In the corporate world the film depicts, the lower-level executives are small-time Lotharios who seek no more than sex from female underlings. Their boss, however, battens on the love he can get by romancing the youngest and prettiest of the crop. Our hero, on still another hand, is himself prone to falling in love. Our heroine is at the center of it all.
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The Apartment (1960) shares with Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1939) the distinction of telling a believable love story involving ordinary, decent but not uncomplicated characters. I believe its director, Billy Wilder, came to feel the film had turned out better than he could have anticipated, and so he could be unreservedly proud of it. Wilder told biographer Charlotte Chandler he liked to think of this movie as his “home run with the bases loaded” (Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography, Simon & Schuster, 2002, p. 248).
Though it never tips its hand and was a June release, The Apartment, like Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, is a holiday movie, though one celebrating the new year and new beginnings rather than Christmas. (Wilder admired Lubitsch, a fellow emigre from Germany, and co-wrote the screenplay for the latter’s other 1939 film, Ninotchka, in which Garbo famously laughed.) But where Shop concerns a small, family business whose employees take their jobs seriously and work together to create success – with the exception of one small-time Lothario who is carrying on with the owner’s wife and is exposed, humiliated, and banished – The Apartment concerns the work environment in a giant corporation, a popular topic then, and it delivers an indictment more penetrating than may at first appear. Its workplace is one populated by small-time Lotharios subordinate to a monster Lothario at the top.
The action takes place between the second week of November 1959 and New Year’s Day 1960, a time frame that corresponds to the actual period of filming, which ran from November 1959 to February 1960. C. C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an accountant with a head full of statistics, works for the Consolidated Life Insurance Co., headquartered in New York City. For the past year, Baxter has found himself putting his apartment at the disposal of four married executives for their after-hours trysts. To repay their “buddy-boy,” who has spent almost four years with the company, the executives promise to recommend him for promotion to J. D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the head of personnel. (MacMurray played the sleazy insurance salesman on the make in Wilder’s 1943 film noir, Double Indemnity.)
In the course of the movie we learn that Baxter fled to New York City from Cincinnati after falling in love with his best friend’s wife and attempting suicide. The anonymity of life in the big city and the big corporation attracted him, and the desire to erase himself helped bring about a situation where he is regularly displaced from his own apartment. While his executive clients are having their trysts, Baxter stays late at the office to pass the time before he can go home. He has no family or friends, uses the television for company, has trouble sleeping, and may not mind having less time alone in the apartment. He may also get some satisfaction from the reputation he acquires in his building as a great Lothario because, to protect his clients’ anonymity and keep from being evicted, he lets it be thought that he is the one doing all the partying in his apartment. His neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss, has told his Columbia Medical Center colleagues about Baxter the prodigious drinker and lover. Who would have thought it, the doctor marvels, “a nebbish like you”?
But Baxter is neither nebbish nor Lothario. Dreyfuss’s admonition to him to “Be a mensch,” which is sometimes taken to be the film’s message, is misplaced. Like Chaplin’s Tramp, C. C. Baxter has an edge to his personality, as well as an innocence and romanticism, and chafes under the demeaning role he has assumed. (His initials may be a veiled allusion to Chaplin.) He tries to make time with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a pretty, smart-talking elevator operator, who tolerates his attentions because he is polite. He always removes his hat in the elevator and is the only man to observe this old-fashioned courtesy toward women. Brief and slight as their interactions are, they provide the emotional warmth in Bud’s life. For her part, “Miss Kubelik” gets from her encounters with “Mr. Baxter” a better feeling about herself than from her other workplace encounters or from her affair with Sheldrake.
In contrast to the harder-to-place Waspy surnames of the white-collar Baxter and Sheldrake, “Kubelik” is clearly Eastern European and reflects a blue-collar background. Fran lives with her married sister, and her brother-in-law, one Karl Matuschka (Johnny Seven), drives a cab. (His name recalls that of the proprietor of Lubitsch’s Prague shop, Hugo Matuschek.) Given Fran’s background and the men she encounters at work, who are not only impolite but given to hitting on her – Kirkeby (David Lewis), one of Bud’s clients, makes a habit of swatting her backside with his folded newspaper as he gets off her elevator – we can better understand why she finds the awkward but polite Baxter endearing and the mature, polished, successful Sheldrake irresistible.
Fran is a variation on the good bad girl type – a Dulcinea with more than a touch of the Don. Her sister and brother-in-law took Fran in (another refugee) after the man she was in love with in her hometown of Pittsburgh got caught stealing money from the finance company he managed and was sent to prison. They sent her to secretarial school, and Fran went on to apply for a secretarial position with Consolidated, but flunked her typing test because she can’t spell and had to start as an elevator girl. She has told her family nothing of her involvement with Sheldrake – sparing herself grief but also forfeiting the possibility of their support in freeing herself.
J. D. Sheldrake is a man who uses his position and personal attractions to make conquests of the prettiest young female underlings who come his way, exercising a kind of corporate droit du seigneur. (Wilder took the name from a character in his 1950 Sunset Blvd., a film producer, but this Sheldrake more resembles the principal character from that movie, Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson.) The lower-level executives, in their weekly trysts, want no more than sex from their paramours and begrudge them any extra time or expense, such as for a cab home instead of the subway. If they do take their women out, it’s to Hamburger Heaven rather than for dinner and dancing at El Morocco. The women, for their part, would as soon stay home and watch “Bob” Stack in The Untouchables on TV. The men are overgrown schoolboys. Sheldrake is another story. He takes the trouble to romance his women, bringing the full power of his attractions to bear, because he wants more than their bodies. He plays on their sympathy and self-regard – an unhappily married man whose wife does not understand him. He leads them on with talk of impending divorce. Even Miss Olsen, his secretary (Edie Adams), who seems nobody’s fool, has stayed on for years.
When Sheldrake and Fran meet again, she gets teary-eyed when he says, “It’s been hell” without her, but proves resistant to the idea of resuming their relationship. He plays his ace. To show her how unfair she is being, he tells her he consulted a lawyer that very morning about how to handle the divorce. All he needs to go ahead, he says, is her reassurance. “Do you still love me, Fran?” Fran (looking down): “You know I do.” In the brief course of their conversation at the Chinese restaurant (the favorite haunt of Sheldrake and his women), Fran goes from addressing him as “Mr. Sheldrake” to “Jeff” and then, lowering her voice to warn him that a group from work has entered, warmly, “Jeff, darling.” It is clear that, despite herself, she loves him and that he is just using her.
It is love, not just the act of love, that Sheldrake wants. But this hardly makes him a better man than the one-track-minded executives below him, just more selfish, egotistical, and destructive, as well as deceitful and manipulative (hence more successful). If they are juvenile, he is infantile. Fran’s love for him, the thing that makes it a life-or-death matter for her to end their affair, is the very thing he cannot give up because it feeds his ego. There is a hint of vampirism in the way he sucks the love, and almost the life, out of her. One hint is the glimpse we get, through the rear window of the cab about to take them to Baxter’s apartment, of Fran nestling up against this self-enclosed man. Even her suicide attempt does not convince him to stop toying with her affections and leading her on. Out of generosity, so he tells her, he is prepared to forget the whole thing ever happened. And for him, it never did.
To judge by Fran, Sheldrake goes after younger women than those his subordinates consort with. Fran’s youth comes across painfully on the day after her suicide attempt when she’s thinking aloud to Baxter, “Maybe he really does love me.” She has the bright idea (which Baxter discourages) of writing to Mrs. Sheldrake, “as one woman to another. She’ll understand.” She also wonders, “Why do people have to love people, anyway?” There’s the Fran who is loving and trusting, and there’s the Fran who is wised-up and on her guard, and who judges the other Fran mercilessly. Her harshness toward herself is another sign of her youth. She appears to think a big girl should be able to handle her own affairs and deserves what she gets if she can’t. She does not apologize for standing Baxter up after meeting Sheldrake for drinks instead, evidently because she is too ashamed and prefers being shunned by someone she respects. Fran is over 21, as we hear later from her brother-in-law when he’s chewing her out, but probably not by much. When Mrs. Dreyfuss (Naomi Stevens), feeding the convalescing Fran chicken soup, addresses her as “little lady,” it fits. (In this movie that grounds itself in contemporary actuality, the age differences among the principals are probably meant to be close to those among the actors portraying them. MacMurray was 26 years older than MacLaine; Lemmon, nine.)
When we meet Fran, just before she resumes her affair with Sheldrake, she seems cool and self-possessed, not only with our hero but also with his clients, to whom she won’t give the time of day. They and other men at work have tried many approaches, and none has gotten to first base. “What’s she trying to prove?” Kirkeby asks Baxter. In the executive sex challenge, Fran is considered the jackpot. Perhaps that’s how Sheldrake, who makes it his business to know everything his subordinates are up to, first became aware of her and decided to take on the spirited, smart-talking elevator girl himself. Boys, step aside for the master.
Fran’s amused, detached air is a protective cover because underneath she is romantic and impulsive. And so is Baxter, who on the surface seems consumed by numbers and the pursuit of advancement.
Fran enjoys making suggestive remarks and she enjoys sex. She fondly recalls being trapped in a leaky boat with Sheldrake over the summer wearing only a black negligee and a life preserver. She makes a date with Baxter for the same night she’s meeting Sheldrake again because she doesn’t trust herself not to end up in bed with him if she can’t end their date early. That Fran is nice as well as sexy makes it easy for a Sheldrake to exploit her sexually and for a Baxter to put her on a pedestal.
As he tells Kirkeby, Baxter believes Fran is a “nice, respectable girl” who is above consorting with married men. He gets the shock of his life when he discovers that his adored one is Sheldrake’s mistress – only to get the chastening of his life for being so quick to turn against her. Because Baxter knows about falling in love with the wrong person, he can sympathize with Fran’s suffering when he becomes a witness to it. And, as he comes to recognize, who is he to judge her – a man who makes his apartment available for extramarital trysts to help his career? Baxter also learns that Fran is hard on herself and witnesses how mortified she is, immediately on waking up, to have visited her suicide attempt on him, of all people. “I’m sorry, Mr. Baxter, I’m sorry. I had no idea this was your apartment. I’m so ashamed” – a moment MacLaine makes heartrending. Fran never thinks of blaming Baxter for pimping his apartment. Blame is something she reserves for herself. The upshot is that he falls in love with her despite the fact that she seems to be the wrong person once again – his boss’s mistress this time instead of his best friend’s wife.
The conversation in which Baxter invites Fran to accompany him to the theater is the first of two occasions when she could squelch his interest in her but does not. As they continue talking, he startles her by knowing where she lives. How does he know that, she demands. But he is not at all embarrassed about his interest in her, which led him to look up her card in the employee files. He rattles on happily about all the personal details he discovered – her height, weight, age, childhood diseases, operations, etc. His guilelessness carries the day, and she decides to take the situation lightly rather than come down hard on him.
Weeks later, at the 19th-floor Christmas Eve party when he asks her how he looks in his new junior executive hat (a Chaplinesque bowler) just after Sheldrake’s secretary has told her about the boss’s previous affairs, he sees the anger in her face (at herself) and thinks she hates the hat. She gets control of her emotions and tells him she likes it. She fights back the urge to take her anger out on him and his preening.
As the apartment scene with Sheldrake opens, Fran has been crying ever since their arrival at the thought that she has let herself fall for a man who is only using her. Sheldrake tells her she has to understand how difficult it is to broach the subject of divorce after 12 years of marriage, especially at Christmas. As for those other women, he only took up with them because he was unhappy at home, but now that he’s found her, he’s “stopped running.” And it’s Christmas Eve, so let’s not fight.
Oh yes, Christmas. She has a present for him, an LP, gift-wrapped, featuring the pianist from their favorite restaurant. He has a present for her, too, he says, and takes a $100 bill out of his wallet for her to buy something for herself – Bergdorf’s has some nice alligator bags. (He has gift-wrapped presents for his family.) The look Fran gives him when he offers her the cash is one of the movie’s dramatic high points. We see her from a point just to his right. He’s standing in front of her, she’s sitting on the sofa looking up at him with eyes wet from crying and set off by hastily blotted mascara. To someone as attuned to manners as Fran, this is no mere faux pas. His offer of cash, almost a physical blow, betrays not just a lack of feeling but also a judgment that she is not a person whose feelings he has to take into account. Money will pacify her. Her look is a warning – also a plea – to put the money back in his wallet. Instead, he puts the $100 bill in her pocketbook. She then starts to strip. “I thought as long as it’s been paid for.” He tells her he’s out of time, she having squandered it with her “bawling.” He has a train to catch, his family is waiting for him to trim the tree.
As we learn afterward, before she lies down on Baxter’s bed to die, she puts the $100 bill, sans note, in an envelope addressed to Sheldrake. She’s blaming him for her suicide and thinking her death will make him realize, as she failed to do, how deeply he hurt her. That is, she manages to cling to the illusion that he cares about her even as she goes about inflicting the supreme punishment on herself. She deserves to die for being so weak and gullible, such a fool for all her smart talk. Because she blames herself ultimately and absolves Sheldrake, she is able to go back to him after narrowly escaping death.
When Fran is convalescing in Baxter’s bed on Christmas Day (possibly echoing the sickbed scene in The Shop around the Corner) and going through the motions of playing gin rummy with him – to please him because she knows he’s trying to lift her spirits – she’s musing aloud about giving up love because she’s always been “jinxed,” always fallen for the wrong guy. She regrets never being able to fall in love with someone “nice” like Baxter – not a big enough feather in her cap, perhaps, like the high school boyfriend who threw her over for a drum majorette, or like the larcenous finance company manager in Pittsburgh or, biggest of all, like Sheldrake. This is not to suggest that she set her cap at Sheldrake and thus is no better than him – only that she is not impervious to his attractions, any more than Baxter is indifferent to being promoted.
Fran and Baxter may not be “overly ambitious,” as he puts it, but unlike Sheldrake and the other executives, they are serious about their work, as they are about love (traits they conspicuously share with the couple in Shop, played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan [Louise Brooks’s favorite actress], along with a regard for manners). In addition to adorning her uniform with a flower (the first thing Baxter noticed about her; she pins the flower in his buttonhole for luck before his first interview with Sheldrake), Fran greets the passengers on her elevator by name when they arrive for work and entertains them with a little patter, announcing “Blasting off” as she closes the door. As for Baxter, he enjoys and is good at his work.
Baxter tries to mediate between Fran and Sheldrake. He calls Sheldrake at home in White Plains on Christmas morning to tell him what happened and see if he can do or say anything to comfort Fran. He calls first thing because he thinks Sheldrake might want to be present when she wakes up. Impossible. When Baxter calls the next day, he forces Sheldrake and Fran to speak to each other. Concluding from Sheldrake’s evident but baffling desire to keep his distance that he doesn’t really love her, Baxter makes a move in his own behalf. He tells Fran about his suicide attempt, which was a fiasco. He couldn’t decide whether to shoot himself in the temple, mouth, or heart. While he was trying to make up his mind, a cop came up to tell him he was parked illegally, and Baxter, anxious to hide the gun under the seat, accidentally shot himself in the knee. The story serves to mark the difference, as well as the similarity, between Bud and Fran. If she had had a gun, that would have been it.
Having the one person he cares about almost kill herself in his apartment because he’s allowed it to be used as a trysting place helps bring home to Baxter what his life has come to. Having Fran recover in the apartment gives him a taste of what’s been missing from it. Baxter’s loneliness doesn’t fully register with us, or with him, until we see how happy Fran’s presence makes him, especially so because otherwise he would be spending the holidays, as usual, by himself.
Sharing the apartment with him gives her pleasure, too. Except for the scene where her love for Sheldrake reveals itself, the only time we see Fran relaxed and happy is in the apartment with Baxter.
The arrival of Fran’s brother-in-law, dispatched by his wife to find her, disrupts their little idyll just after they sit down to dinner. Her brother-in-law is understandably angry with her for not having called (Baxter twice having talked her out of it), especially given the situation he finds. Bud tries to make conversation while Fran gets dressed and only succeeds in antagonizing him further, even telling Matuschka his sister-in-law is “terrific.” Then Dr. Dreyfuss drops by to check on Fran, and the story of her overdose comes out. To protect Fran and Sheldrake, Bud offers himself as the object of her brother-in-law’s anger, saying she took the pills because of him. Matuschka knocks him silly. Fran intervenes and carries her brother-in-law off, but not before kneeling and kissing the dazed Bud on the forehead. Her kiss easily trumps meatballs and spaghetti and gin rummy. It crowns the day’s happiness. Bud has saved Fran’s life and recovered his own. Fran has found a champion.
Fortified by Fran’s kiss and wearing dark glasses to hide his shiner, Bud on his first morning back at work is rehearsing a speech he’s going to make to Sheldrake, as one man to another. “Mr. Sheldrake, I’ve got good news for you. All your troubles are over. I’m going to take Miss Kubelik off your hands. The plain fact is, I love her. . . . Thanks to you, I’m in a financial position to marry her, if I can ever square things with her family.” Only to have Sheldrake take the wind out of his sails by greeting him with the good news about taking Miss Kubelik off Baxter’s hands.
Sheldrake is in a position to do so because his wife “fired” him after learning about his affairs from his ex-secretary, and he has moved out of the house. He is in clover, anticipating another extended lovefest with Fran like last summer’s. The fact that he is no longer living at home will give new life to his divorce talk.
Significantly, Miss Olsen ratted Sheldrake out to his wife not just to get back at him for firing her, but also because, unlike him, she is shocked when she hears about Fran’s attempted suicide, for which she feels partly responsible. We read the reaction in her face as she listens in on the phone conversation between Sheldrake and Fran just after getting fired. She wants to put an end to his games once and for all.
As a reward for taking care of Fran and keeping him out of it, Sheldrake offers Bud another promotion – this time to be his personal assistant, with adjoining office, expense account, the privilege of lunching in the executive dining room, and keys to the executive washroom. Taken by surprise and unsure of Fran, Bud has no choice but to accept.
On New Year’s Eve Sheldrake calls Bud, who is immersed in his work, into his office. He plans to take Fran out that night. His athletic club, where he is now living, is strictly stag (an inspired touch, showing the neatly compartmentalized life Sheldrake favors), and he had tossed his key to Baxter’s apartment out of the window of his train as a precaution after Fran’s suicide attempt. Holding his hand out, he asks for Baxter’s key. Baxter refuses point blank, “You’re not going to bring anybody to the apartment.”
“I’m not talking about anybody, Baxter. I’m talking about Miss Kubelik.”
“Especially not Miss Kubelik.”
Fran, all dressed up and wearing a toy crown (her executive mistress hat) and looking out of place, is sitting at a restaurant table on New Year’s Eve as Sheldrake returns from making a phone call. Her demeanor tells us that nothing has been settled divorce-wise, that she has simply gone back on her intention of not seeing him again before then. Her self-contempt paralyzes her: she made her bed, etc. Sheldrake has arranged for a car to take them to Atlantic City, where they’ll spend the night. He explains that no hotel rooms were available in the city, a recourse he was forced to try after Baxter, the ingrate, refused him the apartment key and quit his job. He repeats Baxter’s words about not letting him bring anyone to the apartment, “especially not Miss Kubelik.”
I first thought having Sheldrake repeat Baxter’s words to her was too contrived, but now think is a case where the movie’s makers knew better than they may have realized. It’s a perfect example of Sheldrake’s egotism. He asks Fran what Baxter has against her. He can’t imagine there could be any bond between a flunky like Baxter and a young woman good enough to be his mistress. For that matter, what must he think of her hope that he will divorce his executive-model wife to marry a lovesick failed secretary of no family?
Sheldrake’s question also has the effect, visible on MacLaine’s face in closeup, of making Fran realize the meaning behind Baxter’s refusal to surrender the key. She can only make a final break with Sheldrake, and regain control of her life, when she gets a strong proof of her importance to another man. Only then can she face the fact that the man she loved has no regard for her whatsoever.
Running out on Sheldrake when he turns away to join in singing “Auld Lang Syne,” and abandoning her bogus crown on the seat, as Baxter had previously shed his junior executive bowler, she runs all the way to Baxter’s apartment and up the stairs, prepared to throw herself into her jobless hero’s arms. As she reaches the second-floor landing, her blissful anticipation is shattered by the sound of a popping champagne cork from his apartment, which she mistakes for a gunshot. This time, he’s done it, she thinks, and because of me. She screams his name – “Mr. Baxter” still – and pounds on the door. But she has nothing to fear. This is a stronger, surer-of-himself Baxter – a credible hero, and a credible mate for her.
Though disconcerted a second time by the sight of packed boxes in the apartment – Baxter is preparing to move out – she takes command of the situation, asks where the cards are and retrieves them. They sit down on the sofa, which she graces like a queen, in contrast to her demeanor with Sheldrake.
“I love you, Miss Kubelik “
She directs him to cut the cards – hers is a three, his, a queen.
“Did you hear what I just said? I absolutely adore you, Miss Kubelik.”
His words tell her only what she already knows, beyond question, from his actions. Fed up with love talk anyway, she beams at him, hands him the deck, and speaks the movie’s closing line, “Shut up and deal,” as perfect in its way as “Nobody’s perfect,” the famous closing line of Wilder’s and Jack Lemmon’s previous picture, Some Like It Hot (1958). Fadeout as, beaming at each other, he deals, and she picks up her cards.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.