Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) is a subversive light comedy with a very big message. Reportedly, the idea for the film first came to Wilder after seeing David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Wilder wondered, what if the married man wasn’t a noble and worthy sufferer, but a total cad with no intention of doing right by either his wife or the girl he has seduced? The gestation period for The Apartment proved lengthy, perhaps because Wilder knew that the story he really wanted to tell could not be told under the stringencies of the Production Code of censorship. Throughout the 1950s Wilder toyed with numerous ideas for a screenplay with longtime collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond. But by 1960 film censorship - and indeed the studio system that had helped to foster and preserve it for so many years - was in a state of steep decline and utter chaos: not so good for Hollywood in general, but very, very good for Wilder and The Apartment.
According to co-star Shirley MacLaine, the script was written as filming progressed. However, Wilder has gone on record as saying that he only gave his actors several pages at a time because he did not want them to know the ending of his story in advance. In MacLaine's case, this uncertainty definitely added something to her performance; a sort of skittish effervescence to balance out the world-weary woman of the world. And MacLaine proved – as though proof were required – that she could give meaning and depth to a characterization and an archetype that, up to The Apartment’s debut – had often been misrepresented on film as manipulative, misguided or simply played as the cardboard cutout shrew.
Our tale charts the rise and inevitable fall of aspiring corporate stooge, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) a bean counter suffering at Consolidated Insurance and inevitably succumbing to the allure of various vices and pitfalls in order to climb up the corporate ladder. Baxter has his eye on a key to the executive washroom. But he’s in a dead end job – just another cog in a very big wheel. Baxter is so desperate for a chance to elevate himself at work that he sucks up to his boss, Mr. Vanderhoff (Willard Waterman). When the latter decides he needs a quiet little place to take his secretary for a little backroom badinage, Baxter loans him his apartment for the evening – assuming the favor will be returned in kind with a leg up at work.
It isn’t. Instead, Vanderhoff lets it be known around the office that Baxter’s apartment can be used for private affairs. In no time Baxter’s flat has gone from a lonely bachelor pad to a sort of portable rendezvous for wayward married executives who want more than dictation from their secretaries. Spending more than one night out in the freezing cold or soaking himself inside a local bar while his bosses indulge themselves at his place isn’t exactly what Baxter had in mind. But what can he do? Reneging on the deal now would put a crimp in everyone’s plans and create a trickle down resentment that could relegate Baxter to the end of the line for a promotion. If it seems that Baxter’s life is going nowhere – it is. But things begin to look up after he becomes romantically drawn to pixie-ish elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Baxter senses that Fran shares his flirtatious enthusiasm. But his optimism for a romance is shattered after he discovers that Fran and the company’s president, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) are having an affair.
Having heard about Baxter’s 'hospitality', Sheldrake borrows the apartment for several trysts with Fran. But when he decides to break up with her and go back to his wife, Fran attempts suicide – bringing notoriety and possible scandal to this low key hideaway. As a favor for hushing up the whole fiasco, Sheldrake promises Baxter what he’s always wanted – a cushy job in the executive suite. But has Baxter already paid too high a price for the privilege?
The Apartment is often misinterpreted as both a social critique and a snubbing of the corporate world; a place Wilder clearly perceives as harboring the lowest common denominator of rank professionalism. But Wilder isn’t necessarily railing against this high rise set so much as he seems to be exposing the ever weary dangers of greed – corporate or otherwise. Jack Lemmon is the idea man, less heroic than enterprising. His everyman excels on every level, mostly in revealing the frustrations as well as the elation of a good guy mildly corrupted by his own aspirations rather than his surroundings. Shirley MacLaine delivers an enchanting performance as the pixie innocent who nearly succumbs to 'the evils that men do'. Her Fran becomes the princess in this fractured fairytale. And her rescue from it, in and out of Baxter's apartment and right into his arms, is as unexpected as it proves welcomed. True to Wilder's own heart, Fran and Baxter eventually work through their auspicious relationship with a deck of cards – a game of chance. But it’s their proximity to certain failure until the very end that continues to ring true for more than a handful of daydreamers still stuck in the steno pool.
MGM/Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray thankfully improves on the mess that was their SD DVD. The B&W widescreen image not only tightens up, it sharpens up - considerably. Fine details that were marginally present now pop out with a startling clarity. We can, as example, for the first time clearly see patterns in suits and detail in hair and skin. Contrast is slightly darker, but fine detail is evident even during the darkest scenes. Edge enhancement present on the DVD is still present on the Blu-ray, but has been greatly tempered for an image that is very smooth and mostly satisfying throughout this presentation while remaining true to Joseph LaShelle's original cinematography. The audio is DTS reprocessed stereo. I very much liked the robustness of Adolph Deutsch's score - particularly the main title. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD and include two all too brief featurettes: one on the making of the film, the other a fleeting tribute to Jack Lemmon. There's also an audio commentary and theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)