Arrow Video: The Apartment (1960) - Reviewed

Austrian-American film director Billy Wilder was already an accomplished cinematic master at the top of his form in his native homeland well before emigrating to the United States where his stature only grew exponentially.  Winning the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Screenplay for his 1945 film The Lost Weekend, Wilder would go on to direct some of the most celebrated films from the Golden Age of Hollywood yet maintained his signature auteur stamp distinguishing his work from the rest of Tinseltown’s director-for-hire fare.  Copping another Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1950 with Sunset Boulevard, arguably the most savage look at the film business since All About Eve, Wilder’s status as a formidable filmmaking talent continued to rise. 

With the director eventually serving up comedies both romantic and sardonic while, like Hitchcock, pushing the boundaries of what production codes and censors would allow onscreen, Wilder soon forged a working relationship with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon with arguably the sex symbol’s most famous and commercially successful films: The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.  Regarded as two of the greatest comedies of all time, Wilder seemed to be at the peak of his creative powers, presenting rich character driven pieces that were both funny and often tragic while displaying an acute visual sense with precise framing and placement of the actors before the camera.  Wilder, also differentiating from the Hollywood norm, often chose to shoot his films in black-and-white as opposed to the standard color film, cementing the director as one who frequently took risks for the sake of the work.

To think the brilliant auteur’s career could go any further seemed unthinkable, having already won three Academy Awards within a five year span.  No one could have anticipated Mr. Wilder would make cinema history only a year after Some Like It Hot became a smash hit, for he was about to unveil what is regarded by many as the pinnacle of his illustrious career: The Apartment.  Reuniting with actors Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray and introducing Shirley MacLaine into his creative circle, The Apartment tells the poignant tale of insurance clerk C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Lemmon): a lonely, single man who allows his superiors the use of his apartment for illicit extramarital affairs in the hopes of gaining a promotion. 

Having entered a routine of being the last one to leave the office comprised of desks and overhead fluorescent lights as far as the eye can see before being the last one to enter his apartment after his bosses leave, Baxter finds a modicum of contentment in his solitary existence of subservience, wearing all smiles in the face of isolation.  One day while at a sleazy work party, Baxter meets Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), an elevator operator he grows fond of with the hopes of one day pursuing a relationship with her.  Unbeknownst to Baxter, Fran just so happens to be having an affair with one of their bosses, personnel director Jeff D. Sheldrake (MacMurray) in his very apartment! 

Clearly the blueprint for films like Brazil and American Beauty concerning a man tiring of the white collar job institutionalized imprisonment while chronicling the moment he decides to reclaim his soul, The Apartment is a blistering critique of the power upper class bigwigs have over their middle class employees buoyed by a sweet natured romantic comedy concerning two lonely figures who find love in the most unlikely of places.  Emotionally the film takes viewers on a dynamic journey through joy and devastation, defeat and triumph, self-deceit and finally self-actualization. 

Driven by heart while director Wilder regards the proceedings with distant cynicism, The Apartment succeeds thanks in large part to Lemmon’s heartfelt performance, depicting a man who has fallen into a rut who must choose between selling his principles for success or clawing his way out of the pit.  MacLaine herself as the depressed yet kind hearted Fran is splendid, imbuing her with sympathy and tenderness, making her a woman trapped and bullied by a system devoid of a moral compass.  Even Fred MacMurray’s evil and conniving Sheldrake, clearly the film’s villain, comes across not as a prototypical Hollywood heavy but as a real heartless and manipulative manager used to constantly getting his way.

Visually, The Apartment is meticulously designed from the expansive war-room sized office to the claustrophobic and squalid Upper West Side apartment, photographed in 2.35:1 widescreen with precision by Joseph LaShelle.  The widescreen format, as opposed to the standard academy ratio of 1.33:1 fullscreen, was relatively new at the time and Wilder’s use of space within the frame and the actor’s proximity to the camera demonstrated the vast possibilities of the newly developed film format.  Some of the film’s strongest moments are created entirely with purely visual cues, though Wilder’s screenplay itself co-written by I.A.L. Diamond is incisive and witty with carefully crafted exchanges of dialogue that speak volumes about the characters’ histories without saying too much.  Aiding the film’s overarching melancholic mood is Adolph Deutsch’s somber score, with some of the more poignant episodes played entirely on the grand piano.

Despite misgivings about the film’s subject matter concerning an apartment used more or less as a brothel for the tenant’s reptilian superiors’ transgressions, The Apartment became an instant critical and commercial hit.  Nominated for a total of ten Academy Awards and ultimately winning five including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, Billy Wilder made cinema history by becoming the very first filmmaker to take home three top awards for the same film!  The Apartment also bore the distinction of being one of the last black-and-white films to win the Best Picture award, decades before Schindler’s List and The Artist followed suit.  The Apartment also went on to win several Golden Globe awards and the coveted BAFTA Award for Best Film. 

In the years since, the film’s reputation only grew as it was eventually inducted by the Library of Congress into the National Film Registry for preservation as well as the American Film Institute as one of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time.  To say this was undoubtedly the pinnacle of the director’s career is an understatement.  Not unlike the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, Billy Wilder eventually found himself an outsider in the industry which made him a major film director.  One of his films, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes from 1970, marked among the few times final cut was taken away from the director and he ultimately retired from the industry in 1981 after the failure of his final film Buddy Buddy.

Though in later years the director’s output would slowly decline in productivity (and in quality for some), The Apartment remains the great director’s masterpiece, one which found the key to the human heart in a white collar world bereft of one.  Sweet natured without being sentimental, provocative without being sleazy and wry without being depressing, The Apartment continues to endure as a timelessly poignant romantic comedy whose message about the gulf between personal freedom and institutionalized slavery remains as relevant today as it did when it first came out.  

- Andrew Kotwicki