Savant’s vote for the best romantic comedy ever goes to a sordid fable about problems in the big city Rat Race: keeping both a job and one’s self-respect. Picking up where 1930s pre-Code movies left off, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s ‘how to succeed’ thesis divides people into two groups, Takers and those that Get Took. And yet the message it delivers is life & love- affirming.
Arrow Video USA
1960 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 125 min. / Limited Edition / Street Date December 12 (29?) (?), 2017 / Available from Arrow Video
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, David Lewis, Hope Holiday, Joan Shawlee, Naomi Stevens, Edie Adams, Johnny Seven, Joyce Jameson, Willard Waterman, David White.
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Film Editor: Daniel Mandell
Original Music: Adolph Deutsch
Written by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder
Produced and Directed by Billy Wilder
… and it’s also the all-time champion New Years’ movie.
After spending years wondering why Billy Wilder wasn’t rated at the very summit of Hollywood achievement, it has felt good in the last two decades or so seeing and reading about the greater acceptance of his films. But there’s been an undesirable push-back fairly recently, I think fed by vacant online opinionizers that either don’t understand what great writing and directing is, or that refuse to look at older films in terms of the context of their times. In a post- millennial world where many young people have no consciousness of the greats of the past beyond John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, it may be that only dedicated film fans will appreciate pictures in B&W, with characters whose mindset precedes today’s cell phones and other instant gratifications. To the naysayers that find Billy Wilder terminally un-cool, I say ‘Get a Life.’ Or better, ‘Become a mensch.’ Comedy doesn’t have to be crass or grindingly obvious, although Wilder once told his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond that their work needed to avoid obscurities: “Make it obvious.” When Diamond asked about subtleties, Wilder replied, “Make them obvious too.”
Upon its arrival in 1960 Billy Wilder’s The Apartment was alternately savaged and praised by the critics. The ones that didn’t like it may have been stuck in older ideas of what constituted acceptable adult-themed entertainment — or were perhaps personally biased by Wilder’s tendency toward caustic cynicism. But this story of a nice guy in the corporate jungle succeeds on as many levels as a Hollywood film can. Wilder retains his nasty streak of cynicism realistic outlook while evoking the sentimental sweetness of his mentor Ernst Lubitsch. The slightly tarnished example of Jack Lemmon’s ambitious C.C. Baxter taught a generation of men that aspiring to ‘mensch’ status might be a good idea, personal outlook-wise.
A crown jewel of United Artists and The Mirisch Corporation, this prestigious title won five Oscars including Best Picture. Arrow’s deluxe, Criterion-level release gives Wilder’s masterpiece the class presentation it never received from its distributor MGM.
Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s screenplay is a masterpiece of intricate character plotting. Trapped in a sea of desks, lowly insurance clerk C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has found a unique way to climb the corporate ladder: he lends his apartment key to his philandering superiors, as a place to take their illicit sex partners. This questionable practice goes smoothly until the big boss Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) finds out. Instead of getting canned, Baxter commences loaning his key to Sheldrake on an exclusive basis. The ambitious employee doesn’t mind sleeping on park benches or getting a bad reputation with the neighbors. But when he discovers that Sheldrake’s promiscuous bedroom partner is his own dream girl, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), Baxter must choose between his heart and his career.
(Everything about this review is a spoiler, so most of it should be read only after seeing the movie.)
Who would dare malign cinema master Billy Wilder, you ask? Lots of critics did. Andrew Sarris said Wilder was ‘too cynical to believe his own cynicism.’ Others mauled him for savaging poor Shirley MacLaine, and condemned her Christmas Eve suicide attempt as the nadir of poor taste. They cited the cruel treatment that Wilder allegedly dished out to actresses Jean Arthur, Audrey Hepburn and others, as evidence that the director was a sour malcontent and possible misogynist. The average film critic of 1960 was in the business of recommending family entertainment, and wanted screen romances to steer clear of sordid problems that didn’t happen to ‘nice people.’ Philandering, adultery and grim workplace opportunism were bad enough, but a realistic suicide attempt was simply not appropriate for a show billed as a comedy.
But oh, were they wrong … The Apartment builds an enormous feeling of love and romantic good will. It is also a gem of construction, character development, and thematic clarity. Sure, C.C. Baxter is a morally compromised guy in a corrupt world. His only hope of getting ahead involves dirty business, although I doubt anyone today would be shocked by Baxter’s gimmick. [I just finished seeing the good drama Molly’s Game, in which a highly educated woman runs a poker game for years, catering to decadent millionaire misanthropes and eventually laundering Russian Mafia money. Her father’s final verdict on her activities lauds her initiative: she became a millionaire on her wits alone.]
C.C. Baxter’s hindsight excuse is that his predicament snuck up on him when he wasn’t looking. The view of the business world is as cold-blooded as anything in Double Indemnity. J.D. Sheldrake’s my-way-or-the-highway mindset is not only accurate, but mild compared to how big companies run today. The same sort of things happen now, except the added impersonality of modern Human Resources departments would keep any of the duped aspirants from ever finding out exactly how the favored ‘buddy boy’ got his promotion.
Jack Lemmon is perfect in the role as he never was before or since: just experienced enough not to be a naïve dolt, but not yet grating (The Out-of-Towners) or insufferably self-pitying (April Fools, Save the Tiger). Shirley MacLaine is adorable, whether showing spunk in her elevator job or trying to be discreet about her sad, guilty philandering. And Fred MacMurray plays a heel as only he can. The beloved father of My Three Sons plays the part with hardly an inflection altered — just a switch of morals. This trio has what must be the best supporting cast in film history, led by Ray Walston as the sneering Mr. Dobisch, and Jack Kruschen (so wasted in the same year’s The Angry Red Planet) as the warm and wise Dr. Dreyfuss. Hope Holiday’s Christmas Eve bar scene with Lemmon is unforgettable. Joan Shawlee and Joyce Jameson are lovable office bimbos. Edie Adams takes time off from selling cigars in provocative TV ads to play a bitter, double-crossed secretary.
Wilder and Diamond’s world-class screenplay makes them all better than the sum of their talents. Everyone remembers the great bits of business, rendered so accurately in Joe LaShelle’s gray-on-gray B&W Panavision: Baxter marching through endless rows of identical desks, a la King Vidor’s The Crowd, and straining spaghetti through a tennis racket; Fran Kubelik breaking down on Christmas Eve. Wilder stages these things brilliantly, as when he forgoes a close-up on the forlorn Fran as she weeps, choosing instead to make us watch her sob from the other side of the room. Wilder orchestrates his verbal jokes and physical gags for maximum efficiency. His confected coincidences and surprise identity revelations become cruel twists of fate. We’ve all experienced romantic setbacks that seem doubly cruel, as if fate were rubbing salt in our wounds. Emotional touches that might elsewhere become clichés (such as the cracked hand-mirror) hit like slugs to the stomach. In this triangle of deceit, Baxter and Kubelik’s vulnerabilities assault them with a you-asked-for-it vengeance. When irony strikes, it is never some contrivance, but a romantic logic that doesn’t care whose heart is broken.
In Wilder’s vision real love only comes through pain. The residue of romance hangs over the film’s loser-lovers like a dark cloud. Sheldrake’s secretary is a woman changed for the worse through love. Hope Holiday’s heartbreak over her jockey jailed by Castro may be a joke, but her loss is sincere. The Apartment’s romantic couple is neither perfect nor without sin. They’re adrift in a world where their personal plight is no more ‘important’ than anyone else’s.
Perhaps the critics were shocked by the film’s rejection of standard goody-goody moralizing. The eager young Baxter happily takes a short cut to get his new office, convinced that a little cheating is part of the game. Would they have preferred Baxter to pray for material success, as seems to happen in so many films influenced by the Production Code? The critics might also then be repulsed by a heroine with low self esteem, one always getting the fuzzy end of the lollypop like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Add this to an overall story that sees infidelity and sordidness unchallenged by a higher morality, and you can understand why conservatives would be dismayed. A big section of America never outgrew the fairy tale mentality, where a good deed can be guaranteed to precipitate an avalanche of reformed hearts and merry good will.
Wilder was often accused of brutalizing actresses in his movies, even if only in a verbal joke. Suicide attempts feature in Sunset Blvd. and Sabrina. (Baxter also talks about killing himself, with a .45 automatic.) The depths of depression become all too believable when poor Fran shivers with tears, alone in ‘some schmuck’s apartment’ convinced that she’s let herself become a whore.
Wilder is as good a director as he is a writer. For this observer the film’s most cinematic moment is a brilliant use of objective and subjective shots. How often have we seen a shot that’s first presented as a person’s subjective point of view, but then becomes objective when that person walks into the shot. If we take the shot’s subjective function literally, our first reaction should be, ‘the person has an identical double.’ I think that Billy Wilder makes conscious use of this effect in the scene in which MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik decides to kill herself.
Washing her face at Baxter’s bathroom sink, Fran spies the pill bottle in the iris-inset reflection of a shaving mirror. Without a cut back to Kubelik, we see a disembodied hand reach in and take the pills. It’s as if the hand belongs to another person, not Fran: Whose hand is that? she might be thinking. I’ve read that survivors sometimes describe suicide attempts as happening in the third person, as if somebody else was committing the act, and the victim was a mere observer. The psychological disassociation is expressed in visual terms. In her shaky emotional state, Fran is not responsible.
‘Cynical’ Wilder manages a gloriously positive ending. Fran’s dash through the streets to a blast of unabashedly romantic music has got to be Shirley MacLaine’s best moment on screen. But the lovers must still reckon with reality. Sure, they’re together and they’re in love, but without a job between them they won’t be able to stay in New York much longer. Wilder is famous for nailing a Soviet critic at a European festival, who took a potshot at the U.S.A. by praising The Apartment as anti-American. The critic opined that only in decadent America could such a story take place. Wilder shot back that he agreed entirely, that his story could never happen in Moscow — because in Moscow there was no such thing as a lendable apartment! Perhaps this awareness of political tensions got Wilder’s blood up for his next film, the marvelous Cold War joke-athon One, Two, Three.
Arrow Video USA’s Limited Edition Blu-ray of The Apartment is billed as a brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative, with an uncompressed mono original track and an optional stereophonic remix in DTS-HD Master Audio.
Cameraman Joseph LaShelle’s deep focus wide shots benefit greatly from the added detail, finally achieving the film’s low-contrast gray-on-gray ‘European’ look. A big screen ‘is a must’ for appreciating The Apartment: in the theater we feel as if we are inside the sets, especially Alexander Trauner’s perfectly-designed apartment, which seems more authentic than if Wilder had filmed in a real New York brownstone. I don’t know exactly why, but the sophisticated texture of Wilder’s B&W movies of this period seem much more real than standard studio work.
Arrow retains MGM’s (and MGM-Fox’s) older extras, adding some classy new items. The standard definition items begin with two featurettes that allow Walter Mirisch and actors Shirley MacLaine, Hope Holiday and Johnny Seven to re-tell their favorite old stories; they’re joined by a chorus of critics tossing bouquets to the film and all associated with it. Jack Lemmon’s son Chris contributes a sentimental piece about his father. A commentary by producer and author Bruce Block contains plenty of interesting information about the filming, complete with documentation. Quoting from the script supervisor’s notes, Block points out specific shots that gave Wilder and Co. a hard time, requiring many takes and even re-shoots. He also offers his own visual analysis of Billy Wilder’s shot choices.
An old audio-only interview with Billy Wilder is a worthy repeat.
The high-class new extras begin with a featurette by Philip Kemp, who takes us on a sprightly tour of the picture’s big themes, starting with its vaguely anti-capitalist stance and ending with a round-up of accolades and condemnations from the critics of the time. Kemp drops a blockbuster bomb about the film’s soundtrack that was news to me — the main theme is not by the credited Adolph Deutsch, but by English composer Charles Williams. The title is ‘Jealous Lover,’ and it first appeared in the 1949 Brit film The Romantic Age. The real composer is not even credited — how often did Deutsch have to explain that he didn’t write the movie’s most memorable music? Kemp also offers a very good partial commentary, that covers two or three scenes with accurate, worthwhile observations.
Critic David Cairns narrates his excellent video essay that covers the Wilder / Lemmon collaboration and Wilder’s career in toto. Everything Cairns says is thoughtful, fresh and illuminating; it’s his best video extra I’ve seen to date. The one new video interview is from the marvelous Hope Holiday, who gives a candid sit-down about her career that makes one want to reach out and hug her. Describing her reaction when a preview audience applauded her performance, she goes all squeaky and cries. Completely sincere, Ms. Holiday reinforces our emotional connection to the show.
A restoration comparison seems modeled after older Criterion pieces, and shows how a lot of film damage was repaired digitally. It also stresses that Arrow’s 4K restoration is proprietary and exclusive. The only gripe I have about the disc goes back to my old article When DVD Menus Attack! from ten years ago. The main theme plays as soon as we land on the menu, and repeats whenever we return to the menu. It’s already repeated often enough in the movie itself — its use in the menu spoils its initial appearance in the film, and attacks us like an earworm when we sample the disc’s extras. Use a minor or incidental piece of underscoring, disc producers!
The disc packaging is a big hit, with Matt Griffin’s newly commissioned key artwork capturing the key predicament of C.C. Baxter orbiting on the cold sidewalk while his apartment is used for an executive’s secret assignation. The image bests MGM’s old paste-up cover art with the three leads smiling in a way irrelevant to their characters. I might have voted for a shot of C.C. Baxter drunk on Christmas Eve, sitting at the bar with paper straw wrappers on the brim of his cherished bowler hat . . . but that image is too much like The Lost Weekend, and Baxter’s problem isn’t alcoholism. The actual keep case has a reversible cover that allows the buyer to opt for the original 1960 one-sheet artwork.
What about the corporate workplace has changed since 1960? The biggest difference is that company loyalty only flows one way. Firms get rid of experienced career employees that have advanced to higher salaries. That leaves an under- 50 (or under- 40?) workforce that often has no knowledge of the business or its products from more than few years in the past. Human resources is now in charge, a faceless monolith dedicated to keeping employees frightened with performance reviews. For those not chosen for serious advancement, the turnover rate can make a ‘career’ last only a few years.
For those who like personal stories, my first contact with The Apartment was around 1967, when I was fifteen. I wanted to take a girlfriend, Leslie Broadbelt, to a double bill of The Great Escape and The Apartment. That’s up to 5.5 hours of time in the balcony of the downtown Bijou. To do this I had to talk my way around the objections of the girl’s mother, who felt that the film was too adult for high schoolers. I somehow talked the lady into it; it would be months before she finally decided I was an unacceptable date for her daughter.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: New: A new appreciation of the film and select scene commentary by film historian Philip Kemp; The Flawed Couple, a new video essay by filmmaker David Cairns on the collaborations between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon; New interview with actress Hope Holiday. Archived from 2007: Audio commentary with film producer and historian Bruce Block; Inside the Apartment, a half-hour featurette with interviews with Shirley MacLaine, executive producer Walter Mirisch, and others; Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon; Theatrical trailer. 148-page illustrated hardcover book with new writing by Neil Sinyard, Kat Ellinger, Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in keep case with hardbound book in card sleeve.
Reviewed: December 28, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson