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The Apartment

Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) may be a tale of star-crossed lovers in an indifferent corporate America, but its origins actually come from David Lean's 1946 Brief Encounter — after seeing the film and its story of illicit lovers who meet in a friend's apartment, Wilder jotted a note to himself: "What about the friend who has to crawl back into that warm bed?" The Apartment is Brief Encounter, but turned on its ear by Wilder, who makes the focus of the story the "friend," in this case C. C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an accountant who climbs the corporate ladder by lending his apartment to philandering executives who constantly pick up bimbos in Manhattan bars and need a convenient hideaway. Lending out his apartment comes at a high price — Bud is often sleep-deprived, and his midnight forays into the cold winter air nearly cause a case of pneumonia. But Bud's promotion comes through and he soon becomes a junior executive — the only problem is that CEO Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) has learned of Bud's key-swapping scheme, and he wants the apartment for his own tryst. To make matters worse, it's a dalliance with lowly elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), whom Bud is deeply enamored of. Among the most popular of Billy Wilder's comic masterpieces, The Apartment earned five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (the last black-and-white film to do so until 1993's Schindler's List). Central to the film is Lemmon, whom Wilder realized after Some Like It Hot (1959) would have great comic potential in a leading role. It remains one of Lemmon's most memorable turns, a combination of his manic exasperation and endearing humanity. Likewise, MacLaine's leading-lady charm comes from her blend of sass and vulnerability rather than straightforward sex appeal (and Wilder offers a not-so-subtle dig in The Apartment at Marilyn Monroe, his troublesome Some Like it Hot diva). MacMurray — who starred in Wilder's 1944 noir breakthrough Double Indemnity — returns to the director's set, and once again Wilder deliciously casts the American Everyman against type as the selfish, manipulative Sheldrake, a married man who has left a trail of broken-hearted secretaries and office assistants in his wake. Unfortunately, for such an important film, MGM's DVD release of The Apartment is a mixed bag — the source print is attractive and largely free of damage, but the anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) displayed poor edge definition and excessive shimmer on our Sony system. Stability improves over the course of the film, with much better definition in the second half, and we had fewer problems with the transfer when played on a DVD-ROM setup (where it looked acceptable, if not rock-solid). The audio is perfectly fine in a clear Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The only extra is the theatrical trailer (which is excessively cropped), so a rental may be in order for a test-drive on your system before purchasing. All we can say is that if you have the two-platter widescreen Laserdisc (now out of print), you might want to hang on to it for now. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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