C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lowly office worker who often adds to his already busy schedule by putting in overtime: not because he is fond of his job, but because he can't get into his apartment. No, he hasn't been locked out, but in the hope that it will lead to career opportunities he allows his senior executives to use his place to entertain their girlfriends so their wives won't find out. This means, like tonight, Baxter has to wait outside until his "guests" leave and considering it's the middle of winter he runs the risk of catching a chill. If only Baxter had a girlfriend of his own, someone like the elevator operator Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), for example...
Believe it or not, but Best Picture Oscar winner The Apartment wasn't met with universal praise on its initial release. Actually, a lot of people found it seedy and sleazy, with Baxter effectively letting his home out for immoral purposes, so it's quite a turnaround the film, scripted by director Billy Wilder with regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, has enjoyed over the years. Of course, those criticising it were missing the point in that it's the fact that the film was willing to journey to such dark places that made it so effective as both comedy and drama.
And romance, for that matter. Baxter sees Miss Kubelik every day in the elevator and during the first scene with them together he asks her out but is given the brush off. We can imagine this has happened more than a few times to Baxter as he's not only a doormat but a loser as well, he simply cannot face it. He thinks he will be rewarded for letting his superiors walk all over him, but he is being exploited by the system as surely as Miss Kubelik is. He doesn't know it, but the reason she won't see him, and doesn't turn up when they finally do arrange a date, is because she is the mistress of the boss.
He is Sheldrake, played by Fred MacMurray with such despicable, offhand charm that it's difficult to understand what she saw in him in the first place, even if she's supposed to be in love with him now. Must be a power thing. What gives The Apartment much of its power is that both its lead characters are dying inside, on a slippery slope to lifelong misery if they cannot see, as we do, that they are meant for each other and not the corporation. Of course, Sheldrake takes advantage of Baxter and escorts the more fragile than she cares to admit Miss Kubelik back to his home where after a few such nights she finds out that he has no real interest in her other than sex, and her self-esteem spirals into a nosedive.
And all this at Christmas, proving that if you really want depression then the festive season is a hell of a time to feel alone, as both Baxter and Miss Kubelik are. Considering it's a comedy, the film certainly revels in the dejected side of life and much of it isn't funny at all, especially Miss Kubelik's suicide attempt that Baxter walks in on as she has taken his bottle of sleeping pills. Can he save her life - and can she save his? It's frustrating to see his faith in the executives' way, as he covers up for his boss all for a pokey office with his name on the glass door, but part of what this is about is a man regaining his humanity, a spirit that Miss Kubelik brings out in him if only he could admit it to her. Wilder had promised Lemmon a great role after inflicting drag on him with Some Like It Hot, and he shone here in one of his finest performances; after all that despair, you're relieved at how life-affirming The Apartment finally is. Music by Adolph Deutsch.