Great artists are often at their best when they collaborate. Many would argue that such was the case for writer-director Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, the vital masterpiece Ace in the Hole) and actor Jack Lemmon (The Odd Couple, Save the Tiger). Wilder and Lemmon would work together several times over the course of several decades, and many of the resulting films have become classics. Many of them also included a vital, frumpy hangdog ingredient who was known as Walter Matthau.
One such collaboration was The Apartment,which was a hit when it was released in 1960. A comedy-drama that floats between genres with ease, it’s the story of a miserable insurance clerk (Lemmon), whose half-hearted plan to let shitty dudes from his office use his apartment for sex (sadly, not with each other) is derailed when he falls in love with a woman involved in one of the affairs (Shirley MacLaine, in one of her best performances). Lemmon isn’t the sad sack he would perfect later on, but the desperation that marks his best characters is certainly apparent.
One of the best things about this movie is that Lemmon’s C.C. “Bud” Baxter isn’t morally bankrupt. He’s just a little too dumb, and perhaps a little too selfish, to see anything but his ambition. MacLaine also isn’t a one-dimensional mistress or a manic pixie dream girl, although others treat her as some sort of equivalent for the era. As Fran Kubelik, MacLaine is not simply there to give Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter some profound sense of purpose. They fall in love, and they each have their own reasons for coming together.
The Apartmentwins you over early, then keeps you along for its sweet, simple, yet surprisingly moving story. Wilder’s best work mocked and made the case for humanity in equal measure. His best films featured casts that lived to play the kind of people who exist in his stories. They also contained elements like an extreme level of detail that moved from script to screen, as well as some of the best understated set designs in film history, all of which can be found in The Apartment. But not surprisingly, perhaps the best things about this movie are the performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, in addition to turns from Fred McMurray and Fred Walston.
True, Wilder and frequent co-writer I.A.L. Diamond wrote a script that is an astonishing testament to the need for some to include every detail, then making sure they all made it to the screen. That doesn’t mean that this film would be successful with just anyone in the roles of Baxter and Kubelik. Lemmon had a career in acting that spanned decades, and MacLaine is still getting good reviews for her work in TV and film. They each brought their uniqueness to their characters.
So it’s hardly surprising that 58 years later, The Apartmentis considered a charming example of a romantic comedy, or that Arrow Films would go the extra mile for a spectacular Blu-ray release. Movies such as this should be preserved in every possible format, including the physical ones, and Arrow is a company that strives to make a case for the importance of physical media in this ever-uncertain digital world of ours.
Still, the term “romantic comedy” doesn’t quite fit the scope of the story, or the depth of its nuanced, yet intensely relatable characters and dialogue. If anything, The Apartment is a romantic comedy with a subtle, distinctive eye for drama. The romance, the comedy, and even the film’s bleaker moments can be enjoyed with ease. That said, it is still somewhat dated, and appreciating it in 2018 means giving it a certain amount of leeway, if you’re willing. I would say it’s worth the effort, since there are a lot of reasons why it retains much of the appeal that helped it win five Oscars.
Part of the appeal is the writing. Billy Wilder’s scripts were appealing due to their ability to create the most believable, engaging characters possible, and then set them against what could be described as extraordinary circumstances. The Apartmentis a great example of that talent. Some like It Hot would be another. Wilder seemed to write with the notion that everyone was absurd, but that everyone still deserved to be treated with respect.
The result is a movie which is enduringly charming. Lemmon and MacLaine play off each other with an energy that feels timeless, even with small, occasional moments that will strikes one as archaic. The MGM DVD release is a solid one that takes such qualities into account. Still, although this Arrow DVD of The Apartmentcan be very difficult to track down (here’s hoping Arrow will do a run beyond the initial 1000 copies), those who appreciate exquisite attention to detail will want to try and find it. The exclusive 4K restoration is absolutely stunning, and there are a wide range of invaluable features that give the movie the attention it so richly deserves. The audio commentary with writer/film historian Bruce Block provides analysis and perspective which is genuinely fascinating. Also included are a variety of retrospective interviews (including a mini-documentary that delves deep into the long-standing collaboration between Wilder and Lemmon), as well as archival materials that leave the viewer with an impression of just how deep and enjoyable this movie really is.
While companies like Criterion continue to do essential work in terms of preserving and celebrating films of significance, it is important to remember that they are not the only show in town. Arrow’s special editions are easily on par with any DVD you could find through any other company, including Criterion, and The Apartment is one of their most impressive achievements to date. Even if you can’t get your hands on this particular release, make it a point to keep up with them. The artwork and physical extras alone are a good indicator of why they deserve your attention.