Monday, December 28, 2009

The Conversation


As befits a film about a wiretapping and surveillance expert, Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is driven by its soundtrack, by the complex intersections of tape recordings, jazz music and overlapping dialogue that create this dense, layered audio construction. The wiretapper Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a solitary and paranoid man, a consummate professional who builds all his own equipment and jealously guards his secrets from everyone in his life, including his longtime partner Stan (John Cazale) and his sometimes lover Amy (Teri Garr). Harry's lonely but stable life is disrupted when he becomes more involved than usual in his latest case, in which a businessman has asked Harry and his crew to record a conversation between a young couple in a public place. The couple, Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams), are aware that they're always being observed, so they go to a busy public park in the middle of the day, walking in endless circles through the crowds, believing that this will make it impossible to record what they are saying. For Harry, this is first and foremost a professional challenge, and he initially relishes the difficulty of the task he's been given. He is proud of his skills, and knows that he is possibly the only man in his field who could accomplish this job.

The film's introduction thus focuses on Harry's technical skills, and Coppola cuts crisply back and forth from the surveillance men in their various hiding spots, to the couple walking around and talking. We hear snatches of their conversation, sometimes crystal-clear, sometimes heavily processed or interrupted by other noises. The soundtrack reflects the attempts of the surveillance men to assemble a coherent tape by tracking the couple with three different mics. The couple talks about seemingly innocuous things: Christmas presents, the homeless, getting bored of walking in circles. This basic dialogue will return again and again throughout the film, with new details being filled in and new snatches of dialogue being heard as Harry works with the tapes and discovers new nuances in the audio. Each time he hears the tape, he seems to hear something new, and as new exchanges are unveiled, previous ones take on new meanings. At other times, a simple phrase might mean multiple different things based on context and how it's said, the exact tone of voice behind it. The audio, and the images of the couple that often accompany this recording, form the structural foundation for the film, as Harry begins to invest more and more emotional meaning into this recording.

Harry, who opens the film insisting that he doesn't care about the actual content of his recordings, and doesn't care what impact his work has beyond the mechanics of doing it, begins to feel the moral weight of his profession. Certainly, this morality is something he's tried hard to escape, as is revealed later in the film. Harry's sleazy competitor Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield) tells a story about how the information gathered in one of Harry's previous jobs had led to the deaths of an entire family. Harry tries to shrug it off, insisting that it's none of his business, that his only concern is the technical challenges of getting the best possible audio, but it's obvious that he's moved by the idea that his work can have devastating and horrifying implications in the outside world. At one point, convinced that his newest tape is going to lead to another murder, he even goes to confession, attempting to cleanse his soul of the guilt. He leads up to the admission with minor sins like taking the Lord's name in vain, an offense that bothers him throughout the film, but throughout his whole confession the priest, seen in hazy outline through the thin gauze screen of the confessional, simply nods his head silently. There is no answer for Harry's overpowering guilt, his growing impression that he's going to cause a horrible crime.


These guilty feelings soon escalate into outright paranoia, as Harry feels he's being stalked by the blandly sinister Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), a representative for Harry's employer who's angry that Harry is waffling about handing over the tapes. Harry's fears deepen after an encounter with unlikely femme fatale Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), a giggly, earnest blonde whose unexpected betrayal — after a moody, late-night noir love scene where her naked body, in Harry's spacious workshop, is a black-on-black silhouette — sends Harry spiraling further into isolated paranoia. The film's lengthy and borderline-surreal denouement increasingly ventures into Harry's frazzled subjectivity, encompassing a dream scene where a fog-shrouded Harry shouts out non-sequiturs about his life at Ann, his latest recording subject, whose words and fate have held such intense fascination for him. By the time Harry discovers a previously unheard section of the tape where the couple plans a rendezvous, and subsequently visits their hotel room, his imaginings and fears have taken over the film, as Coppola shifts fluidly in and out of Harry's imagination. The film's most famous and startling image — a toilet overflowing with blood — is a potent symbol of Harry's feelings of guilt.

This extended ending also winds up being a neat and ironic reversal of what we (and Harry) assume is going on here. A crucial bit of tape is replayed, one last time, and this time a subtle shift in emphasis on one word completely changes the meaning of what's being said. It's a final reminder of the importance of words, of how much can hang on the meaning and intent of a single word, a single syllable, of how much information can be encoded in the most seemingly innocuous audio. One word, pronounced slightly differently, makes all the difference between innocence and guilt, between the murderer and the victim. It's this kind of subtle, surprising effect that makes Coppola's The Conversation such a taut, powerful film, a film where the soundtrack is at least as important, and probably even more important than, the methodical, carefully composed images.

24 comments:

Jake said...

Absolutely one of my favorite thrillers. It was the one film I hadn't already seen in my Intro to Film Studies class -- slim, slim pickings indeed at Auburn -- and even among all the others that I'd seen and mostly loved it was my favorite. I don't really agree with Rosenbaum's prejudices against The Godfather films, but at least by setting them aside he can champion this one a lot more than the average critic.

Naturally, we watched the film in my class the week we covered sound in film, but since AU won't shell out the money to let film classes use true auditoriums, god forbid rent a screen at a theater, so we had to watch it in a big classroom with a shite projector and those crappy speakers meant for teachers to use mics, but I still loved every second.

Jesus, Coppola's run in the '70s is one of the all-time great stretches of film quality. What a shame he burned out so terribly (lord do I really want to see Tetro, though).

William Kretschmer said...

Gee, I've got it at home and haven't watched it yet. It looks like II'll need to do that now soon...

Ed Howard said...

Jake, it's definitely one to watch for the sound above all else, and I imagine its wonderfully layered soundtrack is stunning even in the worst circumstances — you'd have to be watching it totally silent to miss out on how much information, both emotional/psychological and narrative, is conveyed through the sound.

William, definitely check it out. It's one of those classics I wish I'd watched sooner.

J.D. said...

This is a great film, as you so eloquently point out, and one of the best paranoid thrillers of the 1970s (right up there with THE PARALLAX VIEW). Through the intricate sound design, Coppola gradually gets us into Harry's head in such a unique way. Through sound and film editing, we being to perceive the world as he does. In some respects, the film is a fascinating study of obsession and how Harry's obsession over this surveillance gig ultimately consumes him.

Troy Olson said...

This is one that has to be viewed more than once, I'd say, especially if coming in expected any kind of modern-day conspiracy themed film -- at least for me I ended up missing a lot of the nuances you bring up until I watched it a second time (a viewing which raised my initial so-so reaction to it). Between Hackman's performance and the brilliant sound editing, this is a classic in the 70's paranoia cycle of films.

Oh, and since J.D. brought it up, I watched THE PARALLAX VIEW this weekend and found that I actually preferred it a bit to THE CONVERSATION. That doesn't seem to be a popular opinion, but the perfection of Gordon Willis' photography and the way the story unfolds simply appealed to me more. Both films have an ending that speaks perfectly to the times they were made for, though.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, J.D. and Troy. Obviously I really need to see The Parallax View as well; I've heard a lot of good things about that film. And Troy, I think you're right that this film demands multiple viewings. Most films don't really exploit the possibilities of sound, so it can take a while to adjust to just how much Coppola is conveying here with just audio.

Steven Santos said...

One of the ideas I believe is key to Harry Caul is how offended he seems whenever he feels his privacy is invaded. His resistance of Stan trying to be his friend as opposed to being just a partner. Or that moment when he calls his landlord to complain about the gift left inside his apartment.

Caul sets such strict boundaries for himself but doesn't consider that listening in on other people's conversations is a rather dubious way of making a living. He eventually does realize this which probably leads to one of my favorite closing shots to any film.

It's difficult to pick whether this one or "The Godfather Part II" is my favorite Coppola film.

Ed Howard said...

Excellent points, Steven. I think actually his job is the whole reason that Harry is so sensitive to these disruptions of his personal space in the first place. He may not be aware of the moral contradiction — or else he's semi-consciously suppressing it, which would be consistent with his semi-suppressed feelings of guilt — but he's definitely hyper-aware of violations of privacy. One of the ways he rationalizes it to himself is by saying that he tries not to listen to the content of his tapes, that he only cares about the technical matters, but that of course is just another way of avoiding responsibility.

Tony Dayoub said...

Here's a great triple bill: BLOWUP, THE CONVERSATION, and BLOW OUT. All represent their respective directors at their apogee, tell virtually the same story, but in cinematic language distinct from each other.

J.D. said...

Troy Olson:

I couldn't agree more. As much as I love THE CONVERSATION, I think that THE PARALLAX VIEW is even better. And, of course, you've got another great paranoid thriller, also by Alan J. Pakula, with ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.

Ed Howard said...

Tony, sadly, I still need to see both the Antonioni and the De Palma. This thread's yielding some good nudges towards films I need to see.

Sam Juliano said...

Excellent review of a film that's always terrific to resurrect. Of course in a narrative sense, it's worth mentioning the similarities to Von Donnarsmarck's German masterpiece THE LIVES OF OTHERS.

Of course the crucial observation is:

"One word, pronounced slightly differently, makes all the difference between innocence and guilt, between the murderer and the victim."

Marco Michele said...

hi there, I like very much your movie blog, I love movies too and I wish you happy new year ;)
best regards,
Marco Michele
CN

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam and Marco, for stopping by!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Never all that impressed with this one. It's good alright, but when it comes to conspiracy thrillers Alan J. Pakula is DA MAN! Made between the two Godfathers it's quite nice. But for me Coppola is Godfather II, One From the Heart, Rumble Fish and Tucker: A Man and His Dream.

Jeff Bridges is especially wonderful in the latter. I've been thinking about his performance there and in as Big Lebowski fanboys contineue to clog the atmosphere. Plus this si His Year for the Oscar as it's in the bag for his rather routine performance in that remake of Clint's Honkytonk Man.

Colin Firth deserves to win of course, but he may as well stay home.

Ed Howard said...

In many ways, it's a pretty conventional paranoid thriller, at least in terms of the fairly minimal plot and the psychology of the hero, so I see where you're coming from, David. It's mainly the wonderfully innovative, complex soundtrack that elevates this film from just another 70s thriller into a truly great film.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Forgot to mention The Fabulous Baker Boys in my last post. Now THAT'S acting.

Adam Zanzie said...

The Conversation was the first Coppola film to introduce me to his more intellectual side. Mind you: I'm as big a fan as anybody of all that hellfire in Apocalypse Now (which has had more of an influence on my life than any other film I've ever seen; I'm being serious), but as a whole I believe Coppola truly excels when his films are more personal. Clearly he's more comfortable when he's committed to such projects.

Consider Youth Without Youth, which is a film I treasure endlessly. I never understood the harsh critical reaction. And I'm eagerly waiting for that DVD release of Tetro, which I missed in theaters.

With The Conversation, I really had to ponder at that ending where Harry rips up his whole flat. Not until the Coens' No Country for Old Men did I have to ponder for so long at the ending of a movie.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Yes, yes, yes... This is a wonderful film... The best of Blow Up and The Lives of Others put together...

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for commenting, JAFB.

Adam, agreed about the ending, I get where you're coming from there. It's basically an invitation into Harry's subjectivity, to think about the implications of his final breakdown.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Youth Without Youth and Tetro find Copolla floating out into the further fields of european "art cinema of a sort that has primarily been trafficked in by Raul Ruiz and Manoel de Oliveira. Neither is quite succesful, though being Coppolla they are of course quite interesting. After all these eyars he remains a "work in progress."

Dave said...

A great movie and a great write-up here, Ed. It's amazing to consider that, IMO, a movie of this level is still only the fourth best film that Coppola made in the 70s. Just shows how red hot he was in that decade. The influence of previous films like Blow-Up are obvious, but I think that The Conversation is on another level even from that great Antonioni.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for commenting, Dave. The 70s were definitely Coppola's decade.

Anonymous said...

I have not tuned into any of the additional material on the DVD, but can anyone tell me - with full confidence - whether the recording that we hear of what Harry hears of the fateful sentence is actually different at the end of the movie from the one we heard at the beginning (after the three tracks had been united) and throughout?

Thank you!