Apartment, The (Blu-ray Review)15 Feb, 2012 By: John Latchem
Stars Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, Edie Adams.
In a triumph of writing, acting and directing, Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic The Apartment is a film that still feels fresh despite being in black and white and employing a premise that most filmmakers today probably wouldn’t consider. That being the idea of loaning your apartment to a co-worker so he can get it on discreetly with a lady other than his wife, a concept much more prevalent 50 years ago when hotel detectives would knock on doors to insist that guests not be fooling around with mistresses or hookers.
The man in the middle is C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon in one of his first leading man roles), who passes around his key to an inner circle of executives at his New York insurance office in hopes of one day moving into an office of his own. This catches the attention of the company honcho played by Fred MacMurray, a suave cretin who wants exclusive privileges to the apartment.
Baxter also has his eye on an elevator operator played by a fresh-faced Shirley MacLaine, then 25 and looking 22, about 30 years younger than MacMurray, with whom she is carrying on a dalliance, much to Baxter’s chagrin. (Compare MacLaine’s look with that of Hope Holiday as Lemmon’s bar pickup, who according to IMDb.com is four years younger than MacLaine, but looks about 10 years older in the movie. MacLaine also looks a lot better in the movie than she does on the cover art.)
The love triangle is a delicious twist, but the film hits a bit of a lull in the middle when it comes to a head and takes a darker turn before finally delivering an upbeat but unconventional ending.
The script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond trades in double entendres to mask the racy subject matter; frank discussions about sex wouldn’t have meshed well with audience sensibilities in 1960. (This is, after all, a depiction of the real 1960, and not the version picked apart by “Mad men.”)
But the film also works as a satire of corporate America, a world of lecherous bosses and sycophantic button-pushers inhabiting sprawling offices and selling their souls to get ahead. This theme is most clearly spelled out by Baxter’s neighbor, a Jewish doctor who tells him he should act like “a mensch … a human being.”
The Apartment ended up winning five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
It’s hard to imagine this film would have been as effective in color. The black and white reinforces the drabness of the lives of these characters, who spend most of the movie swimming around in shades of gray.
Still, the widescreen presentation, used to its fullest extent by Wilder, really makes Blu-ray an ideal format for the film. The 1080p transfer shows some of the film’s age but is otherwise serviceable in lieu of a full restoration. This Blu-ray is a straight upgrade from the 2008 collector’s edition DVD, with the same extras carrying over and nothing really new.
Film historian Bruce Block is very thorough with his commentary in conveying not only the history of the production, but all the intricacies built into the movie.
The film’s premise, we learn from the extras, stemmed from a viewing by Wilder of the 1945 film Brief Encounter, which features a couple carrying on an affair in a friend’s apartment. Wilder was intrigued by the idea of the friend who would loan his apartment for these illicit purposes, and incidents closer to home gave him plenty of source material, such as the Hollywood scandal about Joan Bennett’s affair with her agent, who used the apartment of an agency underling. Wilder’s Some Like It Hot star Tony Curtis claimed the movie was based on his own love life. Wilder and Diamond added the idea of loaning the apartment as a career tactic, which tied into how the film was satirizing corporate America.
Beyond the bristling dialogue, almost every little detail, character tick and nuance was amazingly spelled out in the script, with little room left for improvisation. The biggest exception is Lemmon’s singing as he strains spaghetti with a tennis racket, which certainly adds a sense of whimsy to a film that had gotten rather dark by that point.
The script itself, however, was only about one-third written when filming began, since Wilder liked to shoot chronologically to see how the cast interacted before deciding where to take things. As told by Shirley MacLaine in an extensive half-hour making-of documentary, this collaborative process led to the introduction of Gin Rummy to the story, since she had been hanging around with the Rat Pack, who taught her how to play.
The other holdover extra is a featurette about the career of Jack Lemmon, as reflected by some of his co-stars but primarily through the eyes of his son, Chris.