When “Some Like It Hot” was such a critical and popular success in 1959—snagging six Oscar nominations and winning Best Costume Design while charming audiences with the trio of Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag—people wondered how Billy Wilder could possibly top that.
It didn’t take him long. The very next year, Wilder gave moviegoers “The Apartment,” another black-and-white comedy in an era of color—this time, a contemporary comedy of manners with some biting social criticism. And “The Apartment” became an even bigger success, securing 10 Oscar nominations and winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration.
In “The Apartment,” Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, one of thousands of same-suited working stiffs whose neat rows of desks fill each floor of the Consolidated Life Insurance building like planes in a hangar. Except in this corporate culture, there’s no taking off. Wilder establishes an atmosphere of drudgery, routine, and dead-end life service early in the film. Executives seem to enjoy the all the privileges of feudal lords, while their faceless, nameless minions toil in anonymity. And the perks include more than the key to the executive washroom. The men take advantage of their power by hitting on female employees who work some of those menial jobs for the company.
What does any of this have to do with Baxter? Well, it turns out that somehow he got in the business of loaning the key to his apartment to four or five married executives who take turns using it for their illicit affairs, while Baxter skulks in an alley or stays late to work for two or three more hours each night. Each one promises to put in a good word so that Baxter might move out of obscurity into a junior executive position himself, but as they do so they take incredible advantage of him, expecting him to provide liquor and their favorite snacks and to even clean up after their “parties.”
Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay with I.A.L. Diamond (“Monkey Business,” “Some Like It Hot”) doesn’t have to do much to get audiences to see that this comedy of manners involves mostly bad manners and reprehensible behavior, with the implication being that men (and yes, this is a man’s world) don’t make it to the top by being sensitive guys, and they continue to use people even after they’re in power.
“The Apartment” has some clever lines, but the comedy comes mostly from the situations and from watching the Oscar-nominated Lemmon as Baxter trying to keep his sanity . . . something that becomes suddenly more difficult when he learns that a pretty elevator operator he wishes he could date (Shirley MacLaine) instead gets an invitation from one of Baxter’s “customers.”
Fred MacMurray is cast slightly against type as the all-business Mr. Sheldrake, the director of personnel who learns of the “service” Baxter has been providing to other executives and dangles a promotion in front of him if he’ll extend that service to him as well. MacLaine, meanwhile, also received an Oscar nomination for her acting, as did Jack Kruschen, the neighbor who’s under the impression that all the empty liquor bottles, all the different women, and all the night-after-night parties were the result of Baxter’s own lascivious lifestyle.
“The Apartment” still works more than 50 years later, and for a number of reasons. The performances are top-notch, the satire is still spot-on, and, as in the much later “Mad Men,” Wilder brings the corporate world of the Sixties to life via some striking set and art design. It works, too, because Lemmon and MacLaine are so gosh-darned likable. Throw in an intelligent script and a nice-guys-shouldn’t-always-finish-last theme, and you’ve got another timeless comedy—this time, with some very serious moments.
Even in dark scenes, the contrast level in this black-and-white picture always allow you to appreciate the rich interplay of black and light while never obscuring the edges of objects or people we’re meant to see. It’s a high-contrast presentation with perfect black levels and just enough grain to remind us we’re looking at a film. It’s one of the better black-and-white movie presentations I’ve seen in Blu-ray, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is so good that I didn’t notice any artifacts or flaws. I’m guessing the original 35mm Panavision process was partly responsible for the pristine look. “The Apartment” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.
The tech people at MGM/Fox must have thought the audio source materials would lend themselves to a new English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix instead of the Mono fans got with some of the Hitchcock releases the same week, because it’s here and it’s surprisingly natural sounding. Often when a lesser soundtrack is upconverted for current home theater set-ups, the result sounds fractured, with sounds shifted to different tracks just for the sake of distribution. But everything here seems totally organic. I wouldn’t call it an immersive track by any means, but it feels real and, like the video, almost totally free of blemishes.
The main bonus feature is a 30-minute making-of feature originally made for television that functions as a “tribute,” situating the film in the context of Wilder’s career and films in general, and including interviews with MacLaine and the son of the late Jack Lemmon as well as the usual complement of talking heads. Chris Lemmon turns up again in a shorter segment (13 min.) in which he talks about the arc of his father’s career and his many talents. Meanwhile, if you’re a fan of commentaries, there’s a decent one here from film historian Bruce Block, who’s obviously working from notes and did his homework. Finally, there’s the original trailer.
“The Apartment” was ahead of its time, serving as an obvious inspiration for later productions like “Mad Men” and blending comedy and drama long before it would become so common that the term “dramedy” would be coined. This Oscar-winning Best Picture still has the power and appeal that won audiences over back in 1960.