Roughly a year ago during the summer of 2000, I decided that the DVD Movie Guide needed a special page devoted solely to films that had won the Best Picture Oscar. This became a somewhat daunting task because we didnít offer reviews of many of these titles, but I took to it eagerly and we managed to put the page online within a few months.
One interesting discovery related to the distribution of BP winners by decade. To my surprise, of the seven full decades that have occurred since the Academy Awards began, none of them were totally represented on DVD. One would think that at least the Nineties would be complete, but that wasnít the case. In fact, as of early July 2001, the Nineties still has two MIA titles; Forrest Gump is due in less than two months, but although rumors support an imminent release of Schindlerís List, nothing official has appeared.
Before long, the Eighties will be fully represented on DVD; the final two titles - 1982ís Gandhi and 1980ís Ordinary People - both will appear on August 28. With the release of 1979ís Kramer Vs. Kramer, that same date will fill in one of the remaining four missing movies from the Seventies, and thereís a good chance that decade will be finished before 2001 ends. The first two Godfather films arrive on October 9, and 1971ís The French Connection is in development; hopefully Fox will release it prior to the conclusion of the year.
Nonetheless, none of these decades will earn the honor of being first out on DVD. That title goes to the Sixties, as this new DVD release of 1960ís The Apartment officially completes the decade.
In a way, itís ironic that such a tumultuous decade finishes up with one of its quieter films. As a comedic drama - or a dramatic comedy, depending on your point of view, I suppose - The Apartment lacks the broad scope and scale of subsequent Best Picture winners like Lawrence of Arabia or The Sound of Music, and it doesnít attempt to provide the social commentary of In the Heat of the Night or Midnight Cowboy. The movie maintains a small focus as it concentrates on the pathetic little life of insurance clerk C.C. ďBudĒ Baxter (Jack Lemmon). Heís just one small fish in a huge pond, as his Manhattan-based company maintains a payroll of more than 30,000. Baxter wants to get ahead, but his meek demeanor doesnít really lend itself to advancement. However, as the film starts, we discover heís found a way to gain the attention and affection of some superiors; he allows them to use his apartment for their extramarital trysts.
While this works well for his career positioning, it does little for Baxterís own social life, or it would affect him if he had one. Most of his evenings at home are spent in front of the TV, so the main negative effect spurred by the manner in which others use his apartment stems from the fact he often is left out in the cold - literally and he becomes ill.
I suppose my discussion of Baxterís motives makes him look rather conniving, but thatís not really the case. While heís eager to reap the career benefits of his lending scheme, itís prospered mainly because heís such a schmoe who canít say ďnoĒ. He desperately wants to stand up to his higher-ups and regain control of his apartment - at least for an evening - but he canít muster the backbone to do so.
Nonetheless, things seem to be going his way career-wise, and he also makes his move on a cute elevator operator named Fran (Shirley MacLaine). Heís had his eye on her for quite some time, but he doesnít ask her out until he gets his promotion and starts to answer to Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). It seems that Sheldrake also wants access to Baxterís apartment, and he gives Bud two tickets to a Broadway show to keep him occupied.
Baxter uses these tickets to ask out Fran, and she agrees, though she indicates theyíll have to meet at the theater since she has a previous engagement. To the surprise of few, that earlier date is with the married Sheldrake; the two had a fling that he wants to continue. Weak-willed Fran submits and heads to Baxterís apartment with Sheldrake, while poor pathetic Bud waits alone in front of the theater. Despite that setback, he remains optimistic about his future in the company and with Fran, but things eventually become more complicated.
Iíll leave the remaining plot developments out of my review; I thought many of them were predictable, but I still prefer to avoid any additional potential spoilers. Despite a storyline that often seemed unsurprising, I really liked The Apartment, as it provided a very compelling and well-executed piece of work.
Key to the filmís success was the deft way that it straddled comedy and drama. The movie began as little more than a farce along the lines of director Billy Wilderís earlier work like 1955ís The Seven Year Itch and 1959ís Some Like It Hot. That comment shouldnít be regarded as a criticism of the prior films, since both were very entertaining and well made. I mention them just because a viewer new to The Apartment will likely feel that it fits in snugly with those movies.
However, as the plot complicates, the dramatic level escalates, and we find out just how troubled Fran really is. Sheís a woman with extremely low self-esteem who really seems to dislike herself, and her feelings motivate her behavior. Good-natured Baxter tries to help, but thereís really only so much he can do; some people just donít want to be saved.
Or do they? Iíll leave that plot point up in the air, but the manner in which Baxter and Fran get to know each other offers a twist from the usual fluffy romantic material. While the movie still offers some comedic moments, it becomes much more serious as it progresses and the complications amass.
In the hands of a lesser director, The Apartment could - and probably should - have been a mess. However, Wilder managed to dance between the humor and the pathos and make both sides of the coin believable and effective. Though the filmís second half did become more serious, the picture lacked any form of abrupt change of pace. Instead, Wilder gently moved it into a different direction, and the shift worked nicely.
It helped that The Apartment featured a very strong cast. Frankly, I canít say that I was wild about Lemmonís performance as Baxter. He handled the screwball comedic aspects of the role well, but he didnít alter his tone strongly enough as the story turned dramatic. As such, he still seemed rather broad and over-the-top when the part called for a quieter tone. I wasnít greatly dissatisfied with Lemmonís work, as I thought he still made the role compelling and endearing, but I felt he should have taken a more subdued tone and mugged less as the film progressed.
On the other hand, MacLaine was virtually perfect as Fran. Iíve never been a fan of her work, and Iíve usually openly disliked the woman. However, I must acknowledge that she was almost flawless as Fran. MacLaine nimbly communicated the wounded inner core of the character without becoming maudlin or excessively sentimental. She maintained a cold distance from the world, a tone that seemed absolutely appropriate for such a sad, hurt person as Fran. MacLaine also managed to keep her adequately chipper and lively when necessary, so Fran didnít degenerate into an emotional mess.
Honestly, I was stunned by the caliber of MacLaineís performance. Iíve known women like Fran, and the accuracy she lent to the role floored me. She nailed the part so well that it was genuinely spooky; there were times I felt as though I was watching those past acquaintances. How hammy old Liz Taylor beat her for Best Actress makes no sense to me.
Well, at least Lemmon and MacLaine were nominated for Oscars, as was Jack Kruschenís supporting turn as Doctor Dreyfuss. Poor MacMurray didnít even get any form of Academy recognition for his solid work as the scheming Sheldrake. By this point in his career, MacMurray was becoming established as the genial family man we know from TVís My Three Sons - which premiered in 1960 just a few months after The Apartment hit movie screens - and flicks like 1959ís The Shaggy Dog. When MacMurray worked against type in Wilderís 1944 classic Double Indemnity, I thought he seemed laughably unconvincing. I refer to the film as a ďclassicĒ because of its continued status among movie fans; personally, I thought it had too many flaws to merit that title.
My biggest problem with DI related to MacMurray, though, which was why I was pleased to see his work in The Apartment. I think MacMurray succeeded as Sheldrake because the role was just a small twist on his usual character. This was still a family man, but he was a fairly sleazy one who thought nothing of cheating on his wife. He displayed no qualms when he needed to lie to women, and he happily used them with no apparent effect on his conscience.
Happily, MacMurray resisted any urges to provide a warmer side to Sheldrake. He made the character bright and personable enough to allow us to believe women would be attracted to him, but he kept him cold and hard enough to avoid excessive charm; we needed to remain attached to Baxter. MacMurray really excelled in the role as he created a realistic character who seemed scummy but who avoided cartoonish elements.
If I have any complaint about The Apartment, itíd relate to the filmís length. At 125 minutes, it wasnít excessive, but I thought it probably could have been shortened a bit. Nonetheless, the movie seemed like a very strong piece of work that provided a really well-executed combination of comedy and drama. I wasnít sure what to expect of The Apartment before I watched it, but I definitely was pleased with what I saw.
The Apartment appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I found the picture to look rather inconsistent, but as a whole, the movie presented a rather average image.
Sharpness generally appeared accurate and pleasing, but this could vary. Most close-ups appeared acceptably crisp and well-defined, but wide shots often seemed to be somewhat fuzzy and soft. This wasnít a perfect rule, as some close-ups became mildly blurry, while occasional wide angles looked appropriately clear and distinct, but this was the tendency I discerned.
Jagged edges cropped up periodically - mainly due to hat brims - but a much more substantial concern related to moirť effects. I detected a surprising number of shots that shimmered and strobed, and it wasnít just the usual suspects such as blinds and grates. The overhead lighting in Budís office provided the most apparent example of this, as these panels consistently flickered inappropriately. In addition, a wide variety of other elements also shimmered, and the picture became much noisier than Iíd expect.
The moirť effects seemed especially troubling since this was an anamorphic transfer. I feel less surprised by this kind of strobing when a widescreen movie lacks enhancement, as the lowered resolution often causes these concerns. However, I shouldnít see this level of moirť during an enhanced transfer, and this one was very disappointing in that regard.
Print flaws seemed to be moderately heavy, though they didnít appear excessive for a more than 40-year-old flick. Throughout the movie, I saw the usual array of small speckles and grit, and a little grain cropped up as well. More significant defects also reared their ugly heads. At times I witnessed small hairs and scratches, and periodic examples of blotches and streaks occurred. Again, this wasnít an unusually flawed print for its age, but such a significant movie really warranted a better cleaning.
Black levels generally looked acceptably dark and dense, and the movie often displayed a nice silver tone that worked well. Contrast occasionally seemed a bit flat, but for the most part, the film exhibited a good balance. Shadow detail varied from quite good to somewhat weak. Most low-light scenes came across as adequately clear, but some of them - such as an early shot in Budís bedroom - were too thick and drab. Ultimately, The Apartment offered a reasonably watchable experience, but I thought this DVD was a flawed disappointment.
Much more acceptable was the monaural soundtrack of The Apartment. I donít expect fireworks from an older, single-channel mix like this, especially since this was a fairly quiet film. Nonetheless, I thought the audio worked just fine for the material.
Dialogue sounded clear and acceptably natural. In a manner typical for the era, speech seemed a little thin at times, but I detected no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects were also clear and decently realistic, and they lacked problems related to distortion. Music seemed to be similarly clean and bright. The mix delivered no substantial dynamic range, but it replicated the score and incidental music with acceptable accuracy. I heard no concerns related to background noise or source flaws. Overall, the soundtrack to The Apartment nicely served the movie.
Less enthralling were the extras found on this DVD. All we get is the filmís theatrical trailer, and itís a bad one to boot! The trailerís transfer was especially sub par - it looks terrible and the sides are cropped - and it even may ruin the movie for new viewers. Be warned that the first shot of the trailer shows the filmís final scene. Some people believe that too-revealing advertisements are a recent phenomenon, but once again this clip demonstrates the inaccuracy of that opinion.
As a movie, The Apartment was a fine piece of work. Director Billy Wilder created a film that provided both satisfying comedy and drama, and he melded these elements together in a neat and believable package. Even had the rest of the flick collapsed, however, The Apartment would have merited a viewing due to a stunning performance from Shirley MacLaine. Lord knows I never thought Iíd type those words, for Iíve never been able to stand most of her work, but I canít deny the extremely high caliber of acting she displayed here.
As a DVD, The Apartment is more of a problem. The picture showed excessive shimmering and print flaws, and it also suffered from some sharpness concerns as well. Sound quality seemed acceptable for an older film, but the disc almost totally lacked any extras. Because itís a good movie, the DVD of The Apartment merits at least a rental, but Iím not sure this disappointing transfer earns a purchase. Yeah, itís cheap since it comes with a list price of only $19.98, but I really think Oscar-winning flicks such as this deserve better treatment.