My first encounter with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was about four years ago in my first film class. The professor chose this film to study sound and how it relates to image, and yesterday I found my old term paper breaking down a few scenes into the most minuscule details. It hurt to read those eight pages of boring nitpicking with my classic typo turning definitely into defiantly. It was like a literary photograph of from college, with that big ugly sweatshirt trying to cover up the fact that you hadn’t showered in a few days. The fact remains that this is the first film I ever really contemplated the importance of sound in film and it is one I would recommend both in and out of study.
The film begins at a crowded plaza, where a surveillance team led by Harry Caul, (Gene Hackman) is trying to record a conversation between two people as they walk around. The voices are scrambled, just noises like when you mumble through one of those voice scrambler toys and set it to robot. Throughout the film, it’s Harry’s job to take the recordings and make the conversation audible.
As he uncovers more and more of the conversation, he becomes concerned. This is the opposite of what Harry’s job calls for. He is simply the bugger, the third party who figures out how to record people without them knowing and then makes the recording easily understood. Getting involved with what he has recorded or why someone needs to hear it is not part of the job. But when he unscrambles one key moment, Harry starts struggling with his conscience on whether to deliver the tapes or not. Between the mystery surrounding this conversation, the dread Harry feels and the consequences following his conscience brings him, The Conversation becomes a quietly intense thriller.
Hackman’s performance is the vehicle that moves this entire film. It is through Harry that we understand the job, the dangers and the paranoia he faces. He is a very quiet, methodical, cautious, but self destructive person. His fear of intimacy, of getting too close to anyone or saying too much about himself, ruins the relationship with his girlfriend. We see later in the film why Harry never lets his guard down. It seems that the few moments he does, it always comes back to bite him. But Hackman lets Harry’s soft side show just enough in those moments that the viewer can connect, be on his side and then feel that sting of broken trust with him. That is a rare and amazing relationship to have with a character who keeps everyone at a distance.
It makes perfect sense for a surveillance expert to be edgy, with several door locks, an alarm system and even tells people he doesn’t have a phone when he clearly does. The real treat is seeing him react to a breach in security. One of my favorite scenes is near the beginning, when Harry first goes to his apartment. Despite his locks and a security alarm, a neighbor has put a little gift just inside his door. This nice gesture just annoys Harry and instead of thanking his neighbor for the gift, he calls and asks how she got inside.
The Conversation is a slow paced thriller that has a great deal of mystery and character study. It also holds, what I consider to be, the most horrific sound in the world. That day in class that my professor decided to watch that moment over and over again, really cranking up the sound, gave me chills for the rest of the day. I still have to mentally and physically get myself ready for that moment when I watch this film. Yet I love it.
“We’ll be listening to you.”
I saw The Conversation in S.F. in the theater in ’74 and somehow haven’t seen it again since. I remember enjoying it but then squawking at the ending because (I totally don’t remember anything else about the movie) it seemed like Coppola had sneakily tweaked the inflection in one sentence of the recording to change its meaning. I’ve always meant to go back and see if that still seems true, but I never have. The movie is so well-known and popular, I imagine that someone else would have pointed this false step out if it were in fact the case.
Have you watched The Lives of Others? An excellent film with a similar premise. I recommend it.
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