Billy Wilder always liked to thread a strong streak of cynicism through his comedies, and he rarely made a film with a darker undertow than The Apartment. The effervescent comic charm of Jack Lemmon and quirky beauty of Shirley MacLaine give the film a palatable sweetness (while she would be given more glamorous treatment in later films, MacLaine was never more adorable than she was here), but they sugarcoat a very bitter pill in what is ultimately a story about moral accountability (and the lack thereof) in American business. While the film starts off as a naughty-for-its-time sex comedy about sad sack C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) who discovers he can curry the favor of his many bosses by letting them use his apartment for romantic indiscretions, it takes a more serious turn when we get to know Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), an elevator operator with precious little self-esteem. While most of the women Baxter's superiors lure to the tiny den of seduction look like brassy bar girls who've been this route before and know what they're doing, Kubelik is at heart a sweet (if disappointed) girl who desperately wants to be loved and who has made the mistake of falling for the duplicitous J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), whose callous indifference to the agony he inflicts falls just short of horrifying. (Anyone who grew up watching MacMurray on My Three Sons may be shocked to see how slimy he is in this role.) Ultimately, Baxter and Kubelik seem like two innocents stranded in a corrupt world, and what's most remarkable is not that they finally end up together, but that they both survive the experience intact -- and that Wilder is able to wring so many laughs out of a story that runs so close to tragedy.
by Mark Deming review