What if you're just working in a very large corporation, but you're not the higher echelon? Far from it really - one of many folks sitting at desks, working at that, for example, insurance game, knowing numbers just off the top of the head, and trying to get by. Some of you can relate. This is the lot in life for C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon). You won't find out his full-real name, but why bother? Most call him Baxter and he's fine with it. Not as fine exactly is he with the fact that, recently, he's made his apartment host to fellow co-workers - specifically a handful that are on the upper-echelon - who want/need to use his pad to bring a girl over. You know. For what was called in 1960 as 'heavy petting' or 'necking' or 'a little fun'. We know what that means.
How it exactly got started isn't as important as where it leaves Baxter now, having to rearrange his life schedule - such as, you know, sleeping and eating - around those guys who now take advantage of him. But it's a tricky thing for Baxter, who is one of those eager-to-please workers, and of course it would be damaging for him permanently if it got out what was going on. Plus, he could get promoted. That's always such an important thing in this corporate world. Isn't it always?
Enter Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, back again in a Billy Wilder film as an insurance man, but in a much different place than the Walter Neff of Double Indemnity, the classic noir). Mr. Sheldrake hears about Baxter's pad situation, and though Baxter tries to not go there (and it's a helluva cold he's got during this friendly-but-full-of-insinuations meetings), he has little choice - the next leg up in his career can happen if he just let's it happen. And meanwhile, there's that elevator gal Fran Kubelick (Shirley MacLaine), who Baxter has kind of a crush on (he even shows off his new bowler hat with a big silly grin at a Christmas party, one of those scenes that is more awkward for one in the room than the other), without knowing (at least until it's a very horrible point) that she is really the 'other woman' for Mr. Sheldrake. Oye.
There's more complications from there, however, in Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning film (Picture and Director, and more). It's a "comedy" inasmuch that it has Jack Lemmon at the height of his comedic powers, and there are some very funny lines and moments. Surely when Lemmon's Baxter has a very bad cold and has to present himself and explain his whole apartment-as-office-hump-stop he has just natural comic flair, especially against MacMurray as he plays the straight man so well (watch how he flings his handkerchief and is so humbly pathetic in front of him explaining the why's and how's and percentages of office employees using his apartment).
But what is so great is that you can really take it on the terms of a drama, and one that really weighs heavily on the two characters played by Lemmon and MacLaine. It should be all so simple, for Baxter to tell one of these businessmen off, or for Fran to split from Mr. Sheldrake, who says she's the one for her, he'll divorce his wife, etc et al, but she's not the *only* woman that such promises have been made to. This actually leads to the largest portion of the film, almost like an extended one act play, that all takes place in the apartment after Fran tries to do something to herself (pill overdose) in a moment of pure desperation.
Baxter has little choice but to look after her - and, damn it, it's Christmas, there's not much Sheldrake can do from home, with his, you know, wife and kids - and this is where the real connection between these disparate souls happens. So it may be a comedy, of manners, of bad luck, but it always carries a sort of melancholy feel, as everyone here, even Sheldrake as the closest thing to a "villain" of the piece (certainly making the most conflict for the characters), is cogs in this system.
I think that another great strength is that Wilder keeps this indictment of this society, of these middling people working in this insurance office doing work that doesn't really matter and numbers that mean little in the great scheme of things, how people are either used or users and how natural it all is (watch for the in-joke, by the way, where one of the employees calling about using the apartment has a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like, that's a hoot), in check with rich characterizations.
We have so much time with these two people in this apartment, going through the heavy medical stuff first on to the conversation, that we can't help but not only feel for them but want them to be with one another. They're smart people but they have the common thread of being trapped.
C.C. Baxter: Now don't go getting any ideas, Miss Kubelik.
Fran Kubelik: I just want some fresh air.
C.C. Baxter: It's only one story down. The best you can do is break a leg.
Fran Kubelik: So they'll shoot me - like a horse.
C.C. Baxter: Please, Miss Kubelik, you got to promise me you won't do anything foolish.
Fran Kubelik: Who'd care?
C.C. Baxter: I would.
Fran Kubelik: Why can't I ever fall in love with someone nice like you?
This is sharp dialog that has to be played just right. With lessor players, it could come off as melodramatic or cloying. Lemmon and MacLaine have strong chemistry, play off as a comedy duo AND a romantic couple that we want to see together (and the STAKES are there! goodness, can you imagine such things like non-sociopaths and something believable in most modern rom-coms?)
And MacLaine especially makes this character Fran very memorable, even iconic.
It's nearly a fully feminist movie (or just that): years before Mad Men would tackle office politics, both between the men and the men and women, it looks dead-on at what this woman, as do others in the office like the poor secretary for Mr. Sheldrake, have to do to just keep their jobs. I have to wonder if this film would have been as popular in the 1950's, but in 1960 people were ready for something smarter and a little edgier.
Or, at least, Wilder wanted his audience to meet him half-way or more. It doesn't sugar-coat what women had to put up with if they wanted to just have a simple job as an elevator operator in this male-dominated world, let alone try and find a better place. It's rough, hypocritical, and sometimes just mean (or, more often than not, passive aggressive), not to mention being the "other woman", as Fran finds herself.
The Apartment holds up because of the wit it places between the characters, like a terrific play where its all about moment-to-moment and beat-to-beat with some good room for the actors to breath and contemplate as their persons, and its modern look and take on the world. By the time it comes to New Year's, and Fran sits there with Mr. Sheldrake wondering what next to do, when the big decision comes (leading up to a final line worthy of Some Like It Hot, with "Shut up and deal), it's exhilarating. It's wonderful to see a filmmaker, cast, and style (fantastic widescreen compositions in black and white, like the one above shot at the office), all coming together in sync for a story that means something, carries sophistication and satirical bite on its New York middle-upper-class milieu, even as seemingly (or even deceptively) 'light' entertainment.