Apartment, The (US - BD)
Gabe revisits what he assumes was Ayn Rand's favourite film (/sarcasm)...
‘When you’re in love with a married man you should never wear mascara.’
Lonely office drone C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has stumbled upon a fast track to the top of the corporate ladder – he ‘rents’ his New York City apartment out to his company’s four managers for their extramarital liaisons. His plan works out especially well when personnel director Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) asks permission to use the apartment, and allows for Baxter’s promotion to proceed without contest. Excited, Baxter attempts to use his new social standing to woo pretty and charming elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), but he is crushed when he realize Fran is Mr. Sheldrake’s mistress.
I stated in my brief review of Fox/MGM’s semi-recent Blu-ray release of Some Like it Hot that I feel like I had to reach a certain age to truly appreciate the films of Billy Wilder. This doesn’t mean everyone has to hit their 30s to understand Wilder’s work, it’s just that in my specific case it took a specific level of maturity and life experience to be fully affected by these potent human tales. The Apartment is often cited as Wilder’s best film, and though I have built up a deep and abiding affection for Double Indemnity, Love in the Afternoon, Sabrina and especially Some Like it Hot (I shamefully haven’t seen Sunset Boulevard or Ace in the Hole) in my heart, I tend to agree with the general consensus in this case. The Apartment isn’t just a magnificent film, it’s a miracle of a film. It’s decades ahead of its time, yet is so accessibly and intelligently presented it was popular and critically acclaimed right out of the gate. Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond tackle heavy moral dilemmas and aren’t afraid to delve into dark places. Fran’s (spoiler alert) suicide attempt is particularly shocking given the era and general tone of the film (/spoiler alert). There’s also the matter of Jack Lemmon’s performance. It’s hard to assign any role as Lemmon’s signature, as he made a name for himself playing similarly nebbish and meek characters throughout his career, but C. C. Baxter is pretty close to quintessential. Baxter’s arc is overdone these days, and it’s easy to dismiss it as a cliché, but the tragedy of him continuing to cover-up problems in an effort to maintain his ‘earned’ social standing is never less than heartbreaking and his absolution never less than moving, even after seeing the film aped ad nauseum.
The Apartment is another one of those classic films that even those that haven’t seen it will recognize shots, interactions and gags. The image of Lemmon’s impossibly crowded office plays into dozens of spoofs, and had a clear effect on Terry Gilliam, whose masterpiece Brazil owes almost as much to The Apartment as it does to George Orwell. Fans of television’s Mad Men will also recognize the era’s sexual politics, which were rarely approached this frankly and critically at the time, especially not in a celebrated, major Hollywood production (somewhere in the world there’s a college student writing a term paper comparing and contrasting Baxter, Mr. Sheldrake, and Don Draper). Sure, Baxter is the very male center of the story, but his outlook on romance and treatment of Fran is practically revolutionary for 1960. More importantly, there’s real reason to root for Fran and Baxter to connect in the end – she’s not just a pretty face and he’s not just a nice guy, they’re fully formed human beings. Almost every one of their early interactions is readable on two levels, and one of them is either missing the subtext of the conversation completely, or eventually misinterpreting the subtext. As much as The Apartment is a film about ‘doing the right thing’, it’s also a film about the tragedy of miscommunication and it does this without the heavy-handed idiocy of a film like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel. This also connects it to Mad Men, which is often a show about people not saying what they mean and taking the wrong assumptions away from human interaction. Occasionally miscommunication is even used to comic effect, creating levity in the darkest situations and saving Wilder from the wrath of period censors and audiences.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen The Apartment in its correct 2.35:1 framing, and it’s a pleasant surprise, adding curious scope to an incredibly intimate story. These expansive shots do amazing things to isolate Lemmon in both busy halls and empty parks. And this is just one of Wilder’s, and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s, seemingly avant-garde visual choices. The Apartment is shot like the darkest of film noir. LaShelle revels in shadows and black, carving his shapes using bright highlights. The prevailing darkness makes for a rather stoic and simple frame, and focus sits pretty effectively in the foreground, so backgrounds aren’t particularly sharp, but there’s still more to look at here than my last TV viewing (the edges of the frame are pretty consistently blurry, but this is a common side effect of anamorphic lenses at the time, and apparently Wilder insisted on a 40mm lens). The sharply focused details are quite nice, and the black and white contrasts are close to perfect. The increase in definition does help reveal the more subtle placement of actors and objects on the edges of the widescreen frame. Grain is present, but quite fine in size, relatively consistent, and tolerable throughout. The print shows very little wear and tear outside of a few spritzes of white and an occasional tracking line, and the overall flicker isn’t too distracting outside of a handful of outdoor shots.
I’ve got very little to complain about concerning this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack outside of the fact that I barely noticed it wasn’t an original mono track (I’m more than a little surprised the original mono track isn’t included here). There are a few decent stereo effects, such as the scene where Lemmon boredly flips through channels on his TV set, and the sound of the set correctly corresponds to the placement of the set in the frame, but there’s really little reason to even bother given the simplicity of the sound design. There is a hair of subtle rear and stereo channel ambience on the busy streets and in the chaotic office, but most of the effects settle in the center channel along with the dialogue and even most of the music. Dialogue is natural without more than a touch of hiss, sound effects are a bit tinny, but plenty clear, and Adolph Deutsch’s score is relatively warm, if not a bit flat thanks to the original mono treatment.
The extras here match the Collector’s Edition DVD release, and begin with a commentary track with film producer, historian, and author of The Visual Story Bruce Block. Block is overflowing with information, and starts spouting it as soon as the film starts. He lets up for the sake of breathers every few minutes, but mostly maintains a consistent state of speaking, and lines up his lecture well with the on-screen images. I might prefer a feature length documentary in most cases, but I cannot imagine learning more about this particular production than I did here. Outside of historical anecdotes about the production, Block reads passages from the film’s original screenplay, and points to visual exposition and metaphors, all without too much sports commentator-like narration.
Next up is Inside The Apartment (29:40, SD), a rather solid behind the scenes featurette that covers Wilder’s early career, the inception of and inspiration behind The Apartment, the death knell of the Production Code, screenwriting, the film’s singular tone, the characterizations and casting, Lemmon’s improv, a miss-pulled punch, production design, photography, and the film’s classic final line and legacy. Interview subjects include Wilder biographers Kevin Lally and Ed Sisko, TV hosts and critics Molly Haskell Robert Osborne, producer Walter Mirisch, professor Drew Casper, author and historian Robert Porfirio, son of co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, Phil Diamond, actresses Shirley MacClaine, Edie Adams and Hope Holiday, actor Johnny Seven, Jack Lemmon’s son Chris, and Lemmon’s biographer Joe Baltake. This is followed by Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon (12:50, SD), a secondary featurette featuring many of the same interviewees discussing the actor’s career, with special emphasis on his work with Billy Wilder. The disc also features a trailer.
Don’t be like me, younger viewers. Don’t wait until you’ve hit the big 3-0 before you learn to appreciate the wonderful work of Billy Wilder. Do yourself a favour – grab a copy of The Apartment, and soak it in. This Blu-ray release is just another excuse to get yourself in gear. Those of you ahead of me that already own a copy on DVD might want to upgrade for the sake of the image detail increase, but I’m not thinking anyone with a set smaller than 42 inches or so will even be able to tell the difference. The audio is decent, though I’d prefer they included the original mono track, and the extras are solid, if not new.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blue Underground Blu-ray screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 24th January 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono French and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Film Historian Commentary, Inside The Apartment, Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen
Genre: Comedy and Drama
Length: 125 minutes
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