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C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lonely office drone for an insurance company in New York City. In order to climb the corporate ladder, Baxter allows four company managers to use his Upper West Side apartment for their various extramarital liaisons. Unhappy with the situation, but unwilling to challenge the managers, Baxter juggles their conflicting demands, while hoping to catch the eye of fetching elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Meanwhile Baxter's neighbors assume he is a "good time Charlie" who brings home a different drunken woman every night. Baxter accepts their criticism rather than reveal the truth.
The four managers write glowing reports about Baxter—so glowing that personnel director Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) suspects something illicit behind the praise, and summons Baxter to his office in order to confront him. Sheldrake lets Baxter's promotion go unchallenged on the condition that he be allowed to use the apartment as well, starting that night. Sheldrake gives Baxter two tickets to the Broadway musical The Music Man to ensure his absence. Delighted about his promotion, Baxter asks Miss Kubelik to meet him at the theatre. She agrees; however (unbeknownst to Baxter), she is in reality Sheldrake's mistress. Though she intends to break off the affair that night, she is instead charmed by Sheldrake to Baxter's apartment. Baxter is disappointed at being stood up, but is willing to forgive Miss Kubelik.
Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter and Shirley MacLaine as Fran KubelikAt a Christmas Eve office party, Baxter inadvertently discovers the relationship between Sheldrake and Miss Kubelik, though he conceals this realization. For her part, Miss Kubelik learns from Sheldrake's secretary (Edie Adams) that she is merely the latest female employee to be his mistress, the secretary herself having filled that role several years earlier. At the apartment, Miss Kubelik confronts Sheldrake with this information, and while he maintains that he genuinely loves her, he leaves to return to his family. Meanwhile, a depressed Baxter picks up a woman in a local bar and, upon returning to the apartment, is shocked to find Miss Kubelik in his bed, fully clothed and overdosed on Baxter's sleeping pills.
Baxter sends his bar pickup home and enlists the help of his neighbour, Dr. Dreyfus, in reviving Miss Kubelik without notifying the authorities. The doctor makes various assumptions about Miss Kubelik and Baxter, which Baxter concedes without revealing Sheldrake's involvement. Baxter later telephones Sheldrake at his home on Christmas morning and informs him of the situation; while Sheldrake professes gratitude for Baxter's quiet handling of the matter, he avoids any further involvement. Miss Kubelik recuperates in Baxter's apartment under his care for two days, during which he tries to entertain and distract her from any further suicidal thoughts, talking her into playing numerous hands of gin rummy, though she is largely uninterested.
Baxter and Miss Kubelik's absence from work is noted and commented on, with Baxter's former "customers" assuming that Baxter and Miss Kubelik were having an affair. Miss Kubelik's taxi-driver brother-in-law comes looking for her and two of the customers cheerfully direct him to Baxter's apartment, partly out of spite, since he has been denying them access since his arrangement with Sheldrake. The brother-in-law also assumes the worst of Baxter and punches him twice after confronting the pair in Baxter's apartment. When Miss Kubelik comes to Baxter's aid, he realizes he loves her.
Sheldrake, angered at his secretary for sharing the truth with Miss Kubelik, fires her. She retaliates by telling his wife about his infidelities, leading to the breakup of the marriage. Sheldrake moves into a room at his athletic club and continues to string Miss Kubelik along while he enjoys his newfound bachelorhood. Baxter finally takes a stand to become a man of integrity when Sheldrake demands the apartment for another liaison with Miss Kubelik on New Year's Eve, which results in Baxter quitting the firm and giving up the huge promotion Mr. Sheldrake gave him for taking care of Miss Kubelik. When Miss Kubelik hears of this from Sheldrake, she realizes that Baxter is the man who truly loves her and runs to his apartment. When she arrives, she hears what sounds like a gunshot from Baxter's apartment, but it turns out it's just Baxter popping a champagne bottle to celebrate the New Year. Baxter is bewildered by her appearance and her insistence on resuming their earlier game of gin rummy. When he declares his love for her, her reply is the now-famous final line of the film: "Shut up and deal".