Never one to shy away from the confrontational, Amat Escalante’s follow up to the unflinchingly brutal Heli (2012) is available now on DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Films and its Arrow Academy label.
Straddling science fiction, horror and a Mexican kitchen sink drama, The Untamed, begins with a lingering shot of a meteor hovering in space. Its crash to Earth occurs off-camera but leaves a large crater in its wake and t brought something with it. That ‘something’ has tentacles, presumably a respiratory system of sorts, despite having no visible organs or features, and has taken up residency in the barn of an ageing couple (played by Oscar Escalante and Bernarda Trueba). It has a regular visitor in the form of Verónica (Simone Bucio) who, well it’s never made implicit what or how she serves the alien form despite strong indications; only that on this occasion, she is injured and forced to leave and find aid.
Shocked and bleeding, she seeks refuge in a local hospital where her wound is treated by Fabián (Edén Villavicencio) and one thing leads to another and the lonely and somewhat mysterious Verónica inserts herself into the gay nurse’s life and by extension his sister Ale (Ruth Ramos) and her less-than-blissful domestic set-up with cheating, bullish homophobe husband Ángel (Jesús Meza) and their two small boys. The stranger convinces them that the life form which resides in that barn is the answer to their problems just prior to and even after devastating, irreparable tragedy.
Apparently made as a direct response to chauvinism, mainstream homophobia and the moral perception of tragedy, this fantastical allegory builds atmosphere with a literal humming buzz in the diegesis and taps into our basest primitive state, and the relationship between pain and pleasure. This dichotomy is beautifully depicted through Ale and Angel’s youngest son and his love of chocolate, he knows he’s allergic but can’t resist. Those moments of gratification are worth it, even if it means an angry-looking itchy red rash and a prodding injection. Seemingly, for the adults, pain and pleasure mature through sex and violence, however, this is never fully connected within the film’s narrative, the strange alien life force or the human subjects.
The Untamed deals with hefty subject matters and is a human drama within a sci-fi-erotic-horror film. Several scenes are clearly influenced by Andrzej Žulawski (the late filmmaker is even acknowledged in the closing credits), there are moments which feel Cronenbergian, and even includes a scene which reminded of von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). The horror aspects never feel forced and are fascinating, specifically the creature, one is drawn to it much like the lost souls in the film yet it’s not given that much screen time. Sadly, it is in the human drama aspect that the film falls down. There was an intensity, rage and heft to Heli and even Žulawski’s Possession (1981) (if we’re to take that as the main text of inspiration) which feels missing here; yes it’s subversive, intelligent, and well put together but overall muted and a little disappointing.
The Making of The Untamed (84 mins) – this in-depth footage takes us behind the scenes with the cast and crew of the film, shot by one the film’s composers and the director’s brother, Martín Escalante. There are fascinating moments, warm interludes between filmmaker and his collaborators – who seem to compromise of some long-term friends and family members – and laborious retakes in shooting. Amat Escalante is a perfectionist, that much is clear.
Amarrados (Tied Up) (15 mins) – Escalante’s first short which took first prize at the 2002 Voladero International Film Festival in Mexico and won him Best Short and Best Director at the Newport Beach International Film festival in 2003. Shot in black and white, the film centres around Niño (Abel Diaz), a young homeless boy who’s stuck in a vicious cycle of sexual abuse and glue-sniffing. There’s a beauty amid the misery in this short, in which class, race and religion are alluded to and Escalante’s follow-shot is included: a great edition to the disc.
First Pressing Only – Booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic and author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, writing by critic Jonathan Romney, the director’s statement and extracts from the press book, illustrated with original stills (unavailable at the time of review).
The New York City skyline is our establishing shot as The Apartment opens and a voice belonging to C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) – “C. for Calvin, C. for Clifford, however most people call me Bud” recounts some statistics. Bud is a bit of a know-all when it comes to facts but only because he works for insurance company Consolidated Life, up on the nineteenth floor where he processes claims. Baxter has a charming apartment situated in a pleasant area – just right for a bachelor – however, he is rarely home and not always by choice. He stupidly lent his key, once, to a work colleague and word quickly spread. Now his apartment has become the venue of choice for a selection of insurance big-wigs to wine, dine and bed their mistresses without the knowledge of their wives. It’s not that Baxter is happy to encourage men to cheat but rather is a compromised loner who allows himself to be manipulated and is just too nice to argue.
His neighbours, Dr and Mrs Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens) – the benevolent parental figures, Jewish, unpretentious and in the case of the good Doctor, a mensch – believe him to be a “good-time Charlie” over-consuming liquor and indulging in far too many women. Baxter is the embodiment of the typical Wilderesque protagonist, and Lemmon plays him as an affable well-meaning fellow, not hyper-masculine but boyish and funny; a general outsider to society, an honest every man who is forced into a situation beyond his control.
Although often alone, a highlight of Baxter’s day is the morning elevator ride up to the nineteenth floor when he gets to see and talk to lift attendant Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). His face lights up when he sees her and he is the only man in a sea of suits polite enough to remove his hat when in her company. Fran is sassy and sharp, not prone to suffer fools and certainly the men of Consolidated Life, regardless of stature or job title, get a tongue lashing if they act inappropriately. There is a sadness to Fran and like a lot of the characters in this movie, she is flawed. prone to heartbreak and circumstances unfold where, without giving too much away, both Baxter and Kubelik have to prove their mettle with and without the other’s help. Needless to say the man responsible for the running of the company, Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) finds out about the apartment situation and requests the key for himself. He, unlike his other Consolidated Life employees, is willing to foster capitalism (the others only make empty promises) and offers Baxter a promotion including a new office allowing him to climb the corporate ladder in record time. It is only when our hero has an epiphany near the film’s closingis the disenchanted and sardonic socialist worldview restored as per Wilder’s ideology.
The émigré director always maintained that the best mise-en-scène was the one the viewer didn’t notice. However, his European sensibility is evident throughout his expressionistic cinematography and impossible point-of-view shots. In, practically, all of his oeuvre there are a series of habitual motifs specifically, the inclusion of Eastern European characters (an obvious reference to his and Iz Diamond’s respective homelands) the resident game of cards, and the use of the mirror – often utilised as the exposure scene where both the character and viewer make a discovery at the same time. Here, it’s Fran’s mirror compact which she won’t replace because the cracked glass shows her how she feels. Also included are telephone calls, surfing television channels (although that’s more of a dig at TV content) and making dinner as examples of the mundane (however, one would argue straining spaghetti through a tennis racket is anything but humdrum) in which the added realism enhances the wonderful story unfolding before the audience.
The Oscar-nominated and BAFTA award-winning performances given by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in the lead roles have a lot to do with the film’s success. Their chemistry makes it a real joy to watch specifically as the viewer roots for both characters equally on their journey in life, it’s a road often tinged with the blackest comedy and world-weary cynicism. At one point Miss Kubelik declares “Oh God, I’m so fouled up” and fearlessly asks pondering questions like: “Why do people have to love people anyway?” without a hint of cliché, sentimentality or overt romanticism. There is no archetypal plot formation and it is not in the least bit predictable but contains subtle plot points and exposition which intelligently enforces the narrative where nothing is left up to chance. Wilder was a master of detail and restraint. Which makes the initial critical response all the more baffling: “[a] tasteless gimmick”, “dirty fairy tale”, “immoral”, “dishonest” and “without style or taste” are just some of the by-lines from 1960, which leads me to think that some critics just didn’t get it.
The Apartment is perfect, film-wise.
It is a true classic which celebrates disenchantment, love and the flaws of humanity through its acerbic dialogue, intelligence, wit and heart. There are more comedic elements to the screenplay than romantic, and however dark it gets there is real pathos. Arrow Academy has produced a beautiful celebration of it with a flawless 4K restoration, the process of which can be viewed in one of the many extras in this glorious box set which lavishly does one of Mr. Wilder’s masterpieces (he had a few) justice.
Audio commentary provided by film historian Bruce Bloch. Bloch, just like Baxter in those opening moments is all about the facts, he discusses shot composition, cut sequences, and offers detailed analysis which often culminates in reading directly from Wilder and Diamond’s script. While a little dry in places, this thorough commentary will be a must-listen to fans of the film who will definitely benefit from Bloch’s insightful knowledge.
The Key to The Apartment (10 mins) – This is a new appreciation of the film delivered by film historian Philip Kemp, recorded exclusively for Arrow in 2017. Kemp keeps it brief, it’s a shame he reads from cue cards as his comments regarding The Apartment’s critical acclaim may have sounded less rehearsed.
Select Scene Commentary (8 mins) – Kemp is back in this short discussion which is delivered in voiceover accompanying two scenes from the films. He chooses the moment of (respective) despair for both protagonists; Baxter in the bar with Marge MacDougall and Kubelik at the apartment and the second scene in which Baxter is left standing outside The Music Man. It’s not quite long enough to make any real impact but interesting given the choice of scenes.
The Flawed Couple (20 mins) – A gorgeous video essay in which filmmaker David Cairns explores the many collaborations between Billy Wilder and, his every man, Jack Lemmon. Cairns looks at the simplicity and spontaneity of their working relationship which carried on into seven films over their respective careers: Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), Irma la Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Avanti! (1972), The Front Page (1974), and Buddy Buddy (1981). Wilder was responsible for putting Lemmon and Matthau onscreen together for the first time, which is especially poignant when you consider how many the duo went on to make and when all three passed away (Matthau, 2000; Lemmon, 2001 and Wilder, 2002). Cairns’ essay is accompanied by voiceover, archival clips and images.
A Letter to Castro (13 mins) – An exclusive interview with Hope Holiday recorded in 2017 for Arrow. In this lovely interview, 87-year-old Holiday details the exact moment she walked past the Brownstone off Central Park, carrying groceries, to see the crew measuring up for the would-be film-shoot, to her joining SAG and auditioning for her first speaking role of Marge MacDougall. She remembers Lemmon fondly and declares Wilder to be the best director she has ever worked with and recounts the “biggest thrill and happiest moment of my life – before marrying”. The lady is moved to tears as she talks about her experiences on set.
An Informal Conversation with Billy Wilder (23 mins) – Although originally made in 1995, this archival interview for the Writers Guild Foundations’ Oral Histories Series is a delight not least because it’s narrated by Lemmon: “Nobody’s perfect but Billy Wilder comes as close to it as any filmmaker in Hollywood.” It’s a mix of the filmmaker’s biographical info and filmography, detailing Wilder partnership with Charles Brackett through to the new(er) one with IAL Diamond before the interview with the man himself. Wilder is immaculately dressed and discusses his writing process, the structure and poetry of storytelling, casting, collaboration (which swinging, child-like, on his chair) all of which are intercut with images – such a fascinating, precise and humble man.
Restoration Showreel (2 mins) – This short feature details the process of how the 35mm camera negative was scanned at 4K resolution at Deluxe’s EFILM facility in Burbank, California but also shows some of the work completed during the digital restoration, the tools and techniques involved on the cleaning and repairing of damaged frames via before and after images. The work involved is also evident in the trailers and footage shown in numerous extras. It’s a welcome addition to the special features because it details a process few know or care little about.
Theatrical Trailer (2:19)
Archival Features: Inside The Apartment (29 mins) – This short documentary is originally from 2007 and features a whole host of subjects from critic Molly Haskell and Shirley MacLaine to Lemmon’s biographer, IAL Diamond’s son Paul to Chris Lemmon (Jack’s actor son). They discuss the film, in particular its black comedy and complexity and suggest why it stands the test of time.
Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon (12 mins) – This featurette – again repurposed from the Fox/MGM’s new Collector’s Edition DVD which came out in 2007 – is a charming addition. Predominately narrated by Lemmon’s son Chris, he details his father’s childhood and progression to the stage right through to his film career and the meeting of Wilder and his “Pop”. It’s an affectionate look back at a wonderful actor or, in the words of his son a “marvellous, delicious leprechaun.”
Original screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (BD-ROM content).
Special collector’s packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick.
Collector’s 150-page hardcover book (unavailable for review) featuring new writing by Neil Sinyard, Kat Ellinger, Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche, generously illustrated with rare stills and behind-the-scenes imagery.
The Apartment is a joy of a film, one of absolute perfection, and finally there is a box set which lavishly does one of Mr. Wilder’s masterpieces (he had a few) justice.