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The Apartment

The Apartment
MGM Home Entertainment
1960 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 /125 m. / Street date December 18, 2001 / 14.95
Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, David Lewis, Hope Holiday, Joan Shawlee, Naomi Stevens, Johnny Seven, Joyce Jameson, Willard Waterman, David White, Edie Adams
Cinematography Joseph LaShelle
Production Designer Alexandre Trauner
Film Editor Daniel Mandell
Original Music Adolph Deutsch
Writing credits I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder
Produced and Directed by Billy Wilder

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 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 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 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 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 has an enormous feelings of love for people 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 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 sorts of things happen now, but 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 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. 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 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 double-crossed 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 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's and Kubelik's own weaknesses 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 actually didn't believe that goodness would triumph without a little cheating. They might also then be repulsed by a heroine with a low self-opinion, one 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 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 Boulevard, 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 in the 3rd person - and we don't actually see Fran decide. Instead, a bottle of pills caught in a shaving mirror POV is just there. Without a cut back to Kubelik, we see a hand reach in and take them, as if it's somebody else's hand. 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 him for making such an anti-American film. The critic opined that only in decadent America could such a story take place. Wilder shot back that in Moscow it could never happen - 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 DVD of The Apartment is an adequate presentation. The transfer of the film is far sharper than their old laser disc. It's 16:9 enhanced, which brings out more details in the complicated wide shots. Savant's read one online review that thought the transfer was plagued by aliasing errors, but not a one showed up on my monitor. An original trailer is included. There's not even a paper insert for this multiple Academy-award winner, and the paltry 16 chapter stops 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 12, 2001

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