Calvin Clifford (C. C.) "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lonely office drudge at a national insurance corporation in a high-rise building in New York City. In order to climb the corporate ladder, Bud allows four company managers, who reinforce their position over him by regularly calling him "Buddy Boy," to take turns borrowing his Upper West Side apartment for their various extramarital liaisons, which are so noisy that his neighbors assume that Bud is a playboy bringing home different women every night.
The four managers (Ray Walston, David Lewis, Willard Waterman, and David White) write glowing reports about Bud, who hopes for a promotion from the personnel director, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sheldrake calls Baxter to his office but says that he has found out why they were so enthusiastic. Then he goes on to promote him in return for exclusive privileges to borrow the apartment. He insists on using it that same night and, as compensation for such short notice, gives Baxter two company-sponsored tickets to the hit Broadway musical The Music Man.
After work, Bud catches Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator on whom he has had his eye, and asks her to go to the musical with him. They agree to meet at the theater after she has a drink with a former fling. The man whom she meets, by coincidence, is Sheldrake, who convinces her that he is about to divorce his wife for her. They go to Baxter's apartment as Baxter waits forlornly outside the theater.
Several weeks later, at the company's raucous Christmas party, Sheldrake's secretary Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), drunkenly reveals to Fran that Fran is just the latest in a string of female employees whom Sheldrake has seduced into affairs with the promise of divorcing his wife, with Miss Olsen herself being one of them. At Bud's apartment, Fran confronts Sheldrake, upset with herself for believing his lies. Sheldrake maintains that he genuinely loves her but then leaves to return to his suburban family as usual.
Meanwhile, Bud accidentally finds out about Sheldrake and Fran. Heartbroken, he lets himself be picked up by a woman (Hope Holiday) at a local bar. When they arrive at his apartment, he is shocked to find Fran in his bed, fully clothed and unconscious from an intentional overdose of his sleeping pills. He enlists the help of his neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), to revive Fran without notifying the authorities and sends his confused bar pickup home. To protect his job, he lets Dreyfuss believe that he and Fran are lovers who had fought, which he took so lightly that he was meeting another woman while she was attempting suicide. This comes as no surprise to Dr. Dreyfuss or his wife, who long assumed Baxter was a womanizing playboy from all the noise coming from his apartment at all hours. Fran spends two days recuperating at his apartment, while Bud tries entertaining and distracting her from any further suicidal thoughts, talking her into playing numerous hands of gin rummy.
Since she has been missing, Fran's brother-in-law Karl Matuschka (Johnny Seven) comes to the office looking for her. She has not been there and neither has Baxter. The previous day, one of the executives had seen Fran in the bedroom when he came to the apartment hoping to borrow it, and mentioned it to the other executives. Resenting Bud for denying them access to his apartment, the executives direct the man there. Baxter again takes responsibility for Fran's actions, and Karl punches him twice in the face. Fran kisses Bud for not revealing her affair with Sheldrake to Karl, and Bud, sensing that she now cares for him, smiles and says the punch "didn't hurt a bit".
Sheldrake rewards Bud with a further promotion and fires Miss Olsen for telling Fran his history of womanizing. However, Miss Olsen retaliates by telling Sheldrake's wife, who promptly throws him out. Sheldrake moves into a room at his athletic club but now figures that he can string Fran along while he enjoys his newfound bachelorhood. When Sheldrake asks Bud for the key to the apartment on New Year's Eve, Bud refuses and quits the firm. That night at a party, an indignant Sheldrake tells Fran about Bud refusing to let Sheldrake use the apartment, especially for bringing Fran there, and then quitting. Fran finally realizes that Baxter is the man who truly loves her. Fran deserts Sheldrake at the party and runs to Bud's apartment. Arriving at the door, she hears a loud noise like a gunshot. Recalling a story of a past failed suicide attempt Baxter had shared with her, and fearing Baxter had tried again, Fran pounds on the door. Bud, holding a bottle of overflowing champagne which was the source of the loud noice, finally opens the door, surprised and delighted that Fran is there. Bud has been packing for a move to another job and city. Fran asks where his playing cards are, insisting on resuming their gin rummy game, telling Bud that she is now free as well. When he declares his love for her, her reply is the now-famous final line of the film: "Shut up and deal", delivered with a loving and radiant smile.Jack Lemmon as Calvin Clifford (C. C.) "Bud" BaxterShirley MacLaine as Fran KubelikFred MacMurray as Jeff D. Sheldrake, personnel manager, Baxter's boss and apartment userRay Walston as Joe Dobisch, office manager, Baxter apartment userJack Kruschen as Dr. Dreyfuss, Baxter's neighborDavid Lewis as Al KirkebyHope Holiday as Mrs. Margie MacDougallJoan Shawlee as SylviaNaomi Stevens as Mrs. Mildred DreyfussJohnny Seven as Karl Matuschka (Fran's cab driving brother-in-law)Joyce Jameson as the blonde in the barHal Smith as Santa Claus in the barWillard Waterman as Mr. Vanderhoff, manager, Baxter apartment userDavid White as Mr. Eichelberger, manager, Baxter apartment userEdie Adams as Miss Olsen
Immediately following the success of Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond wished to make another film with Jack Lemmon. Wilder had originally planned to cast Paul Douglas as Jeff Sheldrake; however, after he died unexpectedly, Fred MacMurray was cast.
The initial concept for the film came from Brief Encounter by Noël Coward, in which Celia Johnson has an affair with Trevor Howard in his friend's apartment. However, due to the Hays Production Code, Wilder was unable to make a film about adultery in the 1940s. Wilder and Diamond also based the film partially on a Hollywood scandal in which high-powered agent Jennings Lang was shot by producer Walter Wanger for having an affair with Wanger's wife, actress Joan Bennett. During the affair, Lang used a low-level employee's apartment. Another element of the plot was based on the experience of one of Diamond's friends, who returned home after breaking up with his girlfriend to find that she had committed suicide in his bed.
Although Wilder generally required his actors to adhere exactly to the script, he allowed Jack Lemmon to improvise in two scenes: in one scene he squirted a bottle of nose drops across the room, and in another he sang while making a meal of spaghetti (which he strains through the grid of a tennis racket). In another scene, where Lemmon was supposed to mime being punched, he failed to move correctly and was accidentally knocked down. Wilder chose to use the shot of the genuine punch in the film. Lemmon also caught a cold when one scene on a park bench was filmed in sub-zero weather.
Art director Alexandre Trauner used forced perspective to create the set of a large insurance company office. The set appeared to be a very long room full of desks and workers; however, successively smaller people and desks were placed to the back of the room, ending up with children. He designed the set of Baxter's apartment to appear smaller and shabbier than the spacious apartments that usually appeared in films of the day. He used items from thrift stores and even some of Wilder's own furniture for the set.
The film's title theme, written by Charles Williams and originally titled "Jealous Lover", was first heard in the 1949 film The Romantic Age. A recording by Ferrante & Teicher, released as "The Theme from The Apartment", reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart later in 1960.
In 1960, the film made double its $3 million budget at the U.S. box office. Critics were split on The Apartment. Time and Newsweek praised it, as did The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, who called the film "gleeful, tender, and even sentimental" and Wilder's direction "ingenious". Esquire critic Dwight Macdonald gave the film a poor review, calling it "a paradigm of corny avantgardism". Others took issue with the film's controversial depictions of infidelity and adultery, with critic Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review dismissing it as "a dirty fairy tale".
According to Fred MacMurray, after the film's release he was accosted by women in the street who berated him for making a "dirty filthy movie" and once one of them hit him with her purse.
In 2001 Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of four and added it to his Great Movies list. As of 2017 the film had a 93% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 59 reviews with an average rating of 8.5/10; the site's consensus states that "Director Billy Wilder's customary cynicism is leavened here by tender humor, romance, and genuine pathos."
The Apartment received 10 Academy Award nominations and won 5 Academy Awards.
Although Jack Lemmon did not win, Kevin Spacey dedicated his Oscar for American Beauty (1999) to Lemmon's performance. According to the behind-the-scenes feature on the American Beauty DVD, the film's director, Sam Mendes, had watched The Apartment (among other classic American films) as inspiration in preparation for shooting his film.
Within a few years after The Apartment's release, the routine use of black-and-white film in Hollywood had ended. As of 2014, only two black-and-white movies have won the Academy Award for Best Picture after The Apartment did: Schindler's List (1993) and The Artist (2011).
The Apartment also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film from any Source and Lemmon and MacLaine both won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe each for their performances. In 1994, The Apartment was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 2002, a poll of film directors conducted by Sight and Sound magazine listed the film as the 14th greatest film of all time (tied with La Dolce Vita). In 2006, Premiere voted this film as one of "The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time".
American Film InstituteAFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (#93),AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs (#20),AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions (#62),AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) (#80).AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:Fran Kubelik: "Shut up and deal." – Nominated