with Lemmon is
unforgettable. Joan Shawlee and Joyce Jameson are loveable bimboes, and Edie Adams took
time off selling cigars in provocative TV ads to play a doublecrossed secretary.
It is of course Wilder and Diamond's incredible screenplay that makes them all better than the sum
of their talents. Everyone remembers the great bits of business, rendered so accurately in Joe LaShelle's grey-on-grey
B&W Panavision: Baxter marching through endless rows of identical desks, a la The Crowd;
straining spaghetti through a tennis racket; the forlorn Kubelik breaking down on Christmas Eve.
Jokes and gags are orchestrated for maximum efficiency, and emotional
touches that might elsewhere be cliches (such as the cracked hand-mirror) hit like slugs to the
stomach. In this triangle of deceit, Baxter's and Kubelik's own weaknesses backfire on them
with a you-asked-for-it vengeance; when irony strikes it's never some contrivance, but romantic
logic that doesn't care whose heart is broken.
Perhaps the critics were shocked by the idea that the eager young guy actually didn't believe that
goodness would triumph with out a little cheating. They might also then be repulsed by a
heroine who had a low opinion of herself, always getting the fuzzy end of the lollypop like
Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Add this to an overall story that
saw infidelity and sordidness go unchallenged by any higher morality, and you can understand why
they were dismayed. Baxter and Kubelik are decent enough, but not above petty dishonesties to
try and get through the lonely nights - what's so bad about that? America's never grown up
enough to grow out of fairy tale mentality, where one good deed always results in an avalanche of
reformed hearts and merry good will. The way the country is becoming more conservative, I
wouldn't be surprised if groups started criticizing the 'low morals' of superior pictures
like The Apartment all over again.
Wilder was often accused of brutalizing actresses in his movies - what with their frequent
suicide attempts(Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina), even if only a joke in passing dialogue.
talks about killing himself with a .45 automatic. Here, the depths of depression are all too
believable, as poor Fran shivers with tears, alone in 'some schmuck's apartment' with the feeling
that she's let herself become a whore. There's a brilliant moment when she 'decides' to kill
herself. So many real suicide attempts are described by their makers in the 2nd person - and we
don't actually see Fran decide. Instead, a bottle of pills caught in a shaving mirror POV
is just there, and, without a cut back to Kubelik, we see a hand reach in and take them, like it's
somebody else's hand but ours too, as if we, or Fran, are not responsible.
'Cynical' Wilder manages a gloriously positive ending. Shirley MacLaine's dash
through the streets, to Adolph Deutsch's unabashedly romantic music, has got to be her best moment
on screen. But there's still reality for the lovers to reckon with. Sure, they're together and
they're in love, but they don't have an jop between them. Wilder is famous for nailing a Soviet
critic at a European festival, who praised him for making such an anti-American film,. The critic said
that only in decadent America could such a story take place, and Wilder shot back that in Moscow it
could never happen - because in Moscow there was no such thing as a lendable apartment! Perhaps
this got Wilder's blood up for his cold-war joke-athon, One, Two, Three.
MGM's DVD of The Apartment is a nice package. The transfer of the film is far sharper than
their old laserdisc. It's 16:9 enhanced, which brings out more details in the complicated wide shots
that have ever been seen before. A nice original trailer is included. There's
not even a paper insert for this multiple Academy-award winner, and the 16 chapter stops serve to
make it impossible to find your way around the show .... the laser of this feature had almost 40.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Apartment rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 12, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson
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