Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won five; it was also the first time someone took home Oscars as producer, director, and screenwriter for the same film. As the third of 12 collaborations with co-writer I.A.L. Diamond and the second of seven with star Jack Lemmon, The Apartment makes use of a fantastic cast, an incredibly detailed script, outstanding set design, and a tight structure that pulls off a 180-degree turn at the halfway mark. Like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (released less than three months later), this successful sucker punch still has the ability to surprise new viewers more almost six decades later.
It also makes The Apartment one of the most literal examples of a "comedy-drama" in film history: Wilder's film never plants its feet too deeply in either camp, which prevents it from getting too screwball or too serious. That's definitely a good thing: any film that revolves around a lowly insurance clerk (C. C. "Bud" Baxter, played by Lemmon) who attempts to climb the corporate ladder by loaning out his apartment for his bosses' adulterous affairs better toe the line carefully. Throw in a holiday setting with at least one drunken Santa, a suicide attempt, and another performance against type by perpetual nice guy Fred MacMurray (returning to his darker side after Double Indemnity, directed by Wilder in 1944), and you've got a film that really has no business being as funny as it does.
Film producer and author Bruce Block notes in his audio commentary--exclusive to this Blu-ray, at least for now---that Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were incredibly specific about script details; just about everything from the page made it to screen, aside from a few improvisations by Jack Lemmon. This includes obvious elements like dialogue, character mannerisms, and structure but also extends to details about set design and composition, which give the two main locales (Baxter's office and apartment) a deliberately opposite vibe. These are just some of many reasons why The Apartment works as well as it does: it was clearly mapped out by people who knew exactly what they wanted to say, and had enough leverage to ensure their finished product never got off the rails. The Apartment has also aged incredibly well---as have many of Wilder's other standout films, including Ace in the Hole, Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, and the aforementioned Double Indemnity---and can be enjoyed heartily by die-hard fans and newcomers alike.
Unfortunately, Arrow's Limited Edition of The Apartment appears to be the victim of bad timing and a small print run. The story's holiday setting makes it an unconventional but perfectly good pick for Christmas viewing, which makes this Blu-ray's original 12/19 release date a tight one (and review copies went out even later, obviously). It's an even bigger problem when there aren't enough to go around: The Apartment seems to be sold out and almost impossible to grab for less than $100, so I wouldn't blame anyone for jumping off here. But if you get lucky or have lots of extra Christmas cash lying around, this is a top-tier package in every sense of the word: featuring a sparkling new A/V presentation, plenty of bonus features, and deluxe packaging that includes a hardcover book, Arrow's Limited Edition of The Apartment is one of 2017's best releases that sadly missed the cutoff for just about every year-end list.
Although MGM's 2012 Blu-ray was (and still is) a great-looking disc, Arrow's Blu-ray features a new and exclusive 4K restoration from the original camera negative. Not surprisingly, this is an outstanding effort that squeezes every ounce of detail from the film's razor-sharp Panavision roots, from striking textures to a surprising amount of depth at times. Black levels, contrast, shadow detail, and grain are all more consistent, which results in an extremely film-like appearance from start to finish. Even the numerous low-lit interior scenes absolutely sparkle with detail and clarity, and the lack of any obvious digital tinkering (excessive noise reduction, edge enhancement, etc.) or compression issues is great news as well. Overall, this is a fantastic restoration---easily one of the best catalog title releases I've seen this year, even though the MGM Blu-ray is still a respectable effort (or substitute, depending on your budget).
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Also impressive---though even more identical to the MGM Blu-ray---is the audio presentation, which again includes a choice between theatrical mono or remixed 5.1; both are encoded in lossless DTS-HD and sound terrific. The dialogue and Adolph Deutsch's music cues sound extremely well balanced and natural, with only the slightest traces of source material constraints near the high end. As expected, the surround track does feature a few modest pans and discrete effects but it's tasteful mix that still heavily favors the front channels. I'll admit that they both have their strengths, and it's great to have a choice. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Arrow's clean, uncluttered interface features smooth and simple navigation, with descriptive sub-menus for the extras and clips from the film. But of course, the packaging is the real standout here: like other Arrow Limited Editions, The Apartment: Limited Edition is a brick-sized behemoth considering it's only a one-disc release. The Blu-ray is housed in a clear keepcase case with attractive reversible cover artwork and a promotional insert. Also included is a 150-page Hardcover Book featuring new writing by Neil Sinyard, Kat Ellinger, Travis Crawford, and Heather Hyche, as well as notes about the new transfer and plenty of behind-the-scenes photos. Both the keepcase and book are tucked inside a sturdy outer slipcase. It's one of the most impressive looking packages in recent memory!
Plenty of exclusive extras to dig through here, all squeezed onto the movie disc with no compression issues. The main attraction is a scene-specific Audio Commentary with film producer and author Bruce Block; topics of discussion include the 64-day production schedule in New York City and a Hollywood backlot, urban legends and questionable stories, shout-outs to the supporting cast and bit parts, framing for Panavision, very specific details from the original script, deleted or un-shot scenes, a not-so-subtle jab at Marilyn Monroe, Wilder's appreciation for Noel Coward's Brief Encounter, censorship and proposed cuts, the Academy Award-winning set design by Alexandre Trauner and Edward G. Boyle, the film's 180-degree turn at the halfway point, and much more. It's an extremely informative and well-rehearsed commentary, and one that will give casual fans a new appreciation for the film's attention to detail.
On a related note are a handful of retrospective interviews with critics and cast members. "The Key to The Apartment" (10:13) features critic Philip Kemp, who offers a short but enjoyable appreciation for the film within Wilder's body of work, and there's not a lot of overlap with the audio commentary (ironically enough, he also provides separate commentary for two select scenes as well). "The Flawed Couple" (20:24) features critic David Cairns, who runs through most of the film collaborations between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon including The Fortune Cookie and Some Like it Hot. Finally, "A Letter to Castro" (13:25) is a recent interview with actress Hope Holiday ("Margie MacDougall"), who speaks candidly about her experiences on the set of The Apartment and her career in general.
A handful of archival goodies are up next. "An Informal Conversation with Billy Wilder" (23:17) is a supplement on loan from the Writers Guild Foundation and the second in their long-running series; this interview with Wilder, which also includes rare photographs from his life, was produced in 1995 and features a brief narrated introduction by Jack Lemmon. Meanwhile, "Inside The Apartment" (29:36) and "Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon" (12:47) are two vintage supplements carried over from previous MGM discs.
The extras wrap up with a short but enjoyable Restoration Showreel (2:20) highlighting the new visual cleanup, as well as the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:19). As expected, this is a thorough and well-rounded collection of extras that die-hard fans and newcomers should enjoy; had it been released a few weeks earlier, I'd imagine you'd be seeing it on just about every Top 10 list for this year!
The Apartment is an undisputed classic and one of the best films of the 1960s, perfectly balancing Billy Wilder's prowess in both drama and black comedy; it's aged exceptionally well, like just about every other film in his body of work. (I'll admit to being slightly partial to Ace in the Hole, but this one's right up there.) It's also a great entry into the your "lesser-seen holiday films" rotation, right alongside the likes of All That Heaven Allows and The Shop Around the Corner. Even if Arrow's new Limited Edition was released a little too late for this year's holiday season (and in such small quantities, as it's getting tough to find already!), it's a handsome package with top-tier A/V specs and plenty of great bonus features. This one's a DVD Talk Collector's Series disc for obvious reasons; die-hard fans should definitely indulge, but hopefully a standard edition will surface soon. Until then, MGM's Blu-ray is the best alternative.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.