Starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon and directed by Billy Wilder, The Apartment was Wilder’s follow-up to Some Like It Hot. He re-teamed with Lemmon for this one, who was rarely better than in Wilder’s films. MacLaine is also great in it—it’s probably her finest performance.
The Apartment is very much the ‘60s equivalent to It’s A Wonderful Life: a film that looks rosy on the surface but is actually deeply cynical. Lemmon plays a character who works in a Manhattan office that is reminiscent of Gilliam’s Brazil, where there’s a Kafkaesque vibe to how everything works. While it’s a comedy, it’s very black comedy, where even attempted suicide is part of the ‘humour.’ As an underling, Lemmon tries to get a promotion by letting his sleazy bosses use his Manhattan flat as a shag-pad. When his top boss, played by Fred MacMurray, finds out, he offers the promotion… but only if he can use the flat instead.
Much of the action takes place around Christmas and New Year’s, with office parties and drinking, but it goes deep into the dark side of the holidays, including the mental state of people during that time of the year—especially at the end. It’s a very, very funny film (funnier than Some Like It Hot, in fact).
It’s easy to see that Mad Men stole a great deal from The Apartment to depict the era when men ran business and women in the office were just there to sexually harass. It’s made it into many top 50 and top 10 lists (including Gilliam’s top 10), and is a fantastic play on office politics and bureaucracy.
It’s beautifully shot by Joseph LaShelle, whose career went back to the 1920s and included working with Otto Preminger as well as Wilder, and mostly film noirs. At the time this film was made, he was also contributing to the original Twilight Zone. Having Fred Murray, Wilder and LaShelle together for this project brings a noir sensibility to this comedy.
The Apartment won Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Art Direction at the Oscars, marking one of the very few times they really got it right. It’s long for a comedy but so tightly edited and quick-moving that the length is completely unnoticeable. Wilder’s run from the 40s through the early 60s was one of the greatest in cinema, and this is about as perfect of a comedy as you’ll ever see.
One of the main reasons to get the disk is that it includes a 150-page book on the film, commentary by the film producer historian Bruce Block, a new appreciation of the film and selected scenes commentary by film historian Philip Kemp,. There’s also a video essay about the collaboration of Wilder and Lemmon and an overview of Wilder’s career by David Cairns.
All the old featurettes from the last release are here, including an making of with includes a interview with MacLaine (who is one of the last survivors from the cast) and a profile of Lemmon. The new 4K transfer was done exclusively for this release by Arrow. It’s a very nice package for a film that is as delightful today as it was nearly 60 years ago.