The Apartment: Collector's Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - MGM Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (9th April 2012).
The Film

The year was 1960 and Hollywood—and by proxy most of metropolitan America—was, once-again, abuzz with the name Billy Wilder. A year earlier the Austro-Hungarian-born writer/director had unleashed his gender-bending and genre-breaking cross-dressing comedy “Some Like It Hot” (1959), controversially without certificate. Will Hays—the Post Master General turned self-righteous moral compass of the United States, whose Production Code stunted American films for years, forbidding any mention of so-called perversion, be it sex, language, violence or even a married couple shown sharing the same bed, on cinema screens—was long dead by the time Wilder released his film, which is now considered to be one of the greatest American films, let alone comedies, of all time. But while Hays himself had passed, his office—by then taking form in the MPAA, or Motion Picture Association of America—was still stringently enforcing the Production Code. Despite arriving in theaters without a rating from the MPAA—and having been branded with a “C”, for Condemned, from the National Legion of Decency—“Some Like it Hot” was a huge success for Wilder and United Artists, the studio that released the picture theatrically. Quick to capitalize on the success of “Hot”, UA gave Wilder free reign to make whatever movie he wanted. UA wanted him to make another farce; but Wilder, again teaming up with both his “Hot” co-author and star, went, curiously, more serious. In the press, UA played up the comedy aspects of Wilder’s next picture. But as funny as it is, “The Apartment” is, much more somber, and more dramatic, than it’s predecessor. And that’s, partly, why its so good.

The story goes that in the late 1940's, Billy Wilder saw director David Lean and Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” (1945), in which two strangers indulge in a scandalous affair, at one point meeting briefly in a third party’s apartment. Wilder wondered what the apartment-owner’s story was. What drives a man to assist in adultery? And how could this man soundly sleep in a bed presumably used for such sexual encounters? Wilder wanted to know, and more importantly, he wanted to make a movie that would at least attempt to answer these questions. Unfortunately for the legendary filmmaker, the timing wasn’t right and he wouldn’t even begin exploring the topic for at least another decade. He finally got his chance with “The Apartment”, which tells the story of C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an office drone at a New York-based insurance company, who gets entangled in a silly, but scandalous, relationship with an elevator girl and his boss.

See, Baxter lends out his home to his bosses. It’s a cozy place where they can meet with their mistresses in the city, away from their wives. Baxter does this in hopes that one day they’ll give him a good review and then he’ll meddle his way into middle management. Meanwhile, Baxter, a longtime bachelor befuddled by women, has fallen for Miss Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator girl with an alluring personality. He chats Miss Kubelik up every morning and each night. The ride up, and the ride down, is the best part of Baxter’s dull day. He works late into the night, waiting for his apartment to clear out, and when he does return home he cleans the place and then eats a TV dinner by himself in the dark, the glow on his 27-inch counsel tube the only light in the room.

But soon, things start looking up for Baxter. It seems his four buddy-bosses have put in a good word with their boss, the gruff Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Expecting a promotion, Baxter finds himself face to face with a Sheldrake who’s wise to Baxster’s little game. It doesn’t matter—Sheldrake doesn’t want to berate Bud; Sheldrake just wants the key to the apartment, so he can entertain his own little lady. Baxter agrees, and gets the promotion too. But he doesn’t get the girl, because Kubelik is involved with Sheldrake, something Baxter finds out in a horribly inconvenient way.

Crestfallen, Baxter tries to move on, and finds that he can’t. Especially because, when Sheldrake and Miss Kubelik use Baxter’s apartment for a fling, it all ends in a fight, and Fran tries to kill herself by downing a bottle of pills. Yes—although perhaps not a revelatory plot-point to any one who knows anything about this film—“The Apartment”, which is a light, if progressive, romantic comedy from the simpler sixties on the surface, features a suicide attempt around the hour mark. And so, you see, it isn’t your average rom-com, and in fact, devolves quite suddenly into darker, more dramatic territory. That’s not to say the movie is a downer. It’s quite subtly hilarious at times. But the film does feature a distraught Shirley MacLaine—in one of her finest performances—playing bedridden and suicidal, riding an emotional rollercoaster, for a good chunk of time. But what makes MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik such a fascinating character is that she isn’t just some prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl, like more than few critics might suggest, but a complete subversion of that stock character. There are few females in film like Fran. For all her highs and lows—the bubbly-ness and the fits of infrequent insanity—she isn’t weak willed or unchanging. She grows into a strong figure. Lemmon—playing, at the time, his first dramatic leading man role—and MacMurray, perfectly playing against his fatherly, Disney type—are fine too. Lemmon was a master of both the comedic and dramatic arts, and shows both sides of his personality here equally well. Like MacLaine, he makes his character a sad figure but can turn his frown upside down (or right-side-up, I guess) with a quick joke or physical comedy routine. Lemmon’s character is also complex,

The movie caused quite a stir at the time of release, much like “Some Like It Hot”, with the adulterous love triangle at the center and its many other touchy themes. Written by Wilder and his creative partner I.A.L Diamond, the script—and the resulting film—is the product of careful craftsmanship; a perfectly balanced piece, melding serious and not so serious with precise care. The epitome of American immigrant success, Wilder fled his homeland, where he was a celebrated screenwriter in his own right, amidst the horrific rise of the Nazi’s, to become one of Hollywood’s most prolific writer/director’s of the post-war era. He would hone his skills to make many magnificent films, in just as many different genres. He was at home in any cinematic form, crafting fantastic film noir (“Double Indemnity” (1944) and “Sunset Blvd.” (1950)), dazzling drama (“Lost Weekend” (1945), a peerless World War II POW picture (“Stalag 17” (1953)) and, in the fifties and sixties, he helmed several comedies (“The Seven Year Itch” (1955), “Sabrina” (954)). “The Apartment” is one of Wilder’s best comedies, because it was so unusual with its blending of styles. It’s a bristling business satire that also features slapstick; it’s a relationship drama that deals with deep, psychological issues. Only someone like Wilder could make “The Apartment”, partly because it’s themes and subject matter were taboo at the time and few other than Wilder were willing to “go there”. Fortunately, Wilder wasn’t afraid to push the envelope.

“The Apartment” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 1961, including both Best Actor (Jack Lemmon) and Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine). The film won five Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture (Billy Wilder) and Best Original Screenplay (I.A.L Diamond and Billy Wilder). The American Film Institute lists “The Apartment” among the top 100 films of all time. In 1994, the film was selected for preservation in Nation Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Video

“The Apartment” was remastered for it’s DVD re-issue in 2008, and that same pristine source has been tapped for this 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded Blu-ray presentation. I think it’s safe to say this high definition rendering is the best the film has ever looked on home video by a wide margin, and that it looks perhaps even better than it did in theaters. Certainly, this is the best version since the theater at any rate, and a faithful representation of Joseph LaShelle's Oscar-nominated black-and-white widescreen photography. A handful of specks aside, the print is in fine shape and you’re not likely to notice a single frame that shows significant signs of age related defects like fading or serious damage. Even the usually troublesome optical dissolves are clean and stable. Compared to even the remastered DVD (forget about the earlier, appallingly awful, disc), everything about the Blu-ray image is better, more consistent and more refined. Its sharper, without appearing artificially enhanced into that state, and fine detail is sometimes staggering even when compared to other HD discs. The greyscale is impressive, with all the shades of black, white and in between, layered in rich contrast. The image is bright, without appearing to be overly boosted, and blacks are inky but still reveal information in the darkest parts of the frame. The average bit rate—at least according to the packaging—is a healthy 33 mbps and I don’t doubt it. The encode is, essentially, perfect: a light but natural layer of film grain lays untouched by DNR, while noise, artifacts, aliasing and other flaws are just simply not present. Sure, a few shots are a little softer than others, but show me a Panavision production of the era that doesn’t have at least a few dips in focus and resolution. All things considered “The Apartment” looks great; better than I think anyone could have ever hoped for.

Audio

Debate rages about remixing older films into wider soundscapes. Some purists argue that expanding a film originally recorded and released in mono or stereo into one of the surround formats is tantamount to altering the aspect ratio of a carefully composed picture. I’m not so strong-headed on the issue that I’d take it quite so far. Sometimes a film can greatly benefit from a good remix (whereas I can’t recall a single film that has benefited from a change in aspect ratio), especially a remix done with care, keeping the original intent mostly intact—which is exactly what MGM has done with “The Apartment”. The soundtrack may have been remixed into DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround, but you really wouldn’t know it from a lossless stereo. And that’s a good thing. Confined almost entirely to the front three speakers, but delightfully dynamic and without a trace of hiss, crackle or popping, the film sounds excellent. Dialogue is crisper, cleaner; Adolph Deutsch’s romantic score (and the main theme, a take off of a piece by British composer Charles Williams, called “Jealous Lover”) is fuller. Sure, “The Apartment” is still a talky romantic dramedy from the 1960's, and is sonically tame, at least when directly compared to more action-oriented and modern pictures. But as a classic catalog title, Wilder’s “The Apartment” sounds more than fine. The disc also includes dubs Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and French Dolby Digital 2.0 mono with optional subtitles in English for the hearing impaired, Spanish and French.

Extras

Like many MGM discs, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” arrives on Blu-ray with only a simple pop-up menu and no main screen. This is annoying because the disc is also authored with a pre-film bonus trailer for “Dances With Wolves” on blu-ray (2.35:1 widescreen 1080p, 31 seconds). Fortunately, idiotic implementation of the pop-up menu aside, “The Apartment” includes several extras worth your time—all ported over from the Collector’s Edition DVD. These include an audio commentary, a 30-minute documentary, a featurette and the theatrical trailer.

Up first is an excellent audio commentary with film historian Bruce Block. Block is well versed in all things Billy Wilder, and spends a considerable amount of time talking about the celebrated writer/director—his career in early German-sound cinema, his flight from Europe against the rise of Adolf Hitler (and the impact Hitler’s “final solution had on Wilder’s family; more than half were killed in the Nazi death camps) and several of his projects in Hollywood leading up to “The Apartment”. The track is also a treasure trove of info about the making of the film, and Block offers several interesting sound bites, including production details, a through dissection of the plot and themes, and shares a ton of general trivia. All around a great listen.

“Inside ‘The Apartment’” (16x9 480p, 29 minutes 36 seconds) is a documentary, produced in 2008, which discusses the making of the film and the men who made it, covering similar ground as the commentary but in a slightly different wrapping. Historians, critics and people more closely connected with the production including Shirley MacLaine, Paul Diamond—son of producer/writer I.A.L Diamond—discuss the boundary pushing subject matter of “The Apartment” and how the film was released amid a changing social climate much more open to the idea of extra-marital sex (or sex at all) appearing in movies. From conception, casting, and the genre blending screenplay to the lasting legacy of the film, all expected areas of discussion are touched upon. Near equal time is spent looking at Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond, their partnership and their earlier history’s which lead to the creation of one of cinema’s great classics. Despite clocking in at just under half-an-hour, this piece is incredibly informative and packs more information into its runtime than most documentaries twice as long

“Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon” (16x9 480p, 12 minutes 47 seconds) is a featurette that puts the spotlight on the leading man of “The Apartment”, Jack Lemmon, and chronicles his rise, from the earliest days right out of Harvard when he dreamt of saving American Theatre—which son Chris Lemmon says is why his father went into acting—and onto the successful, decades-spanning, career he had in film. Biographers and historians, Lemmon’s son, and others discuss the man and his collaboration with director Billy Wilder. This warm remembrance is the perfect companion piece to the longer documentary on the disc.

“How to make a very special kind of motion picture.” Te cheesy theatrical trailer (1080p, 2 minutes 19 seconds) for “The Apartment” plays up a recipe theme, concocted by Billy “Some Like it Hot” Wilder, and makes the film seem much more comical than it really is. Obviously, United Artists was trying to capitalize on the enormous success of Wilder and Lemmon’s earlier collaboration.

Packaging

And MGM clinches a nomination—and probable win—for worst cover art of 2012 rather early in the year with “The Apartment”. Colorized, and just patently horrible in about every other way too; making matters worse, they made these exact same miserable mistakes in 2008 with the Collector’s Edition DVD (of which this Blu-ray is just an improved port of, “Collector’s Edition” subtitle include). The dual layered BD-50 is region free and housed in Elite eco-case.

Overall

Devastating. Funny. Gut-wrenching. Heart-warming. Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” is, without question, one of the greatest films ever made. Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s script is a smart blend of drama and comedy, touching on issues that are still topical today (and were provocative in 1960). Lemmon, MacMurray and especially MacLaine are superb, crafting performances that are perfect. Simply put, the 1961 Best Picture winner is an example of classic movie-making craftsmanship at it’s finest, and a rare romantic comedy that’s actually worth watching. MGM’s Blu-ray edition is a delight, looking and sounding much better than I think anyone was expecting. With a small collection of worthwhile extras, this Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of “The Apartment” easily bests the already fine DVD release from 2008 and is highly recommended.

The Film: A+ Video: A- Audio: B Extras: B- Overall: B+

 


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