Blu-Ray Review: THE APARTMENT (1960) Still Great After All These Years

Originally, this review of Billy Wilder's Oscar winning classic would have served as something of a companion piece to our own Scott Weinberg's review of the by all accounts execrable This Means War. In his takedown, he described the romantic comedy thusly: "This movie feels like it was conceived with a cast first, a release date second, and a clunky patchwork screenplay third. Or maybe fourth after a good craft services company." The makers of that movie, Weinberg observed here, didn't seem to care all that much about the final result. Back to the original concept of my review, it was intended to elaborate, point by point, how The Apartment is the pinnacle of a filmmaker caring about the shape of the final product to a methodical, almost obsessive degree. And to a certain degree, I'll do that here, but I'd like to let this classic film--still all at once cynical, funny, and heartfelt as ever--stand on its own.

if you've never seen the it--and you really should--Wilder's film concerns one C.C. Baxter, a drone at an insurance company with a key to climbing his way up the corporate ladder in no time: the one to his apartment. Baxter loans out his New York apartment to grateful executives for their clandestine trysts. Baxter, for his part, is no monk: he just doesn't seem especially interested in getting any girl to look twice at him except for elevator operator Ms. Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). When the company's supposedly upstanding CEO Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) finds out about Baxter's little operation, he puts a stop to it--and demands to be the sole user of the apartment for his own side action. A penny says you can guess who Mr. Sheldrake's girl on the side is.

The Apartment ends up being an unlikely mix of farce, office politics, and attempted suicide (with the dash of drama that this event brings) without ever feeling schizophrenic. The events above and the characters in it all belong to the same movie and how a lovely and sweet girl like Ms. Kubelik could go for a slick operator like Sheldrake only to fall for Baxter in the final act (spoilers) is a natural progression.

What piques my interest, though, is whether women back in 1960 were laughing as loudly or in the same way as men were. The Apartment is pretty damning of its male leads, including Baxter until he finds a spine, but in contrast to the modern romantic comedy, the women seem to hold all of the cards, with Sheldrake's wife, his secretary, and Ms. Kubelik all effectively defeating him by the end of the movie. And MacLaine's character doesn't need to be convinced by the final act that Sheldrake is wrong for her--Wilder's script makes her smart enough to know it all along and resolved enough to leave him before the movie is through. I loved that and I love MacLaine in this role.

If you have even a passing interest in romantic comedies or perfectly constructed films (there's not a single piece of fat in The Apartment's nearly two hour running time), then stop after you finish this review, I entreat you to familiarize yourself with this movie.

Audio, Video, and Presentation

A noticeable upgrade over the DVD from a few years back, The Apartment on Blu-ray is remarkably sharp, of particular benefit to a movie that starts off as good-looking as Wilder's does. For instance, the crisp image allows you to see some of the depth of field trickery Wilder employed to make the corporate offices where the story is set in part to look massive. Instead of spoiling the effect, it instead feels like being allowed to see how an intricate, beautiful piece of machinery works as it runs.

The disc includes the original theatrical trailer, the doc Inside the Apartment, and a brief retrospective on Lemmon hosted by his son, Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon. But the most instructive feature is historian and producer Bruce Block's expansive commentary that covers not only the making of the film but Billy Wilder's history as a filmmaker. I'm not wild on the box art: although I don't think MGM is looking to flim-flam anyone into thinking The Apartment is in color with the three colorized leads on the cover, it doesn't feel particularly representative of the movie within (the black and white photo of a hallway in the background doesn't do the cover any favors, either).

The Apartment is available on Blu-ray now.

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