Note: This article spoils 'The Apartment' as much as 'The Apartment' could ever really be spoiled.
It's been fifty years since Billy Wilder's 'The Apartment' won an Oscar for Best Picture, and not only does it remain one of the best romantic comedies that Hollywood has ever produced, but it's also still one of the darkest. A corporate fable equally indebted to Ernst Lubitsch and the timeless appeal of mousy women, 'The Apartment' is a spiked ode to the joys of the moral high ground, and the ultimate fantasy for all the nice guys out there who are patiently waiting for life to reward their compassion.
Ostensibly set in 1960's Manhattan, each viewing of 'The Apartment' adds to the feeling that the film actually transpires in a post-apocalyptic hell, an 'I Am Legend' riff where a plague has swept through the city, turning all of its men into unrepentant assholes. Except, of course, for one: C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a giddy and congested office drone who's traded his backbone for a chance to slither up the corporate ladder. Each and every one of Baxter's bosses is an adulterous jerk (including the awesome David White, who played Larry Tate on 'Bewitched'), and Baxter is their favorite doormat.
His eponymous apartment -- the $85 rent for which is perhaps the film's most egregiously dated detail -- is the perfect place for executives to enjoy a clandestine romp in the sack with their perkiest secretary, and conveniently located so that they can make it back home in time for supper with their wife and 2.3 kids. Sure, it means that Baxter has to spend a night out in the cold if his bed is otherwise engaged, but he's just such an "aw shucks" kind of guy that he accepts his lowly lot with a crooked smile (and he never even seems to change the sheets).
Of course, it just so happens that Baxter's dream-girl -- elfin elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) -- is the embittered lover of Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the high-powered executive who claims to love her but for whom he won't leave his wife. As the audience spends most of the movie delighting in Wilder's unparalleled gift for bestowing his characters with the perfect names, Baxter flits around Ms. Kubelik in a manner so anxious and doting that it might seem creepy if he weren't secretly Jack Lemmon.
One night Baxter finds her conked out on his bed, teetering between life and death in the wake of a failed suicide attempt. Baxter only falls harder for Ms. Kubelik as he nurses her back to health (shades of a wimpy hero complex), and they enjoy a brief but tranquil domesticity together of spaghetti and gin rummy after he admits his own misbegotten attempt to kill himself. Eventually Baxter can't take it anymore, deciding that he'd sooner forfeit his job than allow Sheldrake to use his apartment for a New Year's tryst with their mutual crush. Sheldrake's wife is told of her husband's shocking infidelity, their marriage crumbles, and the executive transparently recommits himself to Ms. Kubelik as if he were there because of destiny rather than divorce. And thus the stage is set for an ending that memorably adds a few extra steps to the rom-com waltz, as Wilder subverts the genre and adds untold dimensions to his story by adding a little jazz to one of cinema's most familiar beats.
First off, it's a scientific fact that "Auld Lang Syne" just makes everything 112% more emotional, something that Wilder understands full well. He also understands that if he deprives a scene of all its light and glitz then even a festive New Year's Eve gathering can feel like an oppressive hellhole. The smoke, kitsch, and bodies with which he packs the frames of the party scene do a lovely job of selling us on the idea that Ms. Kubelik needs to make a drastic escape. Before this clip begins she learns that Baxter has grown a spine and quit his job, but it's not until the midnight revelry strikes her as forced and grotesque that she bolts, realizing that it's high time she run into the arms of a nice guy.
And run she does, sprinting across the upper west side, inspiring a shot that Tarantino would rip and flip for 'Inglourious Basterds,' while also giving credence to the moment when Harry tells Sally that "When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." But then, in a moment of such dramatic importance that it's easy to overlook the fluidity of its staging, Ms. Kubelik hears a pop, and is overcome with legitimate concern that Baxter has taken another shot at suicide. It's a great shot, one of those occasional bits where Wilder's skill as a director dovetails perfectly with his dark wit.
But it's all in service to that final moment, which is every bit as memorable as the words with which Marilyn Monroe closes 'Some Like it Hot,' and a hell of a lot more fun to consider. Baxter is practically a new man, and Lemmon ably evinces that blossoming integrity long before he plops down on the couch and declares his love. "Shut up and deal," she says, and as Baxter swipes away the deck of cards MacLaine just leaves her empty hand hanging, as if refusing to shrug off her coat and get settled until the air is cleared. This is where the kiss should be, right before the strings swell. But Wilder cuts things short and the music kicks in too soon, as if the over-excited orchestra has gotten ahead of itself and jumped the cue. So instead of a dramatic plateau we get an unspoken agreement; instead of the frenzied beginnings of a torrid romance we get the promise of a healthy union. It'll be a relationship free of deceit, free of cuckolded wives, trampled girlfriends, and secret tete-a-tetes. It'll be a real life together, and not just the the stuff of a precisely engineered movie-script ending.
Indeed, the ultimate genius of the scene might be in how nimbly it straddles the line between sincerity and fantasy. Baxter has been so pitiable for so long that Ms. Kubelik's arrival kinda feels like less of a tidy resolution than it does a surrealist left turn. It's so perfect and well-timed that it arguably plays as bittersweet mockery, as if Wilder is gently chiding the mensches in the crowd, the guys who cling to their belief that a lifetime of simpering kindness will be rewarded just by virtue of the fact that it should. It's subtle and a bit of a stretch, but in the right light 'The Apartment' ends with a touch of the the same finger-wagging ridiculousness as, um, 'Repo Men.' Maybe 'The Apartment' is a cautionary tale with a too-happy ending, or maybe it's just a touching ode to nice damaged people who rely upon one another to solve a cruel world. Baxter and Ms. Kubelik might be sad cases, but they ultimately earn your affections. Because after all, nobody's perfect.