Movie Advent #1: The Apartment
01 December 2018 13:23
‘Y’see, I have this little problem with my apartment …’ With these words, CC ‘Bud’ Baxter, played with ineffable charm by Jack Lemmon, introduces the setup of one of the bleakest, and somehow funniest, of all festive films. It’s a concept borrowed from another film, a famous weepie. When director Billy Wilder saw David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), the borrowed flat where the lovers meet caught his eye, and his imagination. ‘What about the poor schnook who has to crawl into the still-warm bed of the lovers?’ he scribbled in his notebook. CC is that ‘poor schnook’ and The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960) is a film that emphasises the value of home, family, love and marriage – all suitable themes for the festive season – by depicting their absence. That’s why it’s essential viewing, Christmas-wise.
Hapless CC is a corporate wage slave in a towering office block (the fearsome geometry of which was inspired by King Vidor’s soul-crushing silent The Crowd [King Vidor, 1928]) toiling for a company called ‘Consolidated Life of New York’. And for many of the employees, all of life is consolidated in that tower, not their actual homes. The senior managers forget their wives and grope the office girls at the Christmas party, or chat up blondes in bars after hours. And when these executive lotharios want to take their ladies somewhere more private, they can’t take them to their own homes, so they take them to CC’s place instead. His West-60s apartment has become more of a brothel than a bachelor pad, seeing so much action that CC’s doctor neighbour asks him to donate his body to medical science. When we first meet CC he works late at the office to accommodate one tryst, and when he finally crawls into bed, sick with one of many seasonal colds, he is turfed out to make room for another. The incentive for CC is depressingly simple – please his superiors and he might get a promotion – but the risk is great too. If he dares to say no, well, as one sleazebag tells him: ‘It takes years to work your way up to the twenty-seventh floor. But it only takes thirty seconds to be out on the street again.’ The relentless prioritising of work over home and family recalls another famously chilly festive tale, the misadventures of Ebeneezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The Apartment spans the Christmas period, but without a holiday in sight. From the office Christmas party to the saddest New Year’s Eve on film since The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, 1925), the festive season is depicted as desolate, loveless and almost lethal. Speaking of which, Shirley MacLaine plays Fran, a lift operator at Consolidated, who has given up more than her flat to scummy personnel director JD Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). While he strings her along (‘you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife’), Fran’s heart slowly breaks. As she puts it: ‘When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.’ MacLaine’s perfect for the role, with her gamine looks she is vulnerable and ultra-modern by turns. Wearing her nifty uniform, she’s a sassy working girl, but by New Year’s Eve, in her skew-whiff paper crown, she’s a figure of tragedy. Needless to say, CC pines for her, but helplessly – Sheldrake is doing the dirty on the two of them as well as his missus. CC says he lives like Robinson Crusoe, ‘shipwrecked among eight million people’ and New York is shown as a shadowy urban hell, populated by loners, just like our heroes, who are unable to connect with each other. Loners like Margie, the brassy barfly played by Hope Holiday that CC shares a drunken, and self-pitying jukebox shuffle with on Christmas Eve, while Fran is in his bed, in danger of dying from that broken heart.
Some people feel that The Apartment doesn’t qualify a true Christmas film, but I beg to differ. If there is a touch of Scrooge to Wilder and IAL Diamond’s bittersweet script for The Apartment, consider the film in total as the Ghost of Christmas Present, taunting us with our own modern moral degeneracy, our always-on, professionalised culture that sees many of us resenting the trip home to see family on Christmas Eve. At least, unlike CC, the lucky among us have a home to go to.
The best Christmas movies are medicinal, and the best we can hope for from a dose of The Apartment is that a seasonal wallow in its barbed dialogue and sweet sorrow will remind us that home is what truly matters at this time of year. There may not be a happy ending to The Apartment, but there is happiness in the ending. Fran and CC have made the apartment more homelike, in a makeshift fashion, and share companionship and a game of cards if nothing else. More than that may be hard to come by. Sometimes, faced with the cold, competitive nature of life in the big city, all you can do is ‘shut up and deal’.