The Story: 2009 was a rotten year—the chaser to a crappy decade. Too many people lost jobs, lost pets, lost friends and family, lost love. We need a drink in the worst way.
And the worst way would be alone in a smoke-filled bar on Christmas Eve with no place else to go.
"The Apartment" is a different kind of Holiday film—almost an anti-Holiday film, for there's not a Hallmark moment that the philandering executives who have control over "Bud" Baxter's upward mobility (and the key to his apartment) can't corrupt. They give lip-service to the Sanctity of Marriage and Family, and the rest of the anatomy to their mistresses. For "Bud," turning a blind eye to the hypocrisy was an opportunity for advancement. But now, he sees the cost to the woman he's befriended and saved from a suicide attempt, Miss Kubelik, and he doesn't like what he sees now that his eyes have been opened.
So, he's drinking himself blind at the local bar.
This scene is great on so many levels. It's one of Billy Wilder's "time-capsule" moments where for an instant, a timely reference is made to "date" the film—the rest is evergreen, working in any era. I love the one-shot aspect of it, too; the two bar-flies aren't even looking at each other, except as reflections in a presumed mirrored bar, and their conversation is a bit askance, as well. There's communication, but no connection—except in the dramatic pauses where a mutual drink is called for. Both players have little intricate moments of expression change that it almost has the feel of a Burns and Allen routine.
It's just another lovely slice of Humble Pie that's served up regularly to the part-time resident of "The Apartment."
The Set-Up: Christmas Eve—a time for men to be with their wives and girl-friends.
And, hopefully, they'll never meet.
For fast-tracker C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), Christmas Eve means a bar is his home away from home. And his home is a love nest for the executives at the insurance company, where he is employed. Tonight his heart has been stabbed with a sprig of holly, as he's found that his boss, Mr. Scheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is using his apartment for a tryst with the gal that Baxter likes, elevator girl Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). It's Christmas Eve, and Baxter is hitting the nog with a bunch of other executives and bar-flies to the point where there's no elbow-room. And he's so in the bag that he wouldn't notice that the straw wrapper that's been shot his way was Cupid's Arrow. But it's another ship-wrecked sailor on the Sea of Love, Margie McDougall (Hope Holiday), and she and Bud pass in the Night Before Christmas.
MARGIE: You buy me a drink, I'll buy you some music. (sets the glass down)
MARGIE: Rum Collins.
Not waiting for an answer, she heads for the juke box.
Bud looks after her noncommittally, then turns to the bartender.
BUD: Rum Collins. (indicating martini glass) And another one of these little mothers.
At the juke box, Margie has dropped a coin in and made her selection. The music starts -- ADESTE FIDELIS. She rejoins Bud at the bar just as the bartender is putting down their drinks in front of them. Bud removes the new olive, adds it to the pattern on the counter in front of him. They both drink, staring straight ahead. For quite a while, there is complete silence between them.
MARGIE:(out of nowhere)You like Castro?
(a blank look from Bud)
MARGIE:I mean -- how do you feel about Castro?
BUD: What is Castro?
MARGIE: You know, that big-shot down in Cuba with the crazy beard.
BUD: What about him?
MARGIE: Because as far as I'm concerned, he's a no good fink. Two weeks ago I wrote him a letter -- never even answered me.
BUD: That so.
MARGIE: All I wanted him to do was let Mickey out for Christmas.
BUD: Who is Mickey?
MARGIE: My husband. He's in Havana -- in jail.
BUD: Oh. Mixed up in that revolution?
MARGIE: Mickey? He wouldn't do nothing like that. He's a jockey. They caught him doping a horse.
BUD: Well, you can't win 'em all.
They sit there silently for a moment, contemplating the injustices of the world.
MARGIE(to herself): 'Twas the night before Christmas/ And all through the house/ Not a creature was stirring --
No action --
(drinks; to Bud)
MARGIE: You married?
MARGIE: A night like this, it sort of spooks you to walk into an empty apartment.
BUD: I said I had no family -- I didn't say I had an empty apartment.
They both drink.
Words by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder
Pictures by Joseph LaShelle and Billy Wilder
"The Apartment" is available on DVD from MGM Home Video.
The complete scene starts at about 2:51 on the video.