“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” Put a sock in it, Zuzu, some of us are sick of Christmas movies. Enough with the “miracle” on 34th Street, enough with Crosby wishing all our Christmases were white. Even that goddamned Red Ryder BB gun is getting on our nerves. But just because you don’t feel all fa-la-la-la-la doesn’t mean you have to give up classic movies the day after Thanksgiving. In fact, you can cover the week-long holiday spread and ring in a particularly bittersweet New Year with The Apartment, a Christmas movie for the sick-of-Santa set, directed by that master of twinkle-eyed cynicism Billy Wilder.
For a director so totally committed to making commercial movies, not art (he once declared, with characteristic cheek, “I could clean up in the film festivals if I took $25,000 and made a picture about the sex life of fishermen in Sardinia – as long as it had a certain morbid message and was slightly out of focus”), Wilder’s CV is filled with films held in unassailably high regard by film fanatics high and lowbrow alike. Wilder biographer Ed Sikov points out that the common theme linking Wilder’s work is exploiters. They are characters who finagle situations to their own benefit, whether it’s the cynical screenwriter who allows himself to be gigolo-ized in return for a place to stay in Sunset Boulevard, or the conniving, murderous adulterers in Double Indemnity, or even the middle aged man who uses his wife’s summertime absence to invite over the pneumatic girl from upstairs in The Seven Year Itch.
This time, the exploited party is C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon, fresh from his most successful pairing with Wilder in Some Like It Hot). He’s a hapless cog in a big city corporation who spends his working hours crunching numbers at a spartan desk, warehoused like a factory-farmed chicken in a gigantic room as utilitarian and infinite as anything in 2001. He’s compensated for his time fairly enough, but it’s after working hours his low man on the totem pole status becomes clear. Baxter’s a bachelor, and that means the upper management (David White, David Lewis, Willard Waterman and – especially amusing to moviegoers reared on Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Ray Walston, as a lecherous cad miles from the humorless Mr. Hand) uses his apartment as their own private hot-pillow motel, canoodling with blowsy telephone operators from the Bronx while a hungry and tired Baxter paces the sidewalk outside. He endures this treatment because the bosses dole out hints about advancement as payback for the “favor” he’s doing them.
His one friend in the entire office of “31,259 employees, which is more than the entire population of Natchez, Mississippi” is Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the elevator girl with merry eyes and an elfin tousle of hair. Lemmon’s contribution to The Apartment can’t be overlooked, but in these first few scenes it’s MacLaine’s movie. She is sharp as New York cheddar, obviously brighter than an elevator girl needs to be, and enchantingly pretty. Watch her elaborate, semi-semaphoric rejoinder to a departing fanny-slapper: “One of these days, I’m going to shut these doors on you and –” Lips tight in anger, she slips her fist up her sleeve and waggles a castrated cuff before her white gloved hand snaps out once again in an elaborate wrist-rolling swirl to press the elevator button. Who wouldn’t fall in love with her?
Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), that’s who. Oh sure, she’s his good time girl, but she’s just one of a string of female underlings who believed the big boss was really in love with them. She’s called it off recently — that’s why her hair is post-break-up short — but Sheldrake, that scrupleless snake with the calm reassurance of a TV dad (just as MacMurray would become in a few years on My Three Sons), invites her out for cocktails. At their favorite place. Just to talk. MacLaine has an extraordinary monologue between bites of fried shrimp, all her hurt and disappointment spilling over into her frozen daiquiri: “For a while there, you try kidding yourself that you’re going with an unmarried man. Then one day he keeps looking at his watch, and asks you if there’s any lipstick showing, then rushes off to catch the 7:14 to White Plains. So you fix yourself a cup of instant coffee, and you sit there by yourself, and you think. And it all begins to look so ugly . . .”
Her soliloquy underlines the thread of loneliness that runs through The Apartment. From Baxter slumping on a park bench in the rain when evicted from his own apartment by lucky guys who have more female company than they can juggle, or declaring he’s “shipwrecked among eight million people”, there’s a real sense of the mid-winter despair that plagues many people during the holidays, a vein of desolation that can’t be dispelled by twinkling lights. It’s as if Baxter is expelled from Eden, permanently disinvited for mysterious reasons from sharing in the season’s good cheer. His loving, decent, and honorable neighbors are his only company, but they’re quite pointedly Jewish, full of exhortations to “Be a mensch!” and dishing out healing elixirs of chicken soup. They’re not going to be celebrating Christmas either, and so Baxter is condemned to wander this no-man’s-land with only the season’s other outsiders for company.
Loneliness makes Miss Kubelik do stupid things too, like go that night with Mr. Sheldrake to a “friend’s” apartment. The next morning, Baxter finds her cracked compact on his couch, and, unaware of its rightful owner, returns it to Mr. Sheldrake. That afternoon, Miss Kubelik stops by Baxter’s new office (all those sweet nothings about a promotion in return for the apartment have finally paid off). He’s thrilled to see the girl he’s got a little crush on, and asks her opinion about his new purchase – a bowler hat, the “junior executive” model he’s bought for himself as a lucky totem for his continual upward climb. Miss Kubelik isn’t listening – she’s just found out from Mr. Sheldrake’s former conquest how disposable she is – and absently hands Baxter her compact so he can see for himself. The shot of Baxter reflected in that shattered mirror is devastating, not only because he realizes he’s been cuckolded by the man above him, but because he sees he’s just as much of a self-loathing whore as Miss Kubelik, willing to suffer any indignity for a chance to wear that junior executive bowler.
While Mr. Sheldrake gets to have Christmas in the brightly lit parlor of his suburban home, Miss Kubelik takes an overdose of sleeping pills in Baxter’s dingy apartment. When Baxter comes home and discovers her, he frantically enlists the help of the doctor next door. The scene where the doctor struggles to revive her is startlingly, painfully violent, as he fists her hair and slaps her hard, not once but several unmerciful times. Even Baxter flinches, as if he knows each blow is immediate, tangible proof of how he and Miss Kubelik scourge and humiliate themselves daily. The rest of the film takes place mostly in Baxter’s dingy apartment on Christmas Day, as Baxter nurses Miss Kubelik back to health and the two gradually open up to each other, having found the only balm – true companionship – that wards off solitude.
The Apartment isn’t a grotesquerie like Bad Santa or Silent Night, Deadly Night. Rather, it’s a Christmas movie for adults, a strong cocktail with some salt on the rim and a cherry at the bottom. It’s brutal at points, but viewers forget its savagery and retain only the gentlest moments, like when Baxter strains spaghetti through a tennis racket for an Italian dinner, or its famous last line, spoken sweetly and with real tenderness by Miss Kubelik: “Shut up and deal.” Jack Lemmon’s performance might be the secret to why the movie works so well. His gift for comedy certainly blunts the acid edge of Wilder’s story, but it’s more than that. There’s something in Baxter’s character that elevates The Apartment to real Christmas movie significance.
“Some people take, some people get took,” Miss Kubelik bitterly philosophizes at one point. But Baxter’s none of the above – he’s a giver. He gives up his apartment not just because he wants the raise but because he can’t say no to someone in need. He gives up his Christmas because Miss Kubelik obviously needs him more. He covers for the indiscretions of others, no matter the cost to his reputation (the next door neighbors think he’s the Lothario courting a different woman every night, but he can’t bring himself to tell the truth if it means betraying someone else). He even takes on Miss Kubelik’s average share of two and a half annual colds, since, as she points out, she never gets sick and he gets sick five times a year.
In short, he takes on the sins of others, so that they may be purified enough to go about their lives. The Apartment contains scenes centering around Christmas and New Year’s, but if you look hard you can see a little Easter reflected in Baxter’s Christ-like behavior. This makes it even more satisfying when our deserving fella gets the girl in the end. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-laaaaaa.