When I was 7 years old, watching television in the afternoon, I saw what would become my favorite Christmas movie of all time. It was set in New York City and the story was about adultery, lying, pandering, cowardice and greed. I didn't understand any of this. I just loved it because Jack Lemmon strained spaghetti through a tennis racket. The movie is called "The Apartment," co-written and directed by the great Billy Wilder and starring Lemmon alongside Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.
Lemmon plays C.C. "Bud" Baxter, an ambitious schnook who's been lending his bosses the key to his apartment so they'll have a safe place to tryst with their mistresses. Lemmon is in love with an elevator operator at work, Fran Kubelik, played with charm by MacLaine. Unfortunately, Miss Kubelik is having an affair with Lemmon's bosses' boss, Mr. Sheldrake, played with oily gravitas by MacMurray. Lemmon ultimately has to choose between love and success, and I'll let you figure out which he picks.
Matthew Weiner (showrunner of "Mad Men") has cited this movie as one of his inspirations—the movie takes place in the same era-appropriate corporate towers and slushy side streets, as well as inside Lemmon's titular apartment. The glossy black-and-white Christmas being celebrated onscreen feels forced every step of the way, as if the characters are trying to hide their loneliness and moral rot in the endless crowd. From the office Christmas party (filmed liked a bacchanal) to Christmas Eve in a sleazy bar, where Lemmon sucks down martinis next to an oafish Santa and gets picked up by an erstwhile widow, it's the loneliest Christmas ever seen on screen.
I didn't understand an iota of this when I first watched it on a tiny TV in my parents' living room. I didn't know why Mrs. Kubelik's brother-in-law punched Jack Lemmon and I didn't know why everyone wanted to stay over in the apartment because, let's face it, I'd never heard of sex. This wasn't the first movie or book I read before I was too young to grasp it (I read "Portnoy's Complaint" before I knew what masturbation was). It taught me that a great movie or story contains moments that transcend the plot and go straight to the subconscious of the viewer. When I came across "The Apartment" again in my teens, I had no real memory of it. However, everything came back as soon as Lemmon pulled out the tennis racket to strain the pasta. I realized I had met up with an old friend who'd I'd forgotten I'd ever known.
There is a story that Fred MacMurray was taking his children to Disneyland when a woman came up and slapped him, saying, "Mr. MacMurray, 'The Apartment' is not a children's movie." MacMurray politely replied, "No, madam, it is not."
I won't argue with Fred MacMurray, but I will say that even though "The Apartment" is not a children's movie, it's still one of the greatest Christmas movies ever.