****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston
screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
directed by Billy Wilder
by Walter Chaw The older I get, the better I understand Billy Wilder. And the better I understand Billy Wilder, his weariness and acerbic sense of humour, the more I feel comfortable saying, with that complicated mix of affection and fair warning that I think indicates his work as well, that his movies are assholes and mean it. Billy Wilder, the ten-cents-a-dance Austrian gigolo, the roommate of Peter Lorre who learned English by listening to Dodgers games on the radio, the admirer of Ernst Lubistch. The guy who demanded he be allowed to direct his own screenplays and so made a legendary hyphenate debut with Double Indemnity. The writing partner of both Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, the man who made whores of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe and Shirley MacLaine, because nothing could ever be as simple, as innocent, as it appeared at first glance. The guy who lost family in Nazi concentration camps, who came up with the best closing line in movie history, which was "nobody's perfect." Maybe the last line of The Apartment--"Shut up and deal"--is a close second. Narrative context tells us the line refers to a card game; the Wilder context suggests a certain way of looking at the world: coping, acceptance, fatalism. Would you believe The Apartment is actually one of Wilder's optimistic films? Optimistic because the way it views the world is through a scrim of absolute cynicism--and despite it, despite all the towers falling down, there's the possibility of love, sweet and simple, between Ms. Kubelik and Mr. Baxter.
C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) sits at one desk out of hundreds, adjusting numbers and pining for the day he has his own office and a key to the executive washroom. That's why he lets his boss, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), and all of Sheldrake's management cronies use his apartment as an anonymous bed for their dalliances: facilitated sin in exchange for a little extra consideration once a seat at the table open up. Wilder handles the early scenes of Baxter standing in the rain, waiting for his apartment to vacate, with the wit and balance that made him a legend while giving lie to the idea that of the great Hollywood auteurs, Wilder's the toughest to pin down to a style--to a give. I'd offer it's the Wilder protagonist that is his greatest "tell": outsiders, losers, each looking to be accepted into the larger group but deciding, at the moment of assimilation, that perhaps being on the outside was better all along. If they don't figure it out, they end up floating face-down in a swimming pool.
Baxter will figure it out, though not before his neighbour Dr. Dreyfuss (a wonderful Jack Kruschen) develops a very bad opinion of this guy with crates of empty liquor bottles left outside his door and a new girl calling out through their shared walls every night. Risqué stuff for the '60s, you'd say--and you'd be wrong. In the same year, after all, you had Psycho, Eyes Without a Face, and Peeping Tom, the nouvelle vague firing up with Breathless, Fellini putting Anita Ekberg in a fountain in La Dolce Vita, Bergman telling a particularly nasty fairytale with The Virgin Spring, and Antonioni telling another via L'Avventura. The heroes of the era are assholes like Hud and everyone played by Steve McQueen. In the '60s, Old Hollywood went to places like The Misfits to die. The decade begins here; it ends with Rosemary's Baby and Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch and the rise of the New American Cinema.
Sheldrake's goomah is sweet elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), on whom Baxter develops a crush ultimately undimmed by the knowledge of what she's been up to with the boss. Ms. Kubelik tries to kill herself one night during an episode of self-loathing. Baxter saves her, and discovers that he doesn't like who he is, either. The Apartment is essentially about Baxter deciding that doing the right thing--even though the right thing means being destitute in New York--matters more than anything else. It's an extraordinarily modern film in that sense, wise about the world, about how nothing is ever as simple as love at first sight, but should be--and would be, if not for the way we complicate everything with our venality and confuse what's important in our lives. The Apartment lays it all out there. All the longing, desperate and thunderstruck, of falling in love with any girl who talks to you.
It's an antecedent to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that the film is essentially about broken people who hate themselves. Baxter and Ms. Kubelik are incapable of finding any self-worth worth treasuring. They're self-destructive and motivated by the dim idea that they deserve something better, but they don't really believe it until it's almost too late. The wonder of the film is that without any kind of sentiment, with a surplus of humour, with a remarkable amount of real artistry in its timing and performances, it examines what it is to love someone unrequitedly, then to embark on a relationship that's probably doomed in a world this bleak, since the human compulsion to love someone with all your heart is at the end maybe all you've got. It understands that love is always accompanied by desperation, by the memory of loneliness and the threat of its return. The Apartment is more meaningful to me each time I see it. Shut up and deal.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
MGM shepherds The Apartment to Blu-ray in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that is absolutely crystalline. There are few source defects to speak of, no blooming or haloing, no motion fuzz--and yet it betrays little in the way of digital tampering, presenting an image that still looks, still moves, like film. Clearly, this got the studio's crown-jewel treatment. The original mono audio has been opened up for a remix delivered losslessly in 5.1. Thankfully, the DTS-HD MA track resists any fireworks in favour of an enveloping warmth; the finale in a crowded bar on New Year's Eve is magnetic, somehow, pulling you into that moment--that bitter, funny, romantic moment--we won't see the likes of in another romantic comedy until Charlie Kaufman's ode to imperfection and hope.
Bruce Block contributes a feature-length yakker that tells all the old stories about the production and assorted lore. Cameron Crowe covers a lot of the same ground in his book-length interview Conversations with Wilder (and Wilder, for his part, was always good with the anecdote, no matter his carefully-worn crotchetiness). Still, it's a good listen for the newcomer. "Inside The Apartment" (30 mins., SD) interviews MacLaine and Chris "son of Jack" Lemmon, among other assorted suits and historians. It's a hagiography, of course, but if any movie deserves it, it's The Apartment. Besides, I'll never tire of hearing about MacMurray's horror that his reputation as a nice guy took such a massive hit with this film. Similarly, "Magic Time" (13 mins., SD) is essentially just a sloppy wet kiss directed at Lemmon, useless but mostly inoffensive. What's important to note about The Apartment is that it was feted at the time with a Best Picture Oscar--a rare example of the Academy being in absolute tune with the zeitgeist. (And lest we forget that it, along with another Hollywood big-earner, Psycho, reverted to beautiful b&w cinematography, television be damned.) The thin crust covering all the worms alive in the Eisenhower years were coming up at exactly the same time. It's ferocious stuff, and it hasn't aged a day. The movie's trailer, in HD, rounds out the disc.