The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Walter Murch might be as much the author of The Conversation, one of the finest and most terrifying of all American thrillers, as its writer-director Francis Ford Coppola or lead actor Gene Hackman. By the time the film entered its post-production stage, even more vital than usual for its unique construction, Coppola was shooting another, bigger film and Murch was given nearly free reign to edit the picture and carefully construct its sound design. Murch’s importance to the project comes not only from his dominance, and Coppola’s partial absence and willingness to collaborate and compromise, but from the fact that, in the nine decades since the introduction of sound to feature filmmaking, this may be the film that makes a more resourceful use of that innovation than any other. Sound (noise and dialogue), the repetition of it, the mysteries and secrets it holds and the false conclusions it can encourage, are what the world of The Conversation and the world of its central character are built on, and it’s the rare example of a work of cinema in which what we hear is just as important — and just as artful, and open to interpretation — as what we see.

Written in the mid-1960s and shot between the two Godfather movies, The Conversation seems to come from a different world than its director’s other works, inspired by an interest in surveillance techniques and the psychology of those in the field, and informed clearly and admittedly by Antoinioni’s Blowup (it even features a mime in its opening shot), which is about a photographer who discovers an assassination occurring in the background of a group of unrelated pictures he took. Hackman’s Harry Caul, meanwhile, is a private surveillance expert who finds his carefully cultivated world apart from the human implications of his own work unraveling, and starts to lose his identity and grip on reality in the process.

The conversation of the title, and that which Caul has been hired to monitor and record for an initially unseen client, is laid out for us almost completely in the opening scenes. Starting with a slow zoom over a town square in San Francisco, we watch as a young couple, both employees of a corporation located nearby, saunter through a crowd, talking idly when they’re surrounded by little noise and with more intensity in louder moments, as though they are trying their hardest not to have the substance of their discussion heard. We learn quickly that Caul has multiple microphones stationed in various places, some a great distance away, but for the moment we can hear only a fraction of the exchange (shared between actors Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest, both haunting in their way but especially the former); the nervousness is palpable from their faces alone. Later we join Harry and his coworker Stan (John Cazale, a treat as always) as they dissect, distort and manipulate the tapes they made to parse out the words being spoken, to great success because Harry is the best in the business and we are privileged to watch him work and witness his expertise in action. As a result we hear the words of the conversation again and again, and relive this scene in sound and vision multiple times for the duration of the film, its meaning and deeper importance repeatedly questioned and revised in our estimation, always coming back to specific moments that are called forward by the narrative and seem, even as greater technical clarity is achieved, to obscure rather than demystify their own essence.

Coppola and Hackman assign Caul’s emotional cycle to those of us in the audience. The characterization is robust, easily the best and most human of Coppola’s conflicted and failed heroes from George S. Patton to Michael Corleone, and Hackman’s performance is truly masterful, undoubtedly the equal of his Oscar-winning work in The French Connection while revealing an almost incompatible style of acting. Coppola’s camera loves the technical precision of Caul’s work, and gets a thrill from unraveling the subtle smugness of his dexterity — he boasts of not caring what the recording actually concerns, only that it’s strong and usable, though we eventually learn this is a defense mechanism in response to a prior tragedy he unwittingly helped to cause — into the confusion that eventually overtakes his life. Caul is a lonely, paranoid introvert who’s constructed a life in which he reveals little to anyone except in dreams, even to his mistress (Teri Garr, who appears in only one scene but is hard to forget), and fudges the truth in most of his rare honest interactions. (This is signalled quickly when he tells several people he doesn’t have a telephone, after we watch him castigating a neighbor for opening his mail on his home phone in one of the earliest scenes.) Somehow, this distance from the character is bridged through the Hitchcock method of allowing us to share his experiences. We can understand that his line of work makes him distrustful of others, and we feel his embarrassment and dejection when he’s rebuffed on the few occasions when he opens up to others, as when a one-night stand turns out to be a setup to have the tapes of the conversation stolen. On the whole The Conversation is a masterpiece of the thriller as subjective experience: its dark world is a reflection of Harry’s psyche, but it becomes our own world in the same way that the shadowy, expressionistic urban environments of Alan Pakula’s 1970s films came to seem so gritty and dark that they were more “real” and thus more threatening than reality, a classic film noir trope. (Talking of Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Coppola later remarked on how a coincidence of timing caused The Conversation to be seen as a referendum on the wire-tipping and high-level conspiratorial behavior of the Nixon era, which wasn’t the original intention.)

Caul’s eventual confrontations with his client, whom he suspects is planning to murder the couple he was spying on (egged on by a line of dialogue: “He’d kill us if he had the chance”), further his fear and disorientation, enough that — placing ourselves firmly in his head — we can be forgiven for wondering how much of all this is even real, especially when Harry begins to be seemingly followed and tormented by his clearly dangerous oppressors. Between his chastizing of his assistant for blasphemy, his guilt-ridden confessions and obvious if easily shaken devotion to his Catholicism, and the solitude and isolation that he constructs for himself in acknowledgement of the danger of his profession — he uses phone booths, takes the bus, uses multiple locks on his home and office doors, and exists in perpetual solitude and isolation, joined only by one vice: his saxophone — we may come to suspect an unreliable narration of sorts even before Harry starts breaking rooms apart and falling into obsession over the mechanics of his latest case. None of his many private agonies are comparable to the moment when he hears the tape he made being used in an adjoining room, fully knowing that it will be an instrument of death, leaving him culpable yet again even if no outsider fully realizes it.

Coppola’s story is elegantly bare and sometimes vague but never suffers from the superficial, hackneyed qualities of similar movies from the period like Pakula’s Klute; he reveals precisely the right amount, incrementally, to Caul and therefore to us, and leaves just enough questions lingering in the open air. Given that this was a studio film, if a modestly budgeted one, it’s refreshing how much credit is given to the audience to use scant information to construct the narrative; despite being a Hollywood thriller, The Conversation feels like a European art film and is unmistakably a product of a period when director-driven works were a hot commodity at even the highest levels of the industry, which dates it more than any of its content. That lack of schmaltz and over-direction extends not just to the plot itself, which is open-ended and enigmatic without being confusing, but to the traces of humor that make their way in: the audience isn’t inclined to know much about the surveillance business going in, but they’ll spot a commercialized charlatan like Allen Garfield’s Bernie with no trouble at all, through his cheap, schmoozing “presentation,” and the way he needles Harry afterward for information.

The intrigue of the conversation itself could take over an enthusiast’s life for some time if he or she let it; there is much to decipher and much ripe for speculation. Little to nothing is directly revealed within the dialogue — the gist is easy enough to catch through well-integrated clues of context — but the final reveal of a change in emphasis in the operative sentence (some classify this as a cheat because Murch used two different recordings, but it’s not difficult to look at this as an internal change of interpretation on Harry’s part), and the meaningful glance exchanged with the Smithers-like hanger-on (to Robert Duvall’s corporate-boss victim) played by Harrison Ford leaves us with the potential that not only did Harry’s notion of a grand white-knight moral victory for himself get turned completely on its head but that the entire use of his services in the first place was a setup. No wonder, then, that the film ends with him destroying his own habitat, frantically searching for bugs and leaks, mournfully playing his saxophone as the camera gazes upon him in a robotic security-camera pattern, cowering in a corner like a trapped rat.

Maybe The Conversation is really a horror film more than a detective story. On the one hand, Harry’s creeping paranoia is familiar and scary enough, but the film’s actual chilling implication seems to be that they really are all out to get you. In the process of this discovery, with possibly hallucinated visions of violence that call directly back to various touchstones of American horror (especially Rosemary’s Baby), we have one scene of overflowing blood that one-ups The Shining six years in advance, and a whole series of almost corporate-Gothic San Francisco scenes: Harry’s shadowy apartment, the bleak and deceptively bustling town square itself, the bizarre fenced-in office space Caul uses, and the castle-like CEO’s office replete with Doberman. However you choose to take its obvious despair and unsettling absence of resolution, The Conversation is an incomparably fascinating, upsetting experience; decades later, Coppola would publicly wish he’d made more movies like it instead of taking on so many projects originated by others. As someone who would take this over a thousand Godfathers, I wholeheartedly agree… but this one remarkable film is enough to justify the director’s reputation, and Murch’s (and Hackman’s) along with it.

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