(Spoilers: The Apartment, Notorious)
Film is a visual medium. As screenwriters, once we’ve built the story structure, much of our attention often goes to dialogue. But we should be looking for more visual ways to tell our stories so that we can take full advantage of the filmic medium. One of those ways is to create meaningful objects – props that are imbued with meaning that helps tell the story.
Besides making your script more visual, there is another benefits of creating meaningful objects: they can provide opportunities for layering subtext into scenes. This often comes when one character knows information about the object that another does not. Today I want to look at two examples of masterful use of meaningful objects for telling stories.
The first is in The Apartment (written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond). In the story, C.C. Baxter owns an apartment that he loans out to executives at his company, including Mr. Sheldrake, as a place to carry on affairs. Baxter has a crush on elevator operator Fran Kubelik, who, unknown to Baxter, is Sheldrake’s mistress.
The object in question is a make-up compact. It is introduced when Sheldrake comes to visit Baxter in his new office – the result of a promotion that was Baxter’s reward for sharing the apartment with executives. Baxter returns the compact to Sheldrake, saying it was left at the apartment the night before. Baxter points out that the mirror is broken and says he didn’t do it. Sheldrake replies that it broke when his mistress threw it at him.
This set-up of the compact is elegantly done. First, there’s a reason to bring the compact up – Baxter returning it to Sheldrake. In bad screenplays, characters might produce the object and explain it for no apparent reason. When you are setting up a meaningful object, create a good reason for it to be brought into the story, even if that reason is unrelated to the object's purpose in the plot. Second, the crack in the mirror is a way to identify this particular compact in the future – and again there is a reason for this detail to be pointed out to the audience: Baxter fearing he’ll be blamed for breaking it.
Once the compact is introduced, it is then ignored for a few minutes of screen time. Soon we have a scene set at an office Christmas party where Baxter brings Kubelik to see his new office. While Baxter is getting them drinks, Kubelik learns from Sheldrake’s secretary that Kubelik is only the latest of Sheldrake’s conquests. This provides a layer of subtext to the scene once Baxter returns. He’s flirting with Kubelik, showing off a bowler hat he’s bought. She’s trying to be nice, but we know she’s heartbroken at the recent revelation.
Then the compact makes a reappearance. Kubelik brings it out to show Baxter what he looks like in his hat. When Baxter sees the crack, the audience knows that Baxter now knows Kubelik is Sheldrake’s mistress. Baxter doesn’t say anything, but the revelation adds a new layer of subtext to the scene. The dialogue in this scene is about Baxter’s promotion and new hat, but the subtext is about Kubelik and Baxter’s heartbreaks, the latter revealed entirely through the visual use of the compact.
Don’t miss the exceptional subtlety of this. Kubelik doesn’t know Baxter knows her secret. By using the meaningful object, the writers have allowed the audience to follow this revelation without the need for a separate scene to explain it in dialogue.
Imagine how the writers’ thought process may have gone: They knew they needed Baxter to learn about Kubelik and Sheldrake, but didn’t want it to be through dialogue. So they came up with the idea for the compact, which had the advantage of allowing the revelation to happen in a scene that includes Kubelik’s character, creating subtext. The writers then had to figure out how to plant the compact and had the idea to have Baxter return it to Sheldrake. Finally they had to figure out a way for the audience to recognize the compact and came up with the cracked mirror.
The second example I’d like to discuss is in Notorious (written by Ben Hecht), and the meaningful object is the key to a wine cellar. The story is about Alicia, the daughter of a Nazi turned U.S. government spy, who has married a Nazi living in Brazil named Sebastian in order to uncover a secret plan. Alicia’s U.S. handler is Devlin, and they’ve fallen in love. Alicia has learned that something is being kept in Sebastian’s wine cellar, but it’s locked and she doesn’t have the key. Alicia and Devlin plot to sneak into the wine cellar during a party at the house.
The key is introduced when Alicia slips it off Sebastian’s key ring while they get ready for the party. She’s almost caught – Sebastian comes in just as she gets the key off of the ring and takes both her hands, the key clutched in her right fist. Sebastian kisses her left palm and moves to kiss her right one. To avoid him discovering the key, Alicia throws her arms around him and drops the key behind his back, then kicks it safely under a table.
The reason for the key is inherent in our heroes’ plot to get into the wine cellar, but this introduction with a moment of suspense cements the key’s importance in our mind. The suspense continues during the party as Alicia and Devlin try to get to the wine cellar before the butler runs out of wine and has to go down for more. The complication is that Sebastian is jealous of Alicia and doesn’t like seeing her with Devlin.
Alicia and Devlin finally manage to slip down to the wine cellar and find the clue they’re looking for, but the wine runs out upstairs and Sebastian and the butler head down. As Devlin and Alicia leave the wine cellar and head out a back door, Devlin notices that Sebastian has seen them. Devlin grabs Alicia and kisses her. When Sebastian comes outside to confront them, Alicia claims Devlin tricked her outside and forced her to kiss him. Devlin is kicked out of the party and it seems our heroes have gotten away with their plot.
Here is where the key makes its reappearance – or rather doesn’t make its reappearance. Sebastian and the butler go to the wine cellar. Sebastian pulls out his key ring… and discovers the key is gone. We see on his face that he’s put two and two together and figured out our heroes’ trick. He turns to the butler and says they should just give the guests liquor and champagne. The information has been delivered visually, adding subtext to the mundane dialogue with the butler at the end of the scene, all because of the use of the key as a meaningful object.
If you have a scene with on-the-nose dialogue or you need to give a character information, consider creating a meaningful object. You’ll need to figure out how to introduce the object and imbue it with the necessary meaning. But once you do that, you can use the object to create powerful scenes layered with subtext.
Have your own favorite example of a meaningful object? Share it in the comments!
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