What Works & What Doesn't: 'The Apartment'
Welcome back to What Works & What Doesn't. We've been working our way through the basic tenets of screenwriting by first examining the three types of cinema narratives as defined by Robert McKee in his book Story, then by looking at examples of great scene descriptions via Alex Cox's Repo Man and, last month, exploring great dialogue via Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's sublime Shaun of the Dead (for a complete list of previous WWWD columns, click here).
Action and dialogue are the two most basic tools a screenwriter possesses to generate beats and "turn" a script (i.e., generate interest and intrigue in the viewer through narrative hooks). So this month, we're going to look at the beat as the basic building block of any screenplay, and to do so, we're going to dive into a script that features both great dialogue and scene descriptions, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's Oscar-winning The Apartment (1960).
Now, this may seem like shooting fish in a barrel—after all, Billy Wilder's name is synonymous with tautly-written screenplays, a reputation he was quick to promote. In Tom Stempel's Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, Wilder talks candidly about his experiences with, in his opinion, an incompetent director, Mitchell Leisen, which ultimately led him to directing his own work:
He didn't argue about scenes. He didn't know shit about construction. And he didn't care. All he did was he fucked up the script and our scripts were damn near perfection, let me tell you...He didn't have the brains to see that if Charlie [Bracket, another Wilder collaborator] and me, if we put in a line, we had a goddam reason for putting in that line and not a different line, and you don't just go and cut a line or a piece of action to please some actress, at least without putting another line or action in its place.
Wilder's confidence in his work is not unjust, and he is correct in saying his work was "damn near perfection"—namely because there is at least one beat in The Apartment that doesn't quite work.
We'll get to that in a moment, as well as all the other reasons that make this script so wonderful and readable, but first let's get a refresher on the definition of a beat.
Once again, let's turn to Robert McKee and his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting for a better understanding of this term (Remember, I only go back to McKee because he offers the broadest and easiest-to-understand guide out there).
Inside the scene is the smallest element of structure, the Beat. (Not to be confused with [beat], an indication within a column of dialogue meaning 'short pause'.)
A BEAT is an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by Beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene.
By "turning" McKee means simply changing—we enter into a scene with one set of values or knowledge, and we exit the scene with those values upended or fundamentally altered.
These beats occur through decisions and actions made by the characters, although when properly handled, external factors can also play a part—say, if a character gets hit by a car while crossing the street; this may create a shocking or unsuspected moment, but if the writer relies too much on these external and random "beats," the script will feel hollow because the characters effectively don't do anything.
Fortunately, with The Apartment, all action is driven by the characters, and not by fate.
In case you're unfamiliar with this film, The Apartment concerns one C.C. Baxter, nicknamed Bud (Jack Lemmon), described by Wilder and Diamond as "about thirty, serious, hard-working, unobtrusive." His titular abode has become THE premiere love nest for his married co-workers, who need a hideout for their mistresses—a situation that arose from Baxter's inability to say no, his susceptibility to pressure, and his career aspirations within the company. If his superiors are happy, then they'll recommend him to Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the big man on the 27th floor, for an executive position. Even if he has to spend an evening sleeping in Central Park during a downpour, Baxter will let them use his apartment.
But Baxter's aspirations aren't solely focused on his career. Wilder and Diamond introduce us to Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), one of the elevator operators in Baxter's building. It is clear in the first scene of her appearance that Baxter has a crush on her. Observe how the writers slyly reveal this fact, and turn the values of the scene in doing so.
As the elevator loads, [Fran] greets the passengers cheerfully.
Morning, Mr. Kessel -- Morning, Miss Robinson, Morning, Mr. Kirkeby -- Morning, Mr. Williams -- Morning, Miss Livingston -- Morning, Mr. McKellway -- Morning, Mr. Pirelli -- Morning, Mrs. Schubert --
Interspersed is an occasional "Morning, Miss Kubelik" from the passengers.
Morning, Mr. Baxter.
Morning, Miss Kubelik.
He takes his hat off -- he is the only one. The express is now loaded...
(shutting the door)
Watch the door, please. Blasting off.
Bud is standing right next to Fran as the packed express shoots up.
What did you do to your hair?
It was making me nervous, so I chopped it off. Big mistake, huh?
I sort of like it.
He sniffs, takes out a Kleenex, wipes his nose.
Say, you got a lulu.
Yeah. I better not get too close.
Oh, I never catch colds.
Really? I was looking at some figures from the Sickness and Accident Claims Division -- do you know that the average New Yorker between the ages of twenty and fifty has two and a half colds a year?
That makes me feel just terrible.
Well, to make the figures come out even -- since I have no colds a year -- some poor slob must have five colds a year.
(dabs his nose)
You should have stayed in bed this morning.
I should have stayed in bed last night.
So much is going on in this scene, which appears on the surface to be simple conversation. For one, the old-fashioned Baxter removes his hat in the presence of Fran, a gentlemanly courtesy. He compliments her hair, she expresses some concern about his cold, and when Baxter suggests he move away from her, rather than saying nothing (which would indicate ambivalence toward his physical separation from her), she lets him know that she never catches colds (which indicates, subtextually, that she doesn't mind him being right next to her).
So, what begins as a fairly innocuous and perfunctory exchange between two people quickly becomes a flirtatious encounter. However, things quickly get complicated when Baxter finally has his meeting with Sheldrake, in which he learns that the big man will fast track him to executive status in a month's time if Baxter gives him the key to his apartment (to which our protagonist readily complies) (and this is an excellent, beat-laden scene, by the way, one we won't delve into for time's sake).
High off his career success, at the end of the day Baxter invites Fran out to the theater that evening, and she agrees to meet him there after she's through with a quick drink with an ex-boyfriend who insisted they meet. Baxter is giddy, and he heads off toward the Majestic.
But we don't follow him. Instead, the action stays with Fran, who ducks into a basement Chinese restaurant and meets none other than Mr. Sheldrake, who once again insists that he's ready to leave his wife and start anew with the younger woman—a task which takes a fair amount of convincing. Let's look at one particular exchange between Fran and Sheldrake, and examine how Wilder and Diamond change the values of the scene.
INT. CHINESE RESTAURANT - EVENING
Fran and Sheldrake, in the booth, are working on the second round of drinks.
Fran -- remember that last weekend we had?
Do I. That leaky little boat you rented -- and me in a black negligee and a life preserver --
Remember what we talked about?
We talked about a lot of things.
I mean -- about my getting a divorce.
We didn't talk about it -- you did.
You didn't really believe me, did you?
They got it on a long playing record now - Music to String Her Along By. My wife doesn't understand me -- We haven't gotten along for years -- You're the best thing that ever happened to me --
That's enough, Fran.
(going right on)
Just trust me, baby -- we'll work it out somehow --
You're not being funny.
I wasn't trying.
If you'll just listen to me for a minute --
Okay. I'm sorry.
I saw my lawyer this morning -- I wanted his advice -- about the best way to handle it --
What do you think?
(looking at him for a long moment - then)
Let's get something straight, Jeff -- I never asked you to leave your wife.
Of course not. You had nothing to do with it.
(her eyes misting up again)
Are you sure that's what you want?
I'm sure. If you'll just tell me that you still love me --
You know I do.
See the changes that occur during this scene? We begin with Fran and Sheldrake getting along well enough, on their second round of drinks, reminiscing about the old days. Then, Sheldrake mentions divorce again. Fran has that brilliant "Music to String Her Along By" bit of dialogue, and the room goes icy. Now they're fighting, but Fran changes tact by letting Sheldrake talk. He brings up divorce again, only this time he's offering up real evidence that he might be serious this time—he's been talking to his lawyer "about the best way to handle it" (tellingly, he won't say the word "divorce" outright here). Now things really change for Fran—he's serious, there's hope. She was ready to put the whole affair behind her and move on with her life, but now...she doesn't know (though, also tellingly, she won't say the words "I love you" outright to him). This scene goes back and forth like a tennis match, with values constantly switching, characters "winning" and "losing" at their objectives within a few lines of dialogue, and stakes intensifying—not just within the scene itself, but also in comparison to the above exchange between Baxter and Fran in the elevator, which is tinged with innocence and charm, indicating that we are on a dark narrative trajectory.
Wilder and Diamond certainly pay off this dark setup. Following this scene, we jump ahead in time a month. Baxter moves into his new executive office, then meets with Sheldrake, whereby we learn that the latter is still stringing Fran along, complaining to Baxter about her needs for commitment. Baxter eventually learns that his would-be paramour Fran is Sheldrake's "girl," sending him into a brief, alcoholic spiral.
Things only get worse for Fran. On Christmas Eve, Sheldrake is trying to get in a quickie at the apartment before traveling back to the 'burbs to celebrate with his family (Don Draper, anyone?), but Fran isn't having it. She's tired of the same old thing with him, all the empty promises, the sneaking around. As angry as she is, however, she still gives Sheldrake his Christmas present—a recording of "their song," for which Sheldrake displays mild but awkward amusement and insists they leave the record in the apartment. It is clear he hasn't gotten her anything, so he attempts to give Fran one hundred dollars to "buy herself something nice."
The connotation of prostitution here isn't lost on Fran, which only depresses her further. After Sheldrake leaves, Fran discovers Baxter's sleeping pills and decides to end it all.
Okay, we're now getting into "Doesn't Work" territory, but there's a little more setup required, so bear with me. See, Baxter's neighbor Doctor Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) believes, on account of the party and vaguely sexual noises he hears coming out of Baxter's apartment all day and night, that our protagonist is the stereotypical definition of a swinging bachelor. Because Baxter is an infinitely nice and spineless guy, he plays along with this image so as to protect his coworkers. Dreyfuss constantly admonishes Baxter, but shows his real fury after helping Baxter revive Fran, whom the latter discovered unconscious on his bed. He once again makes up a story that paints himself in a negative light to spare Fran and Sheldrake further embarrassment. Dreyfuss counters,
...I don't know what you did to that girl in there -- and don't tell me -- but if was bound to happen, the way you carry on. Live now, pay later. Diner's Club...! Why don't you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means?
I'm not sure.
A mensch -- a human being!
In other words, the opposite of everything the good doctor believes Baxter to be. This "mensch" concept embodies Baxter's entire character arc, as he must decide whether he wants to be the spineless "yes man" Sheldrake and his other superiors have crafted him to be, or whether he wants to be an individual who holds his self-respect dearly.
Because Baxter is inherently a good person, he ultimately chooses the latter. He helps Fran get back up on her feet, mollifying her depressed, self-loathing thoughts with words of encouragement, even revealing that he once tried to kill himself too, over his best friend's wife, but ended up shooting himself in the knee instead.
Later, on New Year's Eve, after truly seeing the way Sheldrake treats Fran, Baxter quits his job, telling his boss he'll never allow Sheldrake or anyone else to bring a girl up to his apartment. He's decided to be a mensch, Baxter tells his boss, and walks out of his office.
Now, with this bold step toward mensch-hood out of the way, Baxter also decides to leave the apartment—too many bad memories, mostly involving Fran, the "one that got away," so to speak (Sheldrake's secretary, another former lover he jilted, ratted the man out to his wife, forcing him out on the street and, we think, solidly in Fran's company).
As he's packing up, Baxter finds his gun, the one he almost used on himself all those years back. He studies the gun for a moment in the same fashion we saw Fran study the sleeping pills earlier—with an unsettling "what if?" expression painted on his face.
There's a knock at the door, which prompts Baxter to stow the gun away. He answers, and it's Dreyfuss stopping by to borrow some ice for the New Year's Eve party he's hosting across the hall. The doctor notices Baxter is leaving, and they say their goodbyes. Then, Baxter adds,
...Look, Doc -- in case I don't see you again -- how much do I owe you for taking care of that girl?
Forget it -- I didn't do it as a doctor -- I did it as a neighbor.
(stopping in doorway)
By the way, whatever happened to her?
You know me with girls. Easy come, easy go. Goodbye, Doc.
Happy New Year.
So, we see Baxter studying the gun, and then he says the "easy come, easy go" line to Dreyfuss. He doesn't tell the doctor the truth, he doesn't seem all that excited to reveal that he's decided to become a mensch. This combined with Baxter's abandonment of his job and his home, not to mention the bit with the gun, leads us to believe that he might in fact have different New Year's plans than we thought—that his idea of becoming a mensch is altogether different than what the Doc had in mind.
Wilder and Diamond play with this expectation, of course. We cut to Fran, celebrating the coming New Year (with all its connotations of revival and new beginnings) in the same old basement Chinese restaurant with the newly single Sheldrake. However, when she learns that Baxter walked out on his job earlier that day, Fran has a moment of revelation. She sneaks out on Sheldrake just as the clock strikes midnight and rushes back to the apartment.
INT. STAIRCASE AND SECOND FLOOR LANDING - NIGHT
Fran mounts the stairs eagerly. As she reaches the landing and heads for Bud's apartment, there is a loud, sharp report from inside.
Fran freezes momentarily, then rushes to the door.
(pounding on door)
Mr. Baxter! Mr. Baxter!
The door opens and there stands Bud, the bottle of champagne he has just uncorked still foaming over in his hand. He stares at Fran unbelievingly.
(sagging with relief)
Are you alright?
Are you sure? How's your knee?
I'm fine all over.
She thought, and we thought, that Baxter had pulled the trigger, but no, it was just him uncorking a bottle of champagne. He's not in the mood for suicide at all, but rather celebration. The gun was just a red herring, an avenue for the charming exchange between Baxter and Fran above.
That's all fine and well. I really love this moment. Unfortunately, though, a part of this moment's setup also includes Baxter's "easy come, easy go" line, which he delivered to Dreyfuss earlier. He says this to the Doc because, we think at the time, the truth doesn't really matter, because nothing really matters, in Baxter's view. He's going to kill himself anyway, so why waste time explaining the whole affair?
However, when we learn suicide was never Baxter's intent in the first place, we begin to question the "easy come, easy go" line. Was it simply that the truth would be too laborious to explain at the moment? Maybe so, but it seems Baxter would want to at least apologize in some way or express his gratitude toward the Doc, not just for saving Fran's life, but for saving his own life too by advising him to be a mensch, planting the seed for Baxter's redemption. Instead, he lets Dreyfuss go on thinking he's a swinging bachelor who hasn't learned a thing from his experiences.
Why? Perhaps Baxter really did intend to kill himself, but decided against it at the last minute. Perhaps he'd planned to have a few belts of champagne to numb the pain a little further before doing the deed. We'll never really know what Baxter was thinking, as his interior state leading up to Fran's appearance at his door isn't scripted at all, as we focus on Fran with Sheldrake in the Chinese restaurant while Baxter continues packing in his apartment.
I think rather the whole gun and "easy come, easy go" set up is just that—a set up to a gag of sorts, a sleight-of-hand meant to lead the audience in one direction, then pull the rug out from under our feet with the surprising but joyous reveal—Baxter didn't do it! He's fine all over, and now he and Fran can be happy together. I find Baxter's maintenance of the status quo with the Doc irksome, but in a script that is "damn near perfection," as Wilder put it, what's one little smudge on an otherwise spotless script?
And that just about does it, column-wise.
Any Apartment fans out there? What do you think about the "easy come, easy go" line? Are there other beats in the film you'd like to discuss? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.
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