The title of Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment refers to the one-bedroom flat of C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a ladder-climber who works at a New York City life insurance firm with so many employees that everyone’s desks appear to stretch into the vanishing point. To stand out among the crowd of colleagues angling for promotions, Bud allows four of the firm’s managers to use his apartment to carry out extramarital affairs, frequently standing out of sight beneath his building’s stoop while waiting for his bosses to finish their business. Images of Bud cloaked by the shadow of his own apartment, hunched behind the building’s stairs in the cold and rain as he waits to go into his own home, speak volumes about the man’s cowardice, as do the scenes of him attempting to reclaim his living space from his superiors in a tone of voice that gives away his foreknowledge of defeat.
Eventually, this debasement pays off but only when Bud finds himself promoted for the sole purpose of his bosses’ boss, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), gaining exclusive access to the apartment. Where Bud’s managers all came across as comic grotesques of horny old men, Sheldrake is more composed. He speaks with a calm confidence that masks his manipulations as suggestions, letting Bud think he’s volunteering to conditions that he’s in no position to refuse. Already flexible and sycophantic around his lesser bosses, Bud is practically putty in Sheldrake’s hands, with only the faintest trace of misery crossing his face when he realizes that the man wants to add himself to Bud’s hapless arrangement. Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond sketch a bleak vision of corporate servitude where a work-life balance hasn’t been upended so much as irrevocably perverted.
This cynicism is only exacerbated, not mollified, by the promise of romance, which comes in the form of Bud’s crush on an elevator operator, Fran (Shirley MacLaine). If Bud’s neuroses manifest in full-body spasms that erupt out of him like solar flares, Fran vents her own hang-ups and desperation about her miserable experiences through sarcasm. Fran’s stoicism is seemingly at odds with Bud’s nebbishness, and the half-frictious, half-affectionate rapport between the two is further complicated when Bud realizes that Fran is the woman with whom Sheldrake is having an affair.
We learn of these entanglements before Fran and Bud do, casting a pall of dramatic irony over the film that’s redolent of Wilder’s noir-driven work. Yet the tone of The Apartment differs from both those darkly moral movies and the filmmaker’s farces, finding a middle ground of somber tragedy that undercuts the awkward comedy of manners between the characters. Scenes of Bud haplessly attempting to flirt with Fran mine ahead-of-the-curve black comedy from his “nice guy” passive-aggressiveness. In one of these scenes, Bud realizes that Fran, silently stewing over a brutally taunting conversation with Sheldrake’s jealous secretary, is the person his boss has been bringing to his apartment, and both sink into misery without understanding what’s upsetting the other. If anything, the pair ultimately come together through a sense of shared despair and a desire to escape the rut of their lives. That desire culminates in the best of Wilder’s legendary last lines, a simple sentence hinting at reconciliation but also enough lingering caution to show that the characters aren’t fully cured of their reflexive cynicism.
Arrow's 4K restoration of the film leaves MGM's 2012 Blu-ray—which was generally solid beyond some instances of damage on the source print—in the dust. There's a wider range of nuanced grays and contrast is incredibly balanced throughout, while black levels are deep and free of crush. The facial textures and all the details buried in the film's deep-focus cinematography are easier to discern than ever. In the audio department, the lossless mono never sounds tinny, ably balancing the modest blend of dialogue and bustling crowd sounds. A new 5.1 track expands the ambient noise of busier scenes, but the original mono doesn't lack for dynamism in the first place—and, of course, is more faithful to the film's intended presentation.
An audio commentary from film producer and historian Bruce Block dives deep into the minutiae of each scene; he even notes which shots were filmed on location and which were done in soundstages. A select-scene commentary is also provided by historian Philip Kemp, who additionally contributes a video interview in which he praises the film’s radical subject matter and bleak approach to comedy. Film critic David Cairns contributes "The Flawed Couple," a video essay about the collaborations between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. Hope Holiday, who plays a small but memorable part as the flighty Mrs. MacDougall, gives a charming interview about her experiences landing her role and the carefully controlled but not domineering way that Wilder directed her and the other actors. Wilder himself appears in an archival interview for the Writer’s Guild of America, while two documentaries from a previous DVD release explore the film and Lemmon’s career, respectively. A restoration showreel demonstrates before-and-after images of the 4K clean-up, illustrating just how much was repaired even from the prior Blu-ray release. To cap off the package, Arrow includes a massive, 150-page booklet containing essays from Neil Sinyard, Kat Ellinger, Travis Crawford, and Heather Hyche, along with copious production stills and behind-the-scenes photos. For those with BD-ROM access, the disc also contains a copy of the original screenplay.
Arrow's most impressive single-feature release to date bolsters an exceptional A/V transfer with a glut of substantive extras.