Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Apartment: A Screenplay Analysis

Screenplay Analysis by: 
Petros L. Ioannou

The Apartment is a 1960 film with a script written by Billy Wilder to be later directed by him also. As per usual Wilder continues his magic on paper and screen in this film. The Apartment is a romantic comedy and whilst not the first it did set something of a standard for the genre, which many films have oft tried to reach but few have ever done so. The copy of the script I’m working with shows it written in a most unusual manner, though not unfamiliar to me as Sunset Boulevard was written in the same way. A two column spread across the page made it a little confusing to read at first because it sometimes felt hard to see which part I should be focusing on, but after ten or so pages I adjusted to it. This unique style seems to have been a trademark of Wilder’s and interesting as it is, it can be a little disorienting for the reader. The script itself is a fairly lengthy one coming in at roughly 104 pages of double column script making it unusually long for a romantic comedy given the standard page-per-minute estimates. The film itself runs for just over two hours showing how unusual it is, given most in this genre only last for an hour and thirty minutes generally speaking. However not a second is wasted in this screenplay and every scene counts.

The story follows C.C. Baxter, C for Calvin, C for Clifford, but everyone calls him Bud. Actually they don’t. No-one in this entire screenplay calls him Bud, and there’s a very good reason why; he’s no-one’s bud, just a means to an end for everyone to walk all over him. What we have in Mr. Baxter is a man who is a walking definition of a spineless corporate drone. A man who will let people walk all over him in order to get a promotion and climb up the corporate ladder. He wants to be the man in the power suit with all the cash he can get, and he’s willing to be pushed around by everyone and anyone in order to get that promotion. Baxter is no-one’s “bud”.

We see this from the very moment the film opens; Baxter is letting Mr. Kirkeby use his apartment to have an affair with a woman named Sylvia so his wife doesn’t find out. Baxter is forced to stand in the street whilst he waits for Kirkeby to do his business and leave.  The question right from the start when reading this screenplay is why on Earth is Baxter letting Kirkeby do this? At first it seems like he’s just being a “good friend” as that’s what Kirkeby refers to him as when he’s trying to shovel Sylvia out of the titular apartment. We learn later that Kirkeby is actually one of four managers, Baxter’s superiors, at the insurance company he works for whom he lets use his apartment for extramarital affairs. First of all, let me just stress that I find the fact he works at an insurance company very important to showing the character of Baxter. It’s not like his dreams are to become the head of a talent agency, or become first pick in a professional football team, he’s working in what is famously one of the dullest industries on the planet and yet he’s willing to compromise his integrity to get ahead and rise on that dullest of corporate ladders because THAT is his dream, to be the man in charge, perhaps so that he can be the one stepping on people and not the other way around. Baxter will let all four of these men defile their marriages in his home so he can climb that ladder.

It works for a while and the four managers all give Baxter glowing recommendations to Mr. Sheldrake the company director. An interesting side-note is that this is actually the second time I’ve seen a Mr. Sheldrake in a script written by Billy Wilder, the previous having been Sunset Boulevard, a minor role as a film studio executive. It’s an interesting note that shows even great writers like Billy Wilder have the same ticks as people like myself including in-references to their own work, having always included the word ‘Elysium’ in some form or another in each script I write. It shows that no matter how far you go back writers have always been trapped in their own worlds and realities when writing a script, even if no-one but themselves will notice it. Mr. Sheldrake however in this screenplay has a much larger role than the Mr. Sheldrake in Wilder’s film from ten years prior. This time Sheldrake is the walking definition of sleazy corporate executive. He’s a womaniser and a right bastard. Sheldrake finds out about the famous apartment and decides he won’t fight the promotion Baxter is receiving if Baxter will let Sheldrake use The Apartment too.

I capitalise The Apartment above because I believe The Apartment is a proper noun here. It’s a character all on its own with its very existence being a part of New York City and the high-rise life that exists there. Every one of Baxter’s neighbours has an Apartment to themselves for the most part, they scold him  believing him to be a sleaze ball himself; bringing home a different woman each night. Each person is stuck in their own little world set as Writer Wilder called it “Apart” from each other. That’s why this film is called The Apartment, it’s not just because of the location, The Apartment is a character in itself as much as the Taxi in Taxi Driver or the suit in Iron Man. The Apartment sets people up in their own little worlds where they can judge other people’s worlds without all the facts and from a distance still safe in their havens, set ‘apart’ from each other. The Apartment is the location for the moral corruption of C.C. Baxter, he is no-one’s bud; he’s their Pimp and his Apartment has become a glorified brothel.

Sheldrake uses The Apartment to have his affair with Ms. Kubelik; the elevator operator that Baxter has a crush on also. The irony being that Baxter is letting people step all over him so he can get a promotion and become the kind of man that women like Ms. Kubelik would want to be with, a man of authority in a power suit, like the one he buys right after his promotion. When he finds out Baxter is devastated but continues to let Sheldrake use The Apartment. Ms. Kubelik is constantly trying to break free but finds herself always drawn back to the womanising Sheldrake as Ms. Kubelik is not the first affair he’s had. In fact sleazy Sheldrake has had one with his secretary and many others as the secretary recalls, it sort of reminds me of a soccer team’s squad rotation. This drives Ms. Kubelik to attempt suicide inside The Apartment. It’s over the next few days that Baxter helps her recover physically, emotionally and mentally. It is here that Baxter’s moral corruption takes a 180 and makes him stand up for himself. He was willing to forgive her when she stood him up to be with Sheldrake on their “first date”. He was willing to let Sheldrake take The Apartment over and use it as his love next. He was willing to take the scolding of his neighbours and a beating from Ms. Kubelik’ brother in the face. But now he’s had enough!

After Sheldrake loses his family because his secretary tells his wife the truth after she was fired, Sheldrake becomes a bachelor but continues to string along Ms. Kubelik like the rotten bastard he is. This culminates finally in him asking Baxter to use the very site of Ms. Kubelik attempted suicide; The Apartment, for a rendezvous with her. He declines, specifically stating that he won’t let him go near the apartment again, “Especially not with Ms. Kubelik”. This is the crux of the film, after being walked all over, getting his promotions and new suits and a fancy paycheck by letting his very existence become meaningless. He’s had enough, and he’s not standing up for himself as much as he’s standing up for Ms. Kubelik, that’s how much he cares about her. She inspires him to take a stand and quit his dull meaningless corporate job and stop being a drone and become and individual. To me this moment is as complex as all episodes of Star Trek and The Borg in terms of questioning individuality combined. In a few seconds he breaks free of the shackles of being just one of eight million people living in New York and becomes an individual who is willing to literally “stick it to the man”, here he is embracing the 1960s as they roll in on the New Year, a new decade has begun, one that had been forming slowly throughout the 1950s as we’d seen in films like On The Waterfront and Rebel Without A Cause, one of liberal individuality and Baxter has embraced the times with them, Ms. Kubelik. She finds out about what Baxter said to Sheldrake and runs to The Apartment. He declares his love for her and she doesn’t respond but tells him to “Shut up and deal!” the cards that she was uninterested in at first when he was taking care of her but now wants to play. She is now interested in him, not sleazy Sheldrake.

The Apartment is an exceptionally well written script and shows the quality of Billy Wilder’s writing throughout. It’s such a different script from Sunset Boulevard and demonstrates just what a talent he is. I’ve always been able to admire someone who’s able to  switch genres at the drop of hat and succeed marvellously at both and a Noir to a Romantic Comedy is about as dramatic a switch as can be. When questions of individuality, standing up for oneself and an almost prophetic message about the coming decade of free-liberal-thought as opposed to the corporate world where money means all of the closing decade where everyone is referred to as Mister, Misses, Miss, all by their last names and impersonal. The Apartment exemplifies all this and so much more in probably the best romantic comedy ever written.