The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 2: Distribution

As the theatrical film industry moves to digital projection, will we still be able to watch independent films and classic movies on the big screen?

Last week I covered one major issue: How will small, independent theaters finance expensive new projectors and the servers required to run them? This week I’m covering the other side of the equation: Whether independent films and classic movies will continue to be theatrically available.

A brief recap: Very soon–maybe as early as next year–the major studios and their Indiewood subsidiaries will cease distributing new movies on film. They’ll come instead on hard drives, using a standard called Digital Cinema Package (DCP). For this to happen, the theaters must invest a great deal of money so that the studios can cut costs. One way around this problem is the Virtual Print Fee (VPF), where the distributors pay some of what they saved on not making prints to help pay off loans on the projectors.

The Small Distributor’s Delemma: The VPF

When a theater acquires a digital projector via a VPF deal, the financier makes the rules about what can be shown through that projector. And the primary rule they make is that you can only show films from companies that are willing to pay the VPF.

For a major Hollywood studio, the VPF arrangement makes sense. They currently spend a fortune making hundreds or even thousands of prints for a single title. Most of these prints play in only one multiplex before they’re destroyed. Paying the VPF doesn’t hurt them much.

But according to Landmark CEO Ted Mundorff, “Those plans become onerous to independent film distributors.” A small company might make only 20 prints of a title, and each of those prints will circulate between multiple theaters. “There’s no correlation between the fee and print costs,” in those situations, according to Mundorff.

It’s worth noting that many multiplex projection rooms can’t fit both a 35mm and a digital projector. Add one and you have to get rid of the other. This isn’t as much of a problem in revival houses, which tend to have large projection rooms.

Mundorff told me that he’s working with industry representatives to fix the problem. He couldn’t tell me anything about the plan, but he described himself as “hopeful that we can figure out a solution.”

Jan Klingelhofer, who books films for CinemaSF (the new, very small chain consisting of the Balboa and the Vogue), didn’t see it as much of a problem. “Many smaller distributors do not require DCI compliance,” he wrote me in an email, “and have not decided to eliminate 35mm prints. ”

Will There be a Place For Classics on the Big Screen?

I heard a distressing rumor a few weeks ago: Warner Brothers was no longer renting 35mm prints of old movies. Since few classics get the DCP treatment, this could spell the end of theatrical presentation of old movies.

Fortunately, the rumor proved false…sort of. the Castro‘s Brian Collette reassured me in an email that “Warner Bros. is getting much tougher to get prints from than in the past, but they haven’t stopped entirely.” In fact, “All WB titles on our January and February calendars…are in 35mm.”

But things are changing. “They stopped striking new prints a while back, so basically what is left is all they have. So once a print is retired and out of circulation you are then out of luck unless you want to run a Blu-ray (if one is commercially available…) or DVD.”

To my mind, and my eyes, Blu-ray is an acceptable format for theatrical projection–even on a screen as big as the Castro’s. It doesn’t look as good as DCP or a good 35mm print, but it’s reasonably close. DVD, on the other hand, looks dreadful on a really big screen.

Could you build a real repertoire schedule around Blu-ray discs? Only if you limited yourself to the obvious popular classics. I surveyed the February schedules for the Castro, Pacific Film Archive, and Stanford. Out of 75 films on those schedules made before 2000, only 14 are available on Blu-ray. I’m guessing that far fewer are available on DCP.

Collette wrote that Warner Brothers “currently have a very small DCP library of rep titles, though they’ve told us that [it] will grow in the future.” For now, “We try and book around what we can get in 35mm or DCP in almost all cases.”

Not all the classics are controlled by major studios like Warners. PFA Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby told me via email that “I am heartened that a number of specialized distributors are continuing to strike new prints of classic films.” She specifically mentioned Janus Films, Rialto Pictures, and Park Circus.

And there are museums and archives all around the world that hold onto prints, and carefully loan them to each other and to festivals and venues where they know they will be properly treated.

So how long will we have 35mm prints of classic films? That depends on how long the labs are running, and the care and skill of the projectionists who handle them. Film prints will become like the paintings and sculptures that tour museums around the world–precious artifacts to be treasured and expertly displayed.

CinemaSF’s Klingelhofer predicts that “35mm reel-to-reel exhibition [also known as changeover projection] will become a rare treat as print inventories diminish and distributors and archives become increasingly unwilling to ship them out. Platter 35mm exhibition [which replaced changeover in the 1970’s as the standard for most theaters] is not allowed for many libraries already.”

Now that’s a delicious irony. Good, old-fashioned changeover projection will outlive platters. Let’s hope it outlives them for a very long time. Or at least long enough to get everything digitized.

I’ve decided to write one more piece in this series, on digital archiving.

Quick Comments on the Oscars

About the awards

  • Third year in a row that a film shot digitally appeared to be a likely Best Picture winner, but lost to a film shot on film.
  • Early on I thought it was going to be a Hugo sweep, but it turned into a happy ending, after all. I liked them both, but The Artist really was the better show.
  • Surprised that neither silent movie tribute won a Best Screenplay award. Usually the Best Picture winner wins one of those awards.
  • Too bad Bridesmaids didn’t win in either category for which it was nominated. Comedy gets overlooked way too often.
  • Delighted about A Separation’s win for Best Foreign Film (even though it was the only one of the five I’d seen, and therefore really couldn’t judge).

About the show

  • I really, really hate the question “Who are you wearing?” I want some movie star to say “I don’t wear people, and I bought this dress at Woolworth.”
  • Billy Crystal’s pre-filmed opening show was pretty funny, up through Tom Cruise’s cameo. Then it ran out of steam.
  • His follow-up opening song about the nominees was lame. Face it Billy: That shtick was brilliant the first year you did it and lame every year after that.
  • Loved the sketch about focus groups and The Wizard of Oz. Did Christopher Guest direct that? It was certainly done by his brilliant rep company.
  • Why would a Hulu Plus commercial remind people that watching too much television is addictive and dehumanizing?
  • The mystery of Meryl Streep. She’s such a brilliant actor, but when she has to address an audience as herself, without pretending to be someone else, she comes off as a complete dork.
  • With two homages to silent films, and one specifically to Georges Méliès, couldn’t they have spared a few minutes to a tribute to the inventor of both special effects and (arguably) narrative cinema?

What’s Screening: February 24–March 1

A short newsletter this week. Should that win an Oscar?

Festival fans will have to drive down south in mid-week. Cinequest opens Tuesday in San Jose.

Oscar Ceremony, Sunday, various theaters. Why be alone when you discover which tribute to silent films wins the bald guy. If you want to see the big show on the big screen with a big audience, click these theater links for times, prices, and other details:

A Fantasia, Castro, Friday through Sunday. I have a sneaking feeling that I don’t really have to tell you about this movie, aside from the fact that, as far as I know, this is its first theatrical presentation in San Francisco in over 20 years. Let’s just say that this collaboration between Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and countless other artists still stands out as a great achievement and an entertaining two hours.

A His Girl Friday, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution.

B Tarzan and His Mate, Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday. The second and the best of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, while still juvenile–and, let’s face it, racist–entertainment, feels very different from the dumb sequels that followed. At this stage in their lives, Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan made a very sexy Tarzan and Jane, and since the movie was pre-code, the sexuality didn’t have to be hidden. (Okay, the nude swimming scene was cut soon after the film’s release, but it has since been restored.) The stars’ chemistry and the story’s general outlandishness makes for an entertaining evening.

Harold and Maude, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. After Woodstock, this comedy about a young man and a much older woman is the ultimate statement of the hippie generation. I loved it passionately in the 1970′s. But I haven’t seen it in a long time and I’m not sure how well it’s aged.

The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 1: The Theaters

Esthetically speaking, I see no problem with digital projection. Under the best of conditions, 2K DCP projection looks better than 35mm film–and 4K looks better than 2K. An incompetent projectionist can ruin a digital presentation, of course, but with film, they can ruin the presentation and the print. As transitions go, digital hardly changes the movie-going experience; the medium changed far more drastically with sound, color, and widescreen.

But the picture doesn’t look so bright or sharp when you consider the economics. From that perspective, the ongoing digital conversion looks almost like a scam. It requires theaters to invest huge sums of money so that the major studios can cut expenses. Installing digital projectors and the required servers cost from $60,000 to $100,000 per screen, and offers no obvious financial advantage to the theaters. But it saves distributors from the considerable expense of making thousands of prints per title.

Actually, digital projection does provide one financial advantage to theaters: survival. The major studios are phasing out film as a distribution medium. It’s unlikely that, two years from now, any theater will be able to screen a new Hollywood or Indiewood picture without a DCP-capable digital projector.

For the large theater chains, with their reservoirs of cash and economy of scale, this isn’t an insurmountable problem. But for the smaller chains, the independent art houses, the few remaining revival theaters, and the non-profits, the challenge is a daunting one–and an absolutely vital one. Even classics and independent pictures may soon be unavailable on film.

The high conversion cost can be lowered by an arrangement called a Virtual Print Fee (VPF). A third party helps finance the new projector, and is paid back slowly by distributers, who turn over part of the money they save by not making prints. But a VPF comes with its own limitations; for instance, they may require that you only screen titles from major distributors willing to pay that fee.

How is this effecting our local art theaters? Will the specialty houses that make the Bay Area such a wonderful place for cinephiles manage this transition?

Some already have. The Castro, for instance, installed a DCP- and 3D-capable projector nearly three years ago. I checked with some other theaters and chains to find out about their plans:

Pacific Film Archive

The PFA is about as far from a commercial multiplex as a movie theater can get. Part of UC Berkeley, it’s devoted to preserving and exposing people to the history of cinema. It’s 40-year-old projectors can present 35mm in at least six different aspect ratios, and their audio equipment ranges from Dolby Digital to a piano for silent films.

Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby told me in an email that the PFA “has not yet invested in DCP projection.” Of course the PFA almost never screens new Hollywood and Indiewood films, and the classics are still available in 35mm–for the time being. ” We are a non-profit film archive and member of FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives). Consequently, we have a special status..and are trusted with many international print loans from archives and studios the world over.”

An archive, by its nature, must be able to project a wide variety of old and new formats. “Looking ahead, we will need to address DCP, but we might not have that full capability until we move to our new building in downtown Berkeley. If someone would like to donate funds to the PFA for this purpose this would be greatly appreciated!!”

Susan, let me go on record: Set up a fund for that purpose, and I will make the first donation. On the other hand, it may not cover a tenth of a percent of the cost.

Landmark Theaters

Landmark is the closest thing to a major theater chain that I cover at Bayflicks. The company runs 54 theaters throughout the US, with 242 screens between them. That’s small potatoes compared to AMC, but I believe that it’s the largest chain in the country specializing in Indiewood and true independent cinema (with some blockbusters thrown in).

Three of those theaters and 15 of those screens are near my East Bay home, and only two of those screens, both at the Shattuck, have digital projectors. To find out how Landmark is handling the conversion, I talked to CEO Ted Mundorff.

“I don’t know if [digital projectors are] outrageously expensive. [2/23/12; author’s note: Mr. Mundorff has asked me to clarify that he knows what digital projectors cost; he just isn’t sure that the expense is outrageous.] Here’s the difference as I believe it: We could actually equip a booth cheaper with digital than with 35mm. But down the line is a concern…We know from owning computers that we replace them every three to five years. That’s going to be an ongoing expense.”

Mundorff predicts that Landmark’s screens will be all digital by the end of 2013. But it’s “a huge exposure financially…It’s not something we volunteer to do, it’s something we have to do.”

Actually, Mundorff was mostly concerned with how VPF financing will hurt the small distributors. I’ll cover that in The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 2.


Run by the non-profit California Film Institute, this three-screen venue shows mostly new Indiewood and true independent cinema, with some classics and special events. When the CFI restored this aging palace, they kept the downstairs intact but converted the balcony into two small theaters.

In an email, Director of Programming Richard Peterson informed me that the Rafael has DLP in one of the upstairs theaters (where they’re currently screening Pina 3-D–anything new in 3D is pretty much a give-away of digital projection). “Currently we are investigating the best unit for us to acquire for the main auditorium downstairs. It will have to be capable of the finest quality presentation, for our advance screenings…with talent in attendance.”

They don’t plan to remove their 35mm projectors to accommodate the digital ones (often a requirement in multiplexes for space reasons, but a really bad plan for an art house). “We stand behind our 35mm equipment and will show 35mm as long as it is available.”

Cerrito & Elmwood

Both of these East Bay theaters are owned by Rialto Cinemas. They show mostly a combination of Hollywood and Indiewood fare, along with special events and broadcast stage plays. The Cerrito also shows classics once a month.

To find out Rialto’s plans, I exchanged emails with Proprietor Ky J. Boyd. They plan to install DCP-capable equipment in both theaters this spring, while retaining their 35mm projectors. “Converting to DCI compliant projection is a huge investment but a necessary one for the theatres to continue to be vital.”

Yet Rialto seems willing to make additional investments. “At the Elmwood the conversion will result in some additional upgrades as well. The screen in the main-floor auditorium will become larger, thus creating a more immersive experience, and we will be doing some sound upgrades in the two upstairs theatres.”

In short, most of these Bay Area art houses are making this change because they have to, and hopefully they will be able to absorb the cost.

But will they be able to show independent films and classics after the transition? Stay tuned for Part 2.

Blu-ray Review: Notorious (1946)

Few filmmakers could make a thriller that has the audience biting their nails about whether the champagne will run out before the party is over–or a romance where the hero treats the heroine with contempt, but the villain truly and tenderly loves her. Yet the team of Ben Hecht and Alfred Hitchcock could put all that and more into one great motion picture.

That picture is Notorious. MGM and 20th Century-Fox are releasing this Blu-ray version of Hitchcock’s masterpiece (well, one of his masterpieces). Neither company was involved with the film’s production or original release.

Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the apex of this romantic triangle. The daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, she’s made a reputation for herself as a good-time party girl. She drinks heavily and apparently sleeps around (something that an American movie could only vaguely imply in 1946). Then a government agent named Devlin (Cary Grant; we’re never told the character’s first name) offers her a chance to redeem her reputation and prove her patriotism. She’s to fly with him to Rio, and then…who knows?

By the time they get her assignment, Alicia and Devlin are in love–a complication that makes the assignment very bad news. She is to befriend and seduce an old friend of her father’s, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). She succeeds beyond everyone’s hopes. Sebastian clearly loves Alicia deeply, and seems as devoted to her happiness as he is to reviving the Nazi cause.

What we have here is a heroine who, on orders of the man she loves, is literally sleeping with the enemy. And the man who sent her onto this dangerous and degrading mission burns with jealousy, hating her for doing what he told her to do.

Neither Hitchcock nor Hecht are known as ahead-of-their-time feminists, yet Notorious clearly condemns male hypocrisy concerning female sexuality. Note the scenes with Devlin and his superiors. When Alicia is with them, Devlin can’t even look at her, while the other men treat her with chivalrous courtesy. But when she’s out of the room, they talk of her with contempt, while Devlin defends her honor.

Hitchcock fills the second half of Notorious with some of his scariest set pieces. The wine cellar sequence has been studied by would-be filmmakers for decades, and with good reason. And the long walk down the stairs can tie your stomach in knots–no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie.

Before things get scary, Notorious contains one of cinema’s greatest kisses. The Production Code Authority ruled that no on-screen kisses could last longer than 30 seconds. Hitchcock got around that rule by breaking the long kiss up into multiple, shorter kisses. Kiss, talk a bit, kiss again, and so on. From the audience’s point of view, it’s one very long kiss.

Like so much of Hitchcock’s work, Notorious is great entertainment. But it’s impossible to watch without thinking about hypocrisy, male chauvinism, and the moral compromises people make to fight a worse evil.

How It Looks

I suspect that the original Notorious negative has been lost or destroyed; or maybe it’snotorious_box just in very bad condition. While the video quality is a big improvement over the Criterion DVD, it doesn’t measure up to the best transfers I’ve seen from other black-and-white films of similar vintage. The image is just a touch soft, and a little too grainy. In one or two places I spotted what looked like nitrate decomposition.

Yet the transfer is more than acceptable. There’s many a fine detail that I haven’t seen since I last caught Notorious on the big screen. The bright Rio sun and the dark noir shadows played their atmospheric roles without hurting the picture. This is probably as good as Notorious is going to get.

As is often the case with films of the 1940’s, the HD transfer sometimes brings out the fakery. Only a second unit crew visited Rio, and most of the exterior scenes involving the actors were done in front of rear-projection screens. That’s extremely obvious here, but it was just as obvious with the original audiences. In 1946, people accepted such techniques the way we accept fake-looking CGI today.

(I’ve often wondered what Notorious would have been like if Hitchcock had made it a decade later. He would have shot it in Technicolor and VistaVision, and he would have shot the exteriors in Rio. It would have been a better looking movie, but it would lack much of the atmosphere that makes the film work.)

How It Sounds

MGM and Fox present Notorious with the original mono mix, in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. It doesn’t sound like modern, explosive surround sound, but it’s not supposed to. This is the original soundtrack, sounding as good as it possibly can.

And the Extras

This disc comes with a large selection of extras. Some of them are even worth listening to.

  • Commentary by Film Professor Rick Jewell. Imagine signing up for a class in a subject that fascinates you, then discovering that the professor is the dullest lecturer alive. I gave up about half an hour into the lecture. He spent those 30 minutes droning on about the history of RKO.
  • Commentary by Film Professor Drew Casper. This one’s a lot better. Casper’s voice drenches with enthusiasm (sometimes too much enthusiasm) as he goes through the film shot by shot, discussing the characters, the story, the cinematography, and a lot of other topics. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but it was always interesting.
  • Isolated music and effects track.
  • The Ultimate Romance: The Making of Notorious: 28 minute. A pretty typical making-of documentary. Interesting, but not exceptional.
  • Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster: 13 minutes. A number of film historians make the case that Hitchcock defined the spy genre, and influenced the James Bond films–although the Bond franchise lacks Hitchcock’s moral complexity. There’s a fair amount to think about here.
  • The American Film Institute Award: The Key to Hitchcock: 3 minutes. We get a few brief excerpts from Hitchcock’s AFI award ceremony. It includes his speech, where he honors his wife and primary collaborator, Alma Reville. That’s good, because too many people forget that Hitchcock was the famous half of a team.
  • 1948 Radio adaptation starring Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman: 59 minutes. It’s a curious adaptation, vastly inferior to the film, of course, but interesting in how they adapt it to the shorter and audio-only medium. You even get to hear to the old commercials. It’s also the only extra on this disc that’s also on the Criterion DVD.
  • Two audio interviews with Hitchcock, one by Peter Bogdanovich and the other by François Truffaut
  • Restoration comparison: A very short look at how they fixed up the image from their original source material. They never say exactly what that source material was.
  • Theatrical trailer: This makes it look like a love triangle drama, with little suggestion of espionage or thrills.

Here’s one of the great Hollywood movies, and MGM and Fox have done a solid job bringing it to us in Blu-ray.

What’s Screening: February 17 – 23

IndieFest continues through this week, and it’s the only festival that does.

However, I’ve added a new movie theater to the honor roll: the Alameda Theater. A grand old palace with a multiplex attached, it specializes in current fare, but it plays a classic film every Wednesday and Thursday.

A High Noon, Alameda, Wednesday & Thursday. Gary Cooper discovers who his real friends are (just about no one) in Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann’s simple fablehigh_noon of courage under fire. On the day of his wedding and his resignation, the town’s sheriff (Cooper) finds out that hardened criminals are on their way, presumably for vengeance. But when he tries to form a posse, the people he thought he could count on turn their backs on him. Foreman’s last produced screenplay before getting blacklisted, High Noon can be interpreted as a parable to a Hollywood gripped in McCarthyite fear.

A Paths of Glory, Castro, Wednesday. It’s not enough to show that war is hell. A great war movie should also show that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer men. Perhaps that’s why World War I, so obviously pointless, has inspired more great films than any other war. Stanley Kubrick’s addition to the cannon–where three enlisted men are tried for cowardice to hide incompetence at high levels–is one of the best. On a double bill with Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which I saw once, long ago, on network TV with commercials.

onlyangelsA- Only Angels Have Wings, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. The only non-comedy out of the five films that Grant made for director Howard Hawks. Part of the series Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man

B+ Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version), Castro, Saturday. The best alien invasion movie of the 1950’s (and no, that’s not quite damning with faint praise),Invasion of the Body Snatchers is noir, sci-fi, and political allegory—although whether this tale of aliens taking over people’s identities is anti-Communist or anti-McCarthy depends more on your politics than on the filmmakers’. Either way, it’s an effective thriller that has been copied many times but not equaled—despite the cuts and annoying narration added by the studio. On a Don Siegel double feature with The Lineup, which I’ve never seen.

Sex in the Shadows, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. I haven’t seen this, but it looks interesting—and possibly even fun. I’ll just quote from the YBCA web site: “Before VHS players and then the internet rendered hardcore pornography ubiquitous and banal, American stag films, often produced and exhibited illegally and viewed almost exclusively by men, held considerable power to shock, entertain, arouse and educate. Tonight’s program, a series of short subjects from the 1920s through the 1960s, will show that they still retain this power. At times drolly amusing, at others appallingly misogynistic, the films are always 100% American and can be usefully viewed as transgressive cinematic monologues suppressed by the moral standards of their day.” Presented by Albert Steg.

B+ The Red Shoes, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. This 1948 Technicolor fable about  sacrificing oneself for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their art, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet at the center is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I discuss The Red Shoes in more detail at War and Ballet @ the PFA. Part of the class and series Film 50: History of Cinema, Film and the Other Arts.

Henry V (1944 version), Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Laurence Olivier’s version of Shakespeare’s pro-war epic, but I think I’d probably give it an A-. Shakespeare began the play with a monolog (too famous to cut) about the limitations of the stage—essentially the play apologizing for not being a movie. Olivier got around this challenge by starting his version as a stage play, and letting it slowly break out into full cinema. Yes, it’s gimmicky at times, but it’s also breathtaking, with lovely Technicolor photography and the Bard’s great verse spoken by actors who knew what to do with it.

B Hugo, Castro, Monday. I sometimes wonder whether Singin’ in the Rain really is the greatest movie musical hugoever made, or do I just feel that way because it’s about movies. I don’t believe that Hugo is the greatest family film by a long shot, but it did entertain and enchant me—probably more so than it would have had it been about the meat-packing industry. In his first family film, and his first in 3D, Martin Scorsese uses the new technology brilliantly to draw the audience into the universe of the story. And while that story is slight and cliché-ridden, it has the virtue of touching on early film history and ending with a message—integrated into the story—of the importance of film preservation. Presented in 3D.

National Theatre Live: Travelling Light, Kabuki, Saturday, 7:00; Elmwood, Tuesday & Thursday, 7:00; Monday, 7:00. I know little about this stage play, which will screen in HD. But it is about early cinema, as well as (I’m showing my ethnicity, here) Eastern European Jews immigrating to America.

Blu-Ray Review: The Apartment

How do you top Some Like It Hot? Billy Wilder found the answer in The Apartment, a far more serious comedy about the battle of sexes. Or more precisely, about how powerful men exploit both women and less-powerful men. When The Apartment came out in 1960, critics complained that Wilder didn’t seem to know if he was making a comedy or a drama. They were right about the confusing balance of genres, but wrong on a far more important level: What they saw as a fault looks today like a virtue.

And it looked that way to a great many people in 1960, too. The picture was a box-office hit, and earned Wilder three Oscars—as producer (Best Picture), director, and screenwriter (shared with I.A.L. Diamond).

Jack Lemmon gave the best of his many great performances here as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. His small desk sits in a sea of other small desks that seems to disappear off the horizon. His strategy for getting ahead: He loans his apartment out to company executives—all married men, of course–who use it for private time with their mistresses. The story is set in winter, and Baxter spends his evenings and much of his nights standing on an icy sidewalk or sitting in a drizzly Central Park while his superiors make whoopee in his bed.

Wilder and Diamond expertly balance comedy and drama. At one moment, The ThepartmentApartment can have you laughing at two drunks about to commit adultery. At the next, you’re horrified over a possible suicide. Scant minutes later, you’re laughing again, but with something horrible caught in your throat.

This precarious balancing act allows The Apartment to explore the cruelty, narcissism, and ambition found in the corporate world. The executives exist only for their own satisfaction. They lie to and use their mistresses. They manipulate Lemmon’s character with a combination of fake friendship and thinly-veiled threats. And, of course, they’re cheating on their unseen wives.

This was shocking material for 1960. Married couples were still sleeping in separate beds in movies and on television, and along comes this film where married men are clearly having adulterous affairs.

To make matters worse for the guardians of Hollywood morality, one of those executives—the most powerful one—is played by Fred MacMurray. At the time, MacMurray was known primarily for Disney movies; playing a controlling and womanizing executive was a serious career risk for him. (Wilder seems to have been the only director to see MacMurray’s dark side. He used him twice; here and in Double Indemnity).

Shirley MacLane rounds out the love triangle as a spirited elevator operator whom Lemmon’s character loves and MacMurray’s character uses. She’s caught in the middle, hopelessly in love with a man who is merely using her, and unsure about her feelings towards the weak-willed sucker who adores her. Unlike Lemmon’s, MacLane’s character doesn’t come off as a human doormat; she’s upbeat, witty, and willing to threaten a powerful executive who touches her inappropriately. But that makes the cruel treatment she endures all the more crushing.

This is a very special motion picture.

How It Looks

Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (a film noir specialist) shot The Apartment in Panavision (anamorphic ‘scope with Panavision lenses) and black and white. Scenes set in the insurance office are bright, clear, and antiseptic. Scenes shot in the apartment itself are often dark and noirish.


This 1080p transfer does full justice to LaShelle’s photography. It delivers all the fine detail, bright lights, and deep shadows that were intended.

As it should be, it’s letterboxed to the ‘scope aspect ratio, 2.35×1.

How It Sounds

I’m not sure what kind of soundtrack The Apartment had when it first opened. It’s possible that United Artists released a few prints with four-track magnetic stereo sound. But probably not. I suspect that the original release was pure mono.

Yet MGM and 20th Century-Fox have released the Blu-ray with only a new 5.1 mix. While I would have preferred the original mono, the rechanneling doesn’t do much harm. In fact, I only noticed directional sounds one or two  times in the movie.

The soundtrack is in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. The fidelity is excellent.

And the Extras

Thepartment_boxThis Blu-ray comes with a superb commentary track by film producer and historian Bruce Block. He discusses a wide range of topics, including character development, the film’s themes, staging and photography, problems filming on location, and how the giant office set was shot. When he has nothing to say about the current , he discusses how Billy Wilder became a major filmmaker.

The only other extras are a couple of brief and moderately interesting making of featurettes: “Inside the Apartment” and “Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon.”

Overall, this is a great disc of a great movie. And since you can buy it for less than $20, it’s a bargain, as well.