Thursday, January 12, 2023

The Apartment (1960): A Lesson in Power Harassment

The Apartment (1960)

starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray

One of my favorite Christmas movies is actually a very depressing movie about power harassment and attempted suicide that happens to take place over Christmas. Weird, right?

There will be some spoilers, so keep that in mind when reading.

The Apartment was released in 1960 and stars Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, and Fred MacMurray as Mr. Sheldrake a.k.a the hound from hell. It is the brainchild of Billy Wilder (a favorite writer/director of mine) and I.A.L. Diamond and is brilliant and funny and horrifying all at the same time. Like a lot of those 1960s dramedies.

Power harassment is a manipulative tactic. If you go along to get along, you'll receive some benefit in return, or you'll just be able to keep your job. If you don't go along, then you'll lose your chances at promotion and possibly even lose your job. Not surprisingly, the term power harassment was originally coined in Japan, but not nearly as long ago as you might think, just in 2002. Japan has been and still is notorious for power harassment issues (like the majority of Asian countries), but based on the existence of movies like The Apartment, it is a wide-reaching demon that affects everyone.

C.C. Baxter, insurance company employee, is in possession of a beautiful apartment in an old Brownstone. He also happens to be single. He also happens to work with a lot of middle-aged male executives who are having extra-marital affairs and need a place to take the girl. Because apparently, a hotel isn't good enough. Which explains why pushover C.C. Baxter finds himself with a social calendar entirely made up of who has his apartment what night of the week. All because of a subtle threat of job loss (we made you, we can break you) and a promise of promotion because he's going along with the good old boys.

Don't feel too badly for him, though. While he seems sweet, Baxter is allowing himself to be played. All in the hopes of becoming one of the youngest junior executives in the company, complete with shiny office and new black bowler hat, the "Junior Executive Model." The only time a tinge, a hint, a faint whiff of a moral dilemma arises from Baxter is when he realizes that the girl he likes, the sweet, adorable girl named Fran Kubelik who runs the elevator, is actually in a relationship with "happily married" VP of the company, Mr. Sheldrake.

You might ask yourself, where does Christmas come in? Well, it's Christmas Eve when Fran attempts suicide in Baxter's apartment after she realizes how sordid and ugly her affair with Jeff Sheldrake actually is. And it's Christmas Eve when Baxter stumbles home drunk with a girl only to find Fran unconscious in his bed from taking too many sleeping pills.

Little decisions led to this point, both in Fran's life and in Baxter's life. He said yes to one man who wanted to bed a woman who wasn't his wife and he needed a place to do it in. Then he said yes to two men, and so on and so forth until his calendar is an absolute mess and if he gets a cold, it's a nightmare to schedule time to recover in his own apartment. Fran became one in a long line of girls hoodwinked by master player Jeff Sheldrake. She never imagined she would be "that girl" but she ended up in that position, and regardless of whether her feelings were real, because of their positions in the company, lowly elevator girl and VP executive, their relationship is nothing more than power harassment.

The most heartbreaking moment in The Apartment is when Fran and Baxter are discussing her compact mirror. It has a crack down the center of it. Baxter mentions the crack and she says, "I know. I like it that way. It makes me look the way I feel."

I would like to say there is a happy ending but happiness isn't really at play here, at least not a giddy happily-ever-after sort of happy ending.

Baxter comes to his senses, quits his job, tells off Sheldrake, and plans to move out of his apartment. On some level, he's the loser. Fran also comes to her senses and leaves Sheldrake for good. There is a slight glimmer of hope that Sheldrake will answer for his actions because his secretary decides it's time to let the wife in on her hubby's little secrets. He may lose his marriage, but he won't lose his job. And maybe being single would actually benefit him more than if he were married and going behind her back. So, either way, Sheldrake will still be the winner.

The argument can be made by a lot of people that it's only men who use power harassment. Sorry to disappoint, that's just not the case. In a strictly patriarchal society, yes, that is true. But power harassment is not the sole domain of men. Power harassment is strictly the result of sin nature. Sinful desires for control, for influence, for authority, and for demeaning or decreasing the value of others in order to increase our own. It has nothing to do with gender. The only reason we think it does is because our current society is primarily patriarchal. But I guarantee you that if/when the tables are turned, we will see power harassment in the opposite direction. Only people wouldn't want to call it that since how can "the oppressed" become "the oppressors?" Sin nature. That's how. We're already seeing it when films like the 2016 Ghostbusters are made and people laugh at poor Chris Hemsworth being ogled by his female employers when it's actually nothing more than power harassment.

The Apartment is one of my favorite movies. Not because it's full of warm fuzzies, but because it gives an accurate look into the sordid nature of humanity. Where even the "hero" isn't necessarily heroic, and the "villains" aren't super villains like we see in the comic books, but are ordinary men with an appetite for things that aren't theirs to have. It's a brilliant film. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were geniuses. And it's a perfect example of how 1960s Hollywood occasionally got it right.


  1. I saw this back in college and I think I expected it to be more of a lighthearted comedy, more like Some Like it Hot, and so I didn't really enjoy it. I should try it again.

    I like how you say that you like this movie BECAUSE "it gives an accurate look into the sordid nature of humanity." That is so much of why I love film noir! It really brings out the idea of "no one is righteous, no, not one." None of this unbiblical "everyone is basically good inside" nonsense.

    1. That might just be why I love movies from the 1960s and sometimes the 1930s. Because they usually don't sugarcoat things. A character you might like will still make awful, sometimes what feels like unforgivable, decisions.

      I went into The Apartment thinking it was going to be a comedy too, so I empathize. My first time watching it, i wasn't at all sure why I was still watching it. I decided to never watch it again. Then I tried it a year later and so on and so forth until it became one of my absolute favorites. I love movies with warm fuzzies or true, belly-laugh comedies. But the moral dilemma movies are sometimes exactly what I need.

      I should watch some more film noir! I didn't watch a lot of classics last year so I need to dive back in. Any recommendations? I've seen a lot with Bogart and Bacall and but I know there are many others out there.


Thank you for your kind comments, which I adore!