Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A revisit of a 2001 review of an earlier disc release.
Perhaps Billy Wilder's greatest romantic comedy, The Apartment was alternately savaged and praised by critics upon arrival in 1960. This story of a nice guy in the big business rat race succeeds on as many levels as a film can. Wilder retains his nasty streak of cynicism while evoking the heart tugs of his mentor Ernst Lubitsch. The example of Jack Lemmon's ambitious C.C. Baxter taught a generation of men that aspiring to 'mensch' status might be a good idea, personal outlook-wise.
A visible improvement on the earlier DVD release, The Apartment Collector's Edition adds several special edition extras.
Lowly insurance employee C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has found a unique way to climb the corporate ladder: by lending his apartment key to his philandering superiors. This questionable practice works well until the big boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) finds out. Instead of getting canned, Baxter starts loaning Sheldrake the key on an exclusive basis. The ambitious employee doesn't mind sleeping on park benches or getting a bad reputation with the neighbors, but when he discovers that Sheldrake's promiscuous partner is his own dream girl, elevator operator Fran Kubelick (Shirley MacLaine), Baxter must choose between his heart and his career.
(some spoilers ... to be read after you've seen the movie!)
Who would dare malign cinema master Billy Wilder, you ask? Lots of critics did. Andrew Sarris said he was 'too cynical to believe his own cynicism." Others mauled him for savaging poor Shirley MacLaine, and condemned her Christmas Eve suicide attempt as the nadir of poor taste.
But oh, were they wrong ... The Apartment builds an enormous feeling of love and romantic good will. It is also 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, although I doubt anyone would be shocked by Baxter's gimmick today. C.C.'s only hindsight excuse is that the whole situation snuck up on him. The view of the business world is as cold-blooded as anything in Double Indemnity; there's no doubt that Mr. Sheldrake's my-way-or-the-highway mindset is not only accurate, but mild compared to how big companies run today. The same sorts of things happen now, except the added impersonality of modern Human Resources departments would keep any of the duped aspirants from ever finding out exactly how the favored 'buddy boy' got his promotion.
Jack Lemmon is perfect as he never was before or since: just experienced enough not to 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 spunk in her elevator job or trying to be discreet about her guilty philandering. And Fred MacMurray plays a heel as only he can. He's still the beloved father of My Three Sons with hardly an inflection altered - just a switch of morals. This trio has what must be the best supporting cast in film history, led by Ray Walston as the sneering Mr. Dobisch, and Jack Kruschen (so lousy in the same year's The 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 bimbos, and Edie Adams took time off from selling cigars in provocative TV ads to play a bitter, double-crossed secretary.
Wilder and Diamond's incredible screenplay makes them all better than the sum of their talents. Everyone remembers the great bits of business, rendered so accurately in Joe LaShelle's gray-on-gray 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 become clichés (such as the cracked hand-mirror) hit like slugs to the stomach. In this triangle of deceit, Baxter and Kubelik's vulnerabilities backfire on them with a you-asked-for-it vengeance. When irony strikes, it is never some contrivance, but romantic logic that doesn't care whose heart is broken.
The evidence of the pain of romance is all around our lovers. Sheldrake's secretary is a woman changed for the worse through love. Hope Holiday's heartbreak over her jockey jailed by Castro may be a joke, but her loss is sincere. The Apartment sets its romantic couple in the midst of a world where their personal plight is no more 'important' than anyone else's. They're neither perfect, nor without sin.
Perhaps the critics were shocked by the idea that the eager young Baxter doesn't believe that goodness will triumph without a little cheating. They might also then be repulsed by a heroine with low self esteem, one always getting the fuzzy end of the lollypop like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Add this to an overall story that sees infidelity and sordidness unchallenged by a 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 out of the 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 Blvd., Sabrina), even if only a joke in passing. Baxter even talks about killing himself with a .45 automatic. The depths of depression become all too believable when poor Fran shivers with tears, alone in 'some schmuck's apartment' convinced that she's let herself become a whore. There's a brilliant moment when she 'decides' to kill herself. Many real suicide attempts are described by their makers as happening in the third person. We don't actually see Fran decide to do herself in. Instead, a bottle of pills caught in a shaving mirror POV is just there. Without a cut back to Kubelik, we see a disembodied hand reach in and take the pills, as if the hand belonged to somebody else. It might be our hand too. In her emotional state, Fran is 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 the lovers must still reckon with reality. Sure, they're together and they're in love, but they don't have a job between them. Wilder is famous for nailing a Soviet critic at a European festival, who took a potshot at the U.S.A. by praising The Apartment as anti-American. The critic opined that only in decadent America could such a story take place. Wilder shot back that his story could never happen in Moscow - because in Moscow there was no such thing as a lendable apartment! Perhaps this awareness of political tensions got Wilder's blood up for his Cold War joke-athon, One, Two, Three.
MGM's Collector's Edition DVD of The Apartment improves upon the earlier 2001 presentation. The enhanced transfer of the film is sharper and slightly darker than the old laser disc. Cameraman Joseph LaShelle's deep focus wide shots benefit from the added detail. The essential low-contrast gray-on-gray 'European' look has been retained; The Apartment looks best on as large a screen as possible.
Billy Wilder has seen no lack of praise in good DVD extras and excellent feature length biographies over the last few years. This Collector's edition comes with two new featurettes that tell many of the same old stories, but also feature welcome new appearances by Walter Mirisch and actors Shirley MacLaine, Hope Holliday and Johnny Seven. A heavy contributor, especially to a sentimental piece on Jack Lemmon, is Lemmon's son Chris.
Producer and author Bruce Block (The Visual Story) contributes a commentary containing plenty of interesting information about the filming. Quoting from the script supervisor's notes, Block points out specific shots that gave Wilder and Co. a hard time, requiring many takes and even re-shoots. Block decries the critical practice of assigning meaning to every nuance of direction (and even quotes Wilder to emphasize the point) but then proceeds to over-analyze the film. Wilder's many multi-stage 'gags' -- like the cracked mirror that keeps turning up to reflect the disillusion of his characters -- are repeatedly pointed out, as if we were incapable of perceiving them with our eyes. Some of his points about the nuances of compositions and blocking are questionable as well. Block makes an interesting assertion that the angle on a speaker determines our feelings of warmth toward them: a straight-on shot of a talking person is 'warmer' than an 'impersonal' profile angle, and so forth. But his chosen example is a scene between Fran Kubelick and Mr. Sheldrake, where their respective close-ups shots are almost identical.
Curiously, the theatrical trailer seen on the older editions has been dropped. The main soundtrack is a (presumably doctored) 5.1 Dolby Digital. Additional soundtracks are provided in English, Spanish and French mono, along with English and Spanish subtitles. The awkward paste-up cover art shows the three smiling leads in a way that just doesn't fit the beloved movie inside. Perhaps the reason Wilder chose a graphic of keys for the film's original Ad campaign, is that he couldn't find a workable film image either.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Apartment Collector's Edition rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Bruce Block; Featurettes Inside the Apartment and Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 4, 2008
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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