In a conversation between Fran Kubelik and C.C. Baxter, the two very broken people at the centre of Billy Wilder’s classic comedy drama The Apartment, Fran (Shirley MacClaine) sums up the dichotomy of the world: “Some people take,” she explains to Jack Lemmon’s Baxter, “and some people get took. And they know they’re getting took and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

Fran and Baxter are two such people. A lonely accountant at a bustling insurance firm, Baxter’s workplace predicament is uniquely challenging. He’s been press-ganged into allowing a number of his company’s senior managers to use his dingy apartment for their extramarital trysts. In exchange, a promotion for him could be on the horizon. It’s a sleazy system that Baxter nevertheless tolerates. After all, what’s the odd freezing night spent on a park bench if it means your own office on the 27th floor? 

Meanwhile Fran, elevator operator and woman of Baxter’s dreams, is embroiled in a toxic love affair with Personnel Director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sheldrake is an older married man at the company who won’t commit to divorcing his wife or letting Fran move on. It’s pretty sticky, wicket-wise, and one that only gets stickier when Sheldrake takes Fran to the apartment…

The Apartment Executives And Baxter

Courtesy of: United Artists

Barring a few cultural touchstones (Marilyn Monroe, The Music Man on Broadway, Fidel Castro) that tie it to its setting, Billy Wilder’s 60-year-old classic remains the kind of story that still feels incredibly modern. In our post-#MeToo era of heightened awareness regarding workplace harassment, toxic masculinity and relationship power dynamics, The Apartment makes for a fascinating watch. Though it wouldn’t be accurate to call them ‘predators’, the men Baxter enables through his arrangement are questionable in their approaches, at best. The imbalances in power in the relationships they pursue are hard to unsee. They’re senior company figures pursuing affairs with employees, women often significantly younger and in subordinate positions to them—telephone operators, secretaries, elevator girls. Sheldrake especially has a track record, as his ex-lover and current secretary Miss Olsen explains to Fran at the office Christmas party:

“Before me there was Miss Rossi in Auditing—and after me there was Miss Koch in Disability—and just before you there was Miss What’s-Her-Name, on the 25th floor…”

At worst, some of these men are outright harassers, and unrepentantly so. Mr Kirkeby, after slapping Fran’s behind in the elevator and being reprimanded by her for doing so, happily exclaims his desire to “get her on a slow elevator to China!” He then wonders what she’s “trying to prove” by turning him and numerous other men down. The expectation that women should be grateful recipients of all romantic and sexual overtures is implicit.

The Apartment

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These are the type of men Baxter, however unwillingly, associates with. But what of Baxter himself? As an audience, we like him. He’s sweet, a little neurotic, and he’s played by Jack Lemmon. We know his neighbour, Dr Dreyfuss, has the wrong end of the stick about the wild parties he hears through the walls. Baxter’s actual evening routine—microwaving a meal and trying to find something watchable on TV—feels familiar. We sympathise with his solitude, that strange isolation that can come with living in a big city. He’s respectful at the office, taking his hat off in the elevator and exchanging pleasantries with Fran. It’s safe to say that Baxter, not a groper or a philanderer, is a nice guy.

But being ‘nice’ isn’t enough. He’s not quite the antithesis of the men at his work that we want him to be—or at least, not yet. An early scene in which Baxter attempts to ask Fran out on a date is a prime example. He suggests a popular spot “practically around the corner from where you live”—a slightly alarming statement given that Fran has never divulged this information to him. 

Baxter proceeds to breezily recite a list of Fran’s deeply personal information back to her: her Social Security number, her medical history, who she lives with. These are all things he gleaned from looking up her personnel file without her knowledge or permission, seemingly under the impression that this devotion might impress her. It’s only the weapons-grade charm of Lemmon and his easy chemistry with MacLaine that keeps this scene from teetering into horror movie territory. It’s a different tack from men like Kirkeby, a kind of well-intentioned but ultimately very misguided attempt at courtship. But Baxter’s conduct is still an excellent example of how even a ‘nice guy’ can miss the mark, mistaking knowledge of someone for sharing a real emotional connection.

So: some philandering execs, an unhappy elevator operator, a nice-but-flawed everyman, and a grotty apartment. How do all of these add up to an indictment of toxic masculinity?

It all begins with a suicide attempt in the apartment itself—by Fran. As in his charming 1954 rom-com Sabrina, Wilder isn’t afraid to blend some exceptionally dark themes in with the light. Sheldrake’s persistent refusal to leave his wife, his cool indifference to their relationship, and his sleazy, impersonal Christmas gift of a $100 bill prove to be a breaking point. After Sheldrake leaves, and ignorant of the apartment’s true owner, Fran attempts suicide via an overdose of sleeping pills. Discovered in the nick of time by Baxter and his neighbour Dr Dreyfuss, a tragedy is averted with a brutal regimen of stomach pumping, strong coffee, and marching.

The Apartment

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Disgusted at the apparent culmination of his neighbour’s playboy lifestyle and assuming Fran is Baxter’s girl, Dreyfuss implores Baxter to “become a mensch—a human being!” It’s a Yiddish word, often referring to a person of integrity and honour, and it’ll go on to form the crux of Baxter’s evolution as a character. Dreyfuss is condemning what he sees as Baxter’s ‘live now, pay later’ attitude. But it speaks to something far deeper than that. It’s after this near-miss that Fran’s aforementioned ‘Take/Get Took’ premise is explained. Considering the power men like Sheldrake hold over the two of them, it seems hard to deny. But it’s also a premise that the rest of the film builds happily and enthusiastically towards debunking.

Away from the toxic office environment, Baxter’s focus shifts. Finally, it’s no longer about what people can take from him, or what he might get for it in return. It’s about him caring for someone else, and what he can give to them. And it turns out that what he can give, freely and in spades, is compassion. Baxter is confronted with the messy human reality that is Fran Kubelik, the side that Sheldrake is utterly disinterested in. She’s no longer the sunny elevator girl on Baxter’s pedestal, hurling witty barbs at handsy executives or tucking flowers into his lapel. She’s suicidally unhappy and in love with a man who doesn’t give a damn about her. But Fran still deserves—and desperately needs—kindness, with no strings attached.

The Apartment 1960 2

Courtesy of: United Artists

In caring for Fran, Baxter’s own lonely life is completely transformed. We see him cheerfully cooking proper food, sharing games of Gin Rummy, and even opening up about his own suicide attempt. One of the film’s best moments comes in his perfectly candid admission of his own state of loneliness:

“You know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe; I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day, I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were.” 

Now Baxter addresses Fran not as his unattainable workplace crush, but as the person sitting across from him sharing dinner. It’s one of those truly beautiful movie lines, starkly vulnerable yet filled with hope, and probably the closest thing the film has to a Grand Romantic Speech. Yet, examine the words and it’s not really about romance at all. Though he’s in love, he’s not pursuing Fran romantically. He’s articulating the quiet relief of finding human connection in an apathetic world.

It’s an idea that fully comes to fruition in the film’s climactic scene. When Sheldrake makes it abundantly clear he has no intention of seeking a divorce, will presumably continue to string Fran along, and asks for the apartment key, Baxter finally makes his stand. He quits his job, flatly stating, “You’re not gonna bring anybody to my apartment… least of all Miss Kubelik.” 

It’s an incredible moment, because it’s not solely about Fran. It’s a recognition of the damage Sheldrake’s ‘taker’ attitude inflicts on the world at large, and more importantly an outright rejection of it. Baxter emphasises he won’t allow anybody to be brought to his apartment again. He won’t be complicit anymore in a toxic system that chews people up and spits them out again. Baxter is a small cog. But by choosing humanity over money, power and self-interest, he’s instrumental in dismantling the machine. It’s a grand and beautiful gesture, inspired just as much by human decency as love. Baxter divests himself of the whole rotten lot—promotion, job, even the apartment itself—to finally become a mensch.