I'm just going to warn you in advance: this is going to be one of those reviews where someone is going to be exposed to a famous film for the first time. Shoot, I had no idea The Apartment had been selected to the National Film Registry a few years ago for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" (and as an aside, that would be an intriguing viewing project for the film enthusiast). But it is nice to have finally witnessed The Apartment and been entranced with how many of the facets in it have remained timeless to this day.
The film was co-written by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder, and directed by Wilder in his first film since the much heralded Some Like It Hot. Jack Lemmon returned with Wilder and plays C.C. Baxter, a somewhat anonymous worker for an insurance company in New York City. What Baxter does is less important, though in the early scenes in the film, we get an idea of how nameless and faceless his impact on the company he works for is. What he does have and what he is willing to tolerate is the use of his apartment to a rotating group of supervisors at his company, which he does with the hope that this sacrifice will be remembered so Baxter can get promoted within the company. One day through a chance meeting, he meets Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine, Valentine's Day), who operates the elevator at the office building where Baxter works. He becomes enamored with her and even asks her out, which becomes a problem not only for the supervisors who take advantage of his generosity, but also for Fran's occasional beau Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, The Caine Mutiny). Sheldrake is the personnel director and is skeptical of the reviews of Baxter's work by the supervisors that use his apartment, and decides to turn the screws on Baxter in order to use the apartment for his own indulgences, perhaps even with Fran. Baxter is initially unaware of Fran's affair with the married Sheldrake, but when the affair souls to the point where Fran takes drastic measures on her own, Baxter is there to comfort her, and the strength each finds in the other allows them to make bold decisions in their lives personally and/or professionally.
One of several things to enjoy while watching The Apartment is how Lemmon transforms Baxter over the course of the movie. Baxter goes from a subservient employee willing to make use of his inner sanctum for his bosses' tawdry relations to one where talking with Fran (even if it is about inanities of the day) provides a jolt of optimism and caring to his being. And the banter between Lemmon and MacLaine is a joy to listen to, as it seems to symbolize the genesis of flirtation and interest in one another better than most films can these days. You are left smiling after their initial meetings and conversely, left gnashing your teeth at the treatment Sheldrake puts Fran through, in part because of MacLaine's performance, which for as good as it is, seems to trump Lemmon's in part because her character goes through a more demanding evolution than Lemmon's. While Baxter is an engaging treat, Fran could be considered more jaded of her surroundings by what she is exposed to by Sheldrake and others in the company. Her personal lows are lower, but when the film's climax occurs, seems a joyous celebration.
I mentioned earlier about some of the timeless qualities of the film and if I can tackle the negative for a second, the basic essence of the plot seems to have been bastardized by substandard films through the years. Folks like Nicholas Sparks seem to have made a cottage industry by writing works that seem to go through the mechanisms in their work similar to Wilder and Diamond's screenplay, but the difference is that in this film, Wilder, Lemmon and MacLaine bring a charm and charisma to the characters that similar work does not do. The trio also manages to convincingly show us the flaws of their characters and their conflicts, and do so in such a way that makes them extremely relatable. I've seen many films featuring Lemmon and MacLaine, and this is my first Wilder film (no, I haven't seen Some Like It Hot or the original Sabrina). But to see how balanced the cynicism is with humor and the characters' optimism in this era is amazing to experience for the first time.
I hope no one thinks I am simply stereotyping The Apartment as being the mold from which things like The Vow are inspired from, because I think the latter takes from the former whether it knows it's doing it or not. But there is a clever mix of performance and story that makes it better than that and is one of the more enjoyable films I have seen recently. To a degree it should be anchored to It's a Wonderful Life in that it is a film that should be aired annually on television. Not only would people realize how much dreck they were exposed to in movies now, but they would appreciate how funny and engaging The Apartment is, as I have finally done.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The Apartment is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and in high-definition using the AVC codec, with the result looking amazing. The source material is in superb shape, with film grain visible in many sequences, and black levels looking very consistent through the film. Fine details in things like wood in the apartment hallways and wallpaper textures could even be discerned. For a film over a half century old, MGM/Fox has done right by The Apartment.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack is good, though a bit of a surprise considering the age of the film. With that said, dialogue sounds as consistent as it is going to be. Channel panning and directional effects are nil along with subwoofer activity, though the track is free of hissing or mosquito noise. At initial glance one would be concerned that the original mono track is not included on the disc (only the French and Spanish tracks are included with the lossless), but this sounds fine.
Everything from the 2008 Collector's Edition is ported over to the Blu-ray. Film historian Bruce Block provides a commentary for the film that does a serviceable job in adding additional trivia and anecdotes from the production, along with some shot and scene breakdowns. This is a solid complement to the film and well worth the time in listening. "Inside The Apartment" (29:36) is the closest thing to a retrospective on the film that you will likely get, featuring recent interviews with MacLaine and Lemmon's son Chris (among others), along with many stories about the film and the legacy on cinema and the participants of the production. "Magic Time" (12:47) includes more thoughts on Lemmon from his son and discussions about his career. The trailer (2:19) completes things.
There is a reason why The Apartment remains a presence on AFI, BFI and any other film board's lists of the greatest films of all time, and the story and performances still stand up to the test of time, and are a couple of laps ahead of the field in some cases. If you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to give it a spin, and even if you have the standard definition disc, the transfer alone is worth the double-dip. Very highly recommended.