This article is part of the Happy New Year Blogathon hosted by the MovieMovieBlogBlog.
Although I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore, I’ve always thought the week between Christmas and New Year’s is something akin to Purgatory. In theory it’s a curiously dead spot on the calendar, but in practice, especially if you work at an office job having anything to do with finance, it’s more of a nightmare. Everyone is trying to get things done by the year-end deadline, and add post-holiday depression and usually crappy weather to the mix, and the days between December 25 and January 1 start to look like a gauntlet to be endured. I have never seen this mixture of merriment, sorrow and angst captured in a movie quite as well as it is in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which holds up beautifully after 57 years.
The film, which won Best Picture in 1960, is the story of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a glorified clerk at a big insurance company in Manhattan. Baxter, who lives alone in an apartment in a converted brownstone off Central Park West, wants to climb the corporate ladder, and he does so with a curious tactic: he gets junior executives owing him favors in exchange for him letting them use his apartment as a place to have sex with their mistresses. When slimy exec Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) wants a turn, Baxter obliges, only to be surprised to find out his mistress is elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine). Baxter fancies Fran and thought she was more honest than to sleep with her boss, but he still can’t shake his feelings for her. At Christmastime and the week after, things come to a head as Baxter has to choose between getting promoted at work and his feelings for Fran, who may be redeemable, and who might just have a thing for him.
In this scene from The Apartment, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) does his best to accommodate his boss Mr. Kirkaby (David Lewis), who has been using the titular apartment for a little “ring-a-ding-ding.”
The Apartment does not open with Christmas; in fact it starts on November 1. But that’s just set-up. The bulk of the running time takes place during the holidays. Baxter, a bachelor, spends Christmas Eve collecting martini olives at a dive bar while one of his bosses–who turns out to be Sheldrake himself–is cavorting with Miss Kubelik at his apartment. Returning home to find Fran has OD’d in his bed, Baxter is drawn into the tangled triangle involving her and Sheldrake, who, of course, is married. Throughout much of the film’s second half we see “the apartment” as most of our places look during the dead week between Christmas and New Year’s. Baxter’s tree looks a little pathetic. The kitchen is messy. Fran putters about in a bathrobe. Work, though the setting that focused all these relationships, is kind of a dreary cloud hanging in the lives of the characters. Wilder films in black-and-white, which gives the winter city a weary and grimy look. Far from being just a smart comedy, The Apartment is a mood piece as much as anything.
Of course, New Year’s Eve is a different story. The climax of the picture takes place just as midnight turns; I won’t spoil it for you, but expect to hear popping champagne corks and people singing “Auld Lang Syne” badly. Fran, portrayed beautifully by Shirley Maclaine, looks radiant in a shiny New Year’s party hat. The final scene of The Apartment is an upbeat and happy one, and it treats New Year’s as sort of a renewal, throwing away the weary and grimy mood in exchange for a more positive future. The narrative structure here borrows heavily on our internalized rhythms of the holidays. This is part of why The Apartment works, why it’s so savvy and knowing. It’s also why the picture is so beloved, not only emerging as an Academy Award winner but also winning a perennial place on the list of the best romantic comedies ever made.
The New Year’s Eve scene from The Apartment begins drearily between Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) and her boyfriend Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), but eventually becomes a dawning hope.
I also love how The Apartment plays with language and phrase. It’s quite an art to use language and words skillfully in a movie, but Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond spin a tapestry of words that help endear the movie to the audience. For example, one executive adds the suffix “-wise” to everything, like, “Efficiency-wise” and such; by the end of the picture characters are dropping “-wise” this and “-wise” that (“That’s how it crumbles, cookie-wise!”) A walk-on character, one of the bosses’ molls, is said to resemble Marilyn Monroe (the star of Wilder’s previous picture, Some Like it Hot), and she sounds like her too. The film makes the simple noun “the executive washroom” into an unrequited longing, then a metaphor and finally a curse, which features in the movie’s climax. Only the tightest and cleverest film writing can do this.
The Apartment, one of the greatest movies of the 20th century about anything, is without a doubt the best-ever New Year’s movie. Its promise of hope and renewal, especially after the dreariness of a holiday season marred with illness, work struggles and romantic disappointment, resonates in a way that few other films do. I try to watch it around New Year’s every year. I’m looking forward to it this time, because after the 2017 we’ve had, we could all use a little hope and renewal for the new year.