Picking a Scene Apart: There’s more here than the audience perceives:
I’m beginning a new series of articles where I literally pick a scene apart to show the reader what each little bit of the scene means. What that part establishes about a character or a character relationship. What is being done subliminally, symbolically, and what is being telegraphed to the audience.
A good scene doesn’t hit you over the head with these. Rather they’re supposed to affect you on a deeper level without distracting you. Our minds are very quick and you can perceive these things and have an understanding of what is going on while also progressing with the story.
You can think of it as embedding itself in your subconscious, or something you can’t put into words but you just have a feeling about. There are times when these come back to you later in the movie and you say to yourself “I had a feeling that was going to happen.”
Since a Blake Edwards scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s inspired me to start this series, I thought it appropriate to start with him.
We’ll be looking at two of his scenes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The first is early in the movie and is very important to establishing many things about Holly and Paul’s relationship throughout the move. It’s so well done that the audience thinks it’s really nothing at all.
The second is the end of the movie.
People tend to think of Blake Edwards as a director of mostly superficial, light comedies that are good for some laughs, but without much substance or artistry involved. You are about to discover otherwise.
Scene 1: Holly and Paul are drawn together
There is a scene very early in the movie that the audience doesn’t take much notice of but it actually tells us volumes, and establishes volumes for the characters. It’s actually a very important and very beautiful scene in every way.
Holly climbs out onto the fire escape to get away from a drunk man being overly aggressive. She’s running from her problems. Note the bars. Holly has said she doesn’t want to be in a cage. But as Paul establishes at the end of the film, her current life has put her in that cage. She’s going up to see Paul, whom she feels safe with.
She climbs the fire escape and sees Paul asleep in his bedroom. Note that she could have dressed differently and gone down the fire escape. It’s an early clue that she is forming an attachment to Paul. Then she sees that 2E is with him and that she is leaving money on the table. Commonality is established between Paul and Holly–leaving money on the table is a classic characteristic of high end sex work.
Holly enters the room and the journey begins
With 2E safely gone, Holly enters Paul’s bedroom. Note the distinct bar pattern on the curtains. Edwards subliminally reminds us she’s in her cage but it also symbolically shows that Holly can come out of her cage for a real life with Paul.
Paul is startled, as anyone would be and he’s anxious that 2E might still be there. He doesn’t want her to see him with another woman in his bedroom who is only wearing a bathrobe. A crash from Holly’s apartment established urgency and Holly is allowed to enter. He can’t just shush her away because of the danger. It gets her in the room and it’s brilliant.
Holly and Paul become more comfortable with each other
Edwards establishes early on that there is instant comfort and chemistry between the two of them. Holly tells Paul he is “sweet,” establishing that there is potential here for more than friendship. The third one is a big one. Holly then remarks that Paul looks like her brother Fred and asks if she can call him that. Paul replies “sure.” There is no one whom Holly cares about in a real way other than her brother. It’s telegraphing to the audience that Holly has brought Paul in very close. She’s connecting him to something very close and real to her. Throughout the movie, the only time Holly is her real self is when she is with Paul.
Holly notices the $300 2E has left for him. Holly comments “$300. She’s very generous.” Edwards cuts to the next shot, where Holly is telling Paul she understands and he shouldn’t be offended. Notice the bars on the left half of the screen where Holly is. She’s talking about what she does, and Edwards tells the audience she is back in the cage of her own making.
Things get intimate without being overtly sexual
Holly lies in front of Paul on the bed and tells him about her future dreams. It’s subliminally speaking volumes to the audience. She’s letting Paul see the real Holly. Sharing very intimate personal things about yourself is something couples do in the early stages of romance. Could it be any more obvious this is where things are ultimately heading? Holly then asks if she can spend the night there, nothing funny “just friends, that’s all.” She joins Paul, he under the covers and her on top. But they are now in a very intimate semi-embrace. This, and they way they are looking at each other, screams at the audience that highly potential romance is in the air.
Subliminally, a potential bright, happy future is conveyed
Paul turns out the lights and Edwards begins a brilliant dissolve. We first see Holly in her cage, ending with her beside Paul outside the cage. It’s a brilliant tellegraphing that tells the audience she has a realistic chance of getting out of the cage she has made for herself and have a real life with Paul. Paul is looking towards the darkness, symbolizing the place in life each of them find themselves.
He looks to his right. As the moon light begins to come through the window and illuminate them in a beautiful, soft white light, Paul looks towards the window and into the light. Symbolizing that they can get out of the life they are in, go out through the window and into the beautiful, romantic light of the future together.
It’s a very soft and intimate scene. Very softly lit and photographed. Very soft speaking voices. Most people don’t notice it in their real lives, but when you’re with someone you are romantically interested in your voice (particularly women’s) gets much softer. The scene is about drawing them together and establishing very early on there is a very special connection between them.
And you thought it was a transitional scene that wasn’t saying very much about the characters, their current place in the story, their awakening romantic feelings, and a potential different future for both of them by coming together.
Scene 2: The ending of the movie
WARNING: Scene Spoiler. If you haven’t seen the movie, reading this will destroy the entire movie for you. Come back and read about this scene after you’ve seen it. The scene will lose all emotional impact for you if you read this part first.
Everyone who has seen it remembers the ending scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Endings are where resolution takes place. The resolution for the audience here is what they’ve wanted almost all the way through the movie: for Holly and Paul to be together and start a happy life.
Some may consider this to be two separate scenes: one in the taxi and a final end scene outside. It’s really all just one, because they flow together without a transition and you can’t have the one part without the other. Without the taxi “scene” you never get to the end scene.
Part 1: The Taxi
We see Holly exiting jail the next morning. Notice that Edwards once again uses bars to telegraph that she is still in the cage of her own making.
She has a big hug for Paul, who is waiting with a taxi for them. This is a typical reaction for someone getting out of jail for the person picking them up.
For most of the rest of the movie, you can literally watch Holly’s face frame by frame, reading her exact emotion or thought, hiding or revealing her true feeling. Changes can happen within mere frames of each other and it is fascinating to watch. It’s all extremely important for setting up Holly’s giant transition at the end of the taxi sequence, and later as she looks to Paul for forgiveness, acceptance, and love.
Frame by Frame
Frame by Frame: Facial expressions and body language
You can often tell so much about what a character is really feeling and doing by their facial expressions and body language. Holly can say one thing, but throughout the rest of the cab ride her face and body language tell us everything we really need to know. You can literally click though several frames (or less) at a time and watch these changes happen. You can see what exact word was said or spoken that causes a change–and know what the change is saying. It’s a fascinating exercise, and I’m not even covering one quarter of the content here.
The scene continues. After getting over her catharsis, Holly summons the courage to tell the driver to still take her to Idlewylde Airport.
Part Two: The ending
All through the movie, we have heard Holly say she is a free spirit and a wild thing. She repeatedly says she’s not going to let anyone put her in a cage. Throughout the movie, Blake Edwards has placed cage imagery around Holly. We saw a demonstration of that in the Scene 1 discussion of this article. It’s been a subliminal way that Edwards has hinted that Holly is already in a cage.
Throughout this scene, Paul and Holly have also been in a cage of sorts. They’re in the taxi. Neither one can just jump out on impulse. In that cage, they are forced to look at each other and make an assessment. Where am I going? Who am I going there with? The cab is a cage for Holly in particular. Already vulnerable, she is forced to decide who she is, and realizes that she doesn’t know. She’s always ran before. But now she can’t because she is essentially trapped in that taxi. All of her self imagery is slowly stripped away in those few minutes. When Paul has the taxi pull over it’s the end of the line for him. He escapes the cage and makes the move towards a new life.
Holly hadn’t expected it to end this way. Now completely vulnerable, she has one last choice to make.
Frame by Frame: Transition
Frame by Frame: Resolution
It’s one of the most beautiful endings in movie history and has contributed greatly to the love people have for Breakfast at Tiffany’s to this day. For me, it’s in my top five deeply loved movies along with An Officer and a Gentleman, Silver Linings Playbook and The Graduate. See a pattern there?
One thing that should strike you as you work through this article is that there is so much going on that you only receive subconsciously as you watch the movie. You should get a feeling that “this is hard work.” And it is. It’s hard creating an artistic endeavor. Every tiny detail has to be considered and the absolute correct choice must be made each time. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those magical unions where Director, Actor and Writer all come together in perfect collaborative harmony. But it’s a damn hard job for everyone.
It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
You can rent Breakfast at Tiffany’s on these streaming services:
By Bill Grinnell
Bachelor's Degrees in Drama and History from the University of Washington in 1997. 144 credits in Drama and 90 in History with a 3.45 gpa.