THE APARTMENT: Blu-ray (Mirisch/UA, 1960) Arrow Academy
In accepting the AFI’s Lifetime Tribute in 1986, Billy Wilder jokingly hypothesized, “I’ve watched Tinsel Town vacillate between despair and fear.” However, as the ole-time film-maker continued, it became rather apparent, his was not to entirely reflect upon the past, but encourage the younger generation of aspiring writers/film makers to follow in his footsteps. He concluded, “First it was ‘sound’ that will kill us, then it was television, then cable, then pornography, then cassettes, and now that dreaded word – microchip. They tell me pretty soon we will not need theaters anymore. They will have invented tiny little screens you can attach to your steering wheel or twenty-foot screens on your bedroom ceiling and then somebody is going to push a button…brilliant – all the hardware is there, beautifully programmed. Bravo…except for one little detail. But what about the software. Who is going to write it, act it, direct it? So, relax fellow picture-makers. We are not expendable. The fact is, the bigger they get, the more irreplaceable we become! For theirs may be the kingdom…but ours is the power and the glory.”
In a career attesting to much of both the ‘power’ and the ‘glory’, Wilder could likely take comfort that among the trailblazers of Hollywood, his had been one of the most remarkably clairvoyant and clear-eyed voices to have been expressed – always, with insight, often through comedy, but usually with a purpose, illustrating compassion for the human spirit. Even Gloria Swanson’s faded screen-queen gargoyle, Norma Desmond in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) is not without her moment of tragic redemption at the very end, having lost all touch with reality and destined to be ensconced for all-time in a trap of her own design. While Wilder’s early tenure in Hollywood revealed a good deal of cynicism, arguably a holdover from his being forced to flee Nazi occupation at the start of WWII, his later segue into satire revealed an uncanny verve for astute summarizations about his fellow man (and woman) without attaching any sort of a judgment call.
Just the highlights from his Hollywood tenure reads like an enviable ‘best of’ compilation of golden oldies: Ninotchka (1939), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Witness for the Prosecution, Love in the Afternoon (both in 1957), Some Like It Hot (1959) and, incontestably, The Apartment (1960), for which Wilder won three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay – co-written with his long-time writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond). Wilder’s legendary and acerbic wit cuts both ways in The Apartment, not the least for his daring decision of Fred MacMurray to play the womanizing heavy; MacMurray’s career built upon variations on a prototype of the decent, thoughtful family man. To be sure, MacMurray had played devious before too; most notably in Double Indemnity and later, in The Caine Mutiny (1954). Yet, in both his characters are really good guys, whose only fallibility is to be too weak, too trusting and too desperate for their own good. The vices of undiluted avarice and desire are foisted upon MacMurray’s Teflon-coated persona herein. In The Apartment, MacMurray’s Jeff D. Sheldrake is uncompromisingly the menace - cruelly manipulative and unfeeling to a fault.
As counterpoint, we get Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter – nicknamed ‘Bud’; the minion with blind-sided aspirations of garnering his own key to the executive washroom. Baxter’s not a bad egg. He is, however, a thoroughly misguided one; unsure of himself, but willing to risk his goodness on a barter system for a cushier position within his firm, not based on merit, and, the possible perks accrued from lending out his apartment to executives dilly-dallying with various tarts and social-climbing secretaries. Wilder casts Lemmon to type – the sheepish, basically moral fellow who comes to recognize he is not cut out for this shark-infested panacea of opportunity. It all makes perfect sense too; because Sheldrake does not want Baxter for his mind – even his skill; just his apartment, to be used for a little one-on-one with elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).
We give Wilder top marks here for casting MacLaine, as with MacMurray, against type. She hadn’t been in pictures all that long then; but in the relatively brief period was already billed as a sort of no-nonsense gal of spurious reputation. Herein, MacLaine lends Fran Kubelik the trappings of the sad-eyed hopeful (if not innocent), emotionally bruised in her love affair with Sheldrake. For Fran, the affair is genuine. And MacLaine offers us a rare unapologetic insight into precisely the sort of young woman who would willfully deign to fall in love knowingly, patiently, tragically with a married man. Again, Wilder makes no judgement call here. Fran is neither the wanton nor the doe-eyed ingenue. She is her own woman – confused, careworn, yet ever kind-hearted and optimistic. It’s rather obvious, almost from the moment Baxter steps into her elevator for a little light conversation on his way to work, that Fran and Bud are a match. Clearly, Wilder lets us see it. Then, ingeniously, he pulls the rug out from under his audience and Baxter. Do we hate Fran for this deception? No. Do we feel for Bud as he figures out for himself that his boss, the man he has mistakenly looked up to, and the girl he has grown to fancy are the ‘couple du jour’ the whole office has been buzzing about for some time without mentioning names? Absolutely!
The Apartment is almost subversively light in its comedy; Wilder, on the cusp of delivering a very big message besides. Reportedly, the idea for the film first came to Wilder after seeing David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), a tale of chance-met lovers sacrificing their own happiness for the good of their respective families. Wilder wondered, what if the married man wasn’t noble, but a total cad with no intention of doing right by either his wife or the girl he had seduced? The result: The Apartment – a tale so frankly laden with illicit backroom badinage and backseat bingo it must have sent shock waves through a good deal of America’s office establishments; executives’ wives, left to wonder what was really going on at all those ‘late night meetings’ and day-long office ‘Christmas parties’. Perhaps even the most loyal were apt to dip their toes (and a lot more) in the steno pool.
The gestation period for The Apartment proved lengthy, perhaps because Wilder knew the story he really wanted to tell could not be revealed under the stringency of the Production Code of censorship. Throughout the 1950’s 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 foster and preserve it for so many years - was in a state of decline: not so good for Hollywood in general, but very, very good for Wilder and The Apartment. According to Shirley MacLaine, the script was tweaked as filming progressed. However, Wilder has gone on record 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 the world-weary woman of the world. And MacLaine proved – as though proof were required – she could give meaning and depth to an archetype that until this movie had been oft’ misrepresented as manipulative, misguided or simply playing to the cardboard cutout edicts of the proverbial shrew, albeit – with a heart of gold.
The Apartment charts the rise and inevitable fall of aspiring corporate stooge, C.C. ‘Bud’ Baxter, a bean counter toiling under the rigors of underpaid rank boredom at Consolidated Insurance Inc.; inevitably, to succumb to the allure of various vices and pitfalls in order to climb the corporate ladder. Baxter has his eye on a key to the executive washroom. But he is 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, 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 extramarital fun, Baxter loans him the key to his apartment for the evening – assuming the favor will be returned in kind with a leg up at work.
Instead, Vanderhoff lets it be known around the office Baxter’s apartment can be used by other execs for their private affairs. Soon, Joe Dobisch (Ray Walston) and Mr. Eichelberger (David White) take Baxter up on the offer. In no time Bud’s flat has gone from a lonely bachelor pad to a sort of portable house of ill-repute for wayward ad men 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 corporate ‘betters’ indulge themselves at his place is not exactly what Baxter had in mind. But what can he do now? Reneging on the deal would definitely put a crimp in everyone’s plans, creating trickle down resentment to relegate Baxter to the very back of the line for a possible promotion. If it seems Bud’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. Baxter senses Fran shares his flirtatious enthusiasm.
Having heard about Baxter’s ‘hospitality’, Sheldrake borrows the apartment. Naively, and still quite unaware Fran is the object of his boss’ desire, Bud loans out the keys yet again. Several weeks later, at the company's raucous Christmas party, Sheldrake's inebriated and fairly bitter secretary, Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), reveals to Fran she is but the latest in a long line of female employees Sheldrake has seduced. Miss Olsen counts herself among these discards. It isn’t love. Just sex. Sheldrake is merely dangling the carrot of divorcing his wife as collateral to get what he wants. Armed with this knowledge, Fran confronts Sheldrake at Bud’s apartment. Alas, she is more disgusted and ashamed of herself for having believed his lies. Meanwhile, and quite by accident, Bud learns the truth about Sheldrake and Fran. Disgusted by his participation, Bud cuts off access to the apartment for everyone; the sudden loss of their free rendezvous, ticking off Messer’s Vanderhoff, Dobisch and Eichelburger.
Heartbroken, Bud allows himself to be picked up by a floozy, Margie McDougall (Hope Holiday) at a local watering hole. She’s just the sort to titillate an exec. And while Bud has made minor strides climbing the corporate ladder, right now all he really wants to do is get drunk and behave badly. However, when Bud returns to his apartment hours later, he is shocked to discover an unconscious Fran lying in his bed. Surmising she has taken a near-lethal dose of barbiturates in a suicide attempt, Bud expediently enlists his neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) to save Fran’s life. Very reluctantly, Dreyfuss agrees to keep the incident from the authorities. However, presuming that the noises he has been hearing coming from Bud’s apartment, as well as the various women witnessed coming and going at all hours of the night, are all for Bud, the good doctor cautions Bud on the ills of remaining a playboy.
Bud goes along with Dreyfuss’ belief - that he and Fran were lovers who fought and thus, she attempted to kill herself because of him. After all, it simplifies what has really been going on. For the next two days, Fran quietly recuperates in Bud’s apartment while he makes every valiant and sincere attempt to distract her from any further suicidal thoughts. Alas, Fran’s sudden disappearance has caused her brother-in-law, Karl Matuschka (Johnny Seven) to assume the worst. As Dobisch, Eichelburger and Vanderhoff are still miffed at having been denied access to the apartment, and, connecting the dots – that Bud’s absence coupled with Fran’s vanishing act likely means she is Bud’s new play thing – the men goad Matuschka into taking the appropriate action to spare his sister-in-law’s honor. Confronted by Matuschka at his apartment door, Bud claims full responsibility for Fran and is assaulted for his chivalry. Fran is grateful, however, and kisses Bud for not revealing the affair with Sheldrake.
Back at the office, Sheldrake rewards Bud with a promotion; having mistaken he has joined the first line of defense in their ‘ole boy’s club’. Sheldrake promptly discharges Miss Olsen for revealing to Fran the particulars of his notorious womanizing. With nothing left to lose, Miss Olsen retaliates by telling her story to Sheldrake's wife, who promptly throws him out. Believing he can string Fran along indefinitely, even as he enjoys his newfound bachelorhood, Sheldrake is bewildered when his request for a key to Baxter’s apartment for New Year’s Eve is denied. Instead, Bud quits the firm. Meeting Fran at their favorite restaurant, Sheldrake reiterates how Bud refused to let him have the apartment. Realizing Bud truly loves her, Fran waits until the lights have been dimmed in anticipation of the New Year’s Eve countdown; then, she disappears, turning up at Bud’s apartment. Mistaking the pop of a champagne cork for a gunshot, Fran momentarily believes Bud has attempted suicide. Instead, she finds him bewildered and still clutching the overflowing bottle of booze. Relieved, Fran pulls out a deck of playing cards for a game of gin rummy. During her recuperation, Bud encouraged her to play and it proved quite therapeutic to her emotional recovery. Now, Bud simply gazes at the woman he adores, confessing his love as she reciprocates with a tender reply, “Shut up, and deal.”
The Apartment is often misinterpreted as Wilder’s socialistic critique and/or a snubbing of the corporate world. Clearly, Wilder believes in the corrupt nature of corporate America. But never does he equate capitalism with the insidious underbelly of what is essentially a moral debate about men behaving badly. The crux of Wilder’s critique does not confirm the tired adage, “money is the root of all evil”, but rather illustrates how perceptions are altered by an appeal to basic human greed – corporate or otherwise. Jack Lemmon’s idea man is far less heroic than enterprising. And yet, he manages to find his own moral compass in a decidedly amoral conclave of ‘mad men’. And Lemmon gives us his ‘everyman’ as both imperfect and fueled, if not dictated, by his feelings of inadequacy and bottled up sexual frustrations; the proverbial ‘good guy’ is search of Miss Right; having discovered her only moments before the final fade out. Thanks to a triumvirate of stellar performances from Lemmon, MacMurray and MacLaine, The Apartment endures. It is a masterpiece, one to have broken new ground in the movies’ code of censorship then. True to Wilder's heart and his witty cynicism about the uncertainties of life in general, Fran and Baxter eventually work through their auspicious relationship with a deck of cards – a game of chance. Yet, it is their proximity to failure, or rather near missed opportunities, that continues to ring truer for all those daydreamers still stuck in the steno pool.
Before I get to my review of The Apartment from Arrow Academy I am on record here: this one has been a real ‘pain in the ass’ to acquire; not the least for Amazon.com’s unceremoniously cancelling my pre-order from October 2017 without my consent, then trying to find a third-party seller who was not price gouging upwards of $80 to $100, then, attempting a Euro-import from the U.K. (because both discs are ‘region free’ only to be confirmed, then denied this shipment too on the grounds these sellers do not ‘ship to your region’) and finally, using a bit of backdoor influence to expedite a copy that someone at Arrow first claimed, in an email reply to my query, was no longer in print. Hmmmm. Advice to Arrow: get your distribution affairs in order before you start advertising such ‘Limited Editions’. In this case, very ‘limited’ indeed. You did this collector, and countless others like him, NO favors when you dropped the proverbial ball on this one!
Okay, breathe. MGM/Fox Home Video’s release of The Apartment on Blu-ray is now six years old. Even when it was ‘new’ it didn’t look it; the image then, dark, thick and, at times, very dull and blurry. Now, for the very good news, The Apartment has been given a ground-up exclusive restoration from Arrow Academy, going back to original 35mm camera negatives with a fresh 4K scan. Inexplicably, Arrow immediately discovered several sections in the original negative replaced with dup-negatives, resulting in a noticeable shift in quality. As these trims were likely discarded long ago, Arrow resorted to using 35mm fine grain positives, the best possible surviving source to reassemble the picture in its entirety. Along the way, these elements were also given the traditional digital clean-up to eradicate dirt, debris and scratches with image stabilization also applied for good measure. Finally, Arrow elected to restore both the original mono mix and preserve the 5.1 DTS remaster created by MGM/Fox six years earlier.
In a nutshell, The Apartment from Arrow has never looked better. Gone is the thick, murky darkness of MGM/Fox’s print elements, replaced by a razor-crisp, brighter image that reveals far more clarity, fine details and overall tonality in the gray scale, surely to please any videophile. Worth noting; the dupe elements falter briefly during the sequence were Bud is forced to spend the night on a chilly park bench, also, the sequence where he brings Margie McDougall home. Herein, the image suddenly appears slightly less refined with a minor amplification of grain. It’s a minor quibbling on an otherwise very organic 1080p transfer. Arrow’s Herculean efforts have paid off rather handsomely. You won’t be disappointed. Ditto for the extras: Arrow has gained the rights to MGM/Fox’s archival documentary, Inside The Apartment – a joyous reminiscence featuring many contributing voices, including Shirley MacLaine and the late Robert Osborne. We also get, Chris Lemmon’s tender tribute to his father: Magic Time – The Art of Jack Lemmon. Regrettably, MGM/Fox never had the foresight to preserve such history in anything better than 480i. Totaling almost 50 min. the quality of these featurettes is, frankly deplorable!
Better news comes from Arrow’s exclusively produced featurettes, starting with The Key to The Apartment, barely 10 min. with critic Philip Kemp who nevertheless manages to make the most of his brief intro, further to be fleshed out in a commentary track that accompanies the movie. Better still is The Flawed Couple: a nearly half-hour long video essay by David Cairns examining the alliance between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. There’s also A Letter to Castro: 13 min. 2017 interview with actress, Hope Holiday, and, An Informal Conversation with Billy Wilder; a little over 20 min. of archival commentary from the master himself. Finally, we get Arrow’s restoration show reel, used to market this upcoming release. Virtually all of Arrow’s extras, with the exception of Wilder’s interview, are in 1080p (the only surviving source for Wilder’s interview, in 1080i – still, highly watchable). Bottom line: Arrow Academy’s SE of The Apartment is a ‘must have’ for any film collector. It is light years ahead of MGM/Fox’s tired old Blu-ray release. There is no comparison in quality unless you are into comparing apples to giraffes. Very highly recommended…if you can get your hands on it!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)