Great Movies – The Conversation (1974)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Michael Higgins, Elizabeth MacRae, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford, Robert Shields, Robert Duvall

ConversationFrancis Ford Coppola was flying high in the 1970s. Balancing incredible critical and popular acclaim, Coppola achieved a level of influence in Hollywood that few if any have equalled. In the middle this decade in which he directed three of the most celebrated classics of the American cinema – The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now – he also directed a small, personal film called The Conversation. This film, one of Coppola’s few original screenplays, represented the kind of small, personal filmmaking that he had always envisioned his career consisting of before it was side-tracked by the enormous success of The Godfather. As such Coppola consistently cites The Conversation as his favourite of his films.

Fascinated by technology and process, Coppola first came up with the concept behind The Conversation in the late 1960s after reading a Life magazine article about a surveillance technician who worked in San Francisco. Coppola thought it would be interesting to fuse this character with elements of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, a European art film which had been become a surprise box office hit in the US in 1966. The resulting film was a unique, disturbing and intelligent thriller.

Harry Caul, a wire tapper, the best in the business, is hired by the director of a large company to record a lunchtime conversation between a young man and woman in San Francisco’s busy Union Square. The contents of the conversation are seemingly innocuous until Harry uncovers a previously obscured line – “He’d kill us if he got the chance” – which changes everything. Are these young people in danger? Is it Harry’s employer who is a threat to them? As a professional, Harry doesn’t allow himself to get emotionally involved in his work. He tells his partner, Sal, “I don’t care what they say. I just want a nice, fat recording.” But as desperate as Harry is to believe that statement is true, he carries a heavy burden of responsibility for what is done with the information he provides. A job he did years earlier when working on the East Coast resulted in the three people being murdered, including a mother and child. Despite his outward denial of culpability, Harry is racked with guilt. When the tapes are stolen, and he is faced with the possibility that he could end up with blood on his hands again, Harry becomes determined to intervene.

Harry Caul at work

Harry Caul at work

With The Conversation, Coppola wanted to make a film about a character that would usually be peripheral. Thus we have Harry Caul. He is the type of character who we would expect to appear anonymously in one or two scenes in a film, listening in to a phone conversation, perform a function and then vanish from the story. But here he is our protagonist. Harry has devoted his life to his unique line of work which has, as you might expect, left him obsessively protective of his own privacy. This impacts his ability to have genuine friendships and relationships with people, no matter how much he might long for them. He is an isolated and introverted man. Gene Hackman, himself appropriately ordinary looking, is tremendous in the role with a much more restrained and low key performance than is usually his style.

By far the most striking stylistic element of the film is its creative use of sound. Legendary sound designer Walter Murch created a prominent soundscape which plays a pivotal role in the narrative of the film, as well as establishing its uneasy tone. In the film’s masterful opening scene, shot by Haskell Wexler (the rest of the film was shot by Bill Butler), we see the conversation in question taking place in the crowded square as Harry’s team manoeuvre themselves to get their coverage. While the vision places us in the square with the players, the audio we hear is from the perspective of the various rooftop microphones. So there are elements of the conversation which are obscured to us on first viewing, replaced by the digital distortion of microphones. As Harry processes the recordings, we hear different excerpts of that conversation repeated again and again throughout the film. The recording comes to serve almost as a soundtrack for the film. As Harry replays the conversation over and over I his mind, the recording starts to interact with the visuals of the film: as Harry lies on his cot, we hear the woman in the recording commenting on a homeless man lying on a bench; as the prostitute Harry sleeps with leans in to whisper something in Harry’s ear, we hear the woman in the recording say “I love you.” Murch described this relationship as being almost musical.

For those familiar with Antonioni’s film, the influence of Blow-Up is obvious. Blow-Up told the story of a London photographer who discovers that he has inadvertently photographed a murder. The centrepiece of Blow-Up is a scene in which the protagonist, David, is developing his prints and, noticing details in them, he starts to expand them – blowing them up – to reveal what has happened. This scene is reflected in The Conversation where we watch Harry pouring over his recording, tweaking it and stripping it back until he reveals the pivotal line. Like most appropriations of European art cinema devices and narratives by US filmmakers, Coppola uses it as part of a much more conventional mystery narrative. Coppola largely puts to one side Blow-Up’s thematic focus on perception and reality in favour of an exploration of conscience and responsibility.

"He'd kill us if he got the chance."

“He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

Like all of the best thrillers, The Conversation features a great twist: a moment when everything we thought we knew is turned on its head. And it is only appropriate that in this film sound should be key to that moment of revelation. After Harry discovers the director of the company, his employer, has been killed he is confused. It doesn’t make sense. As he has done the whole way through the film he thinks over the recording of the conversation and we hear a line which we have heard numerous times before, but this time delivered with a slightly different emphasis. “He’d kill us if he got the chance” becomes “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” It is subtle and brilliant and straight away we know what has happened. Everything falls into place. While this final revelation comes in a single moment, the beauty of The Conversation’s twist is in the deft way that it is set up throughout the film. It is all as a result of a very clever use of point of view. Walter Murch, who also served as the film’s supervising editor, describes The Conversation as having “one of the great unreliable narratives in film.”

The entire narrative is delivered to us from Harry’s perspective. Hackman’s character is in every single scene in the film. We are either watching him, or we are watching what he is watching. It is classic restricted narration. As viewers, we are only privy to the same information as our protagonist. We only know what he knows, we only see what he sees, and importantly, we only hear what he hears. Coppola and Murch use this point of view to trick the audience. Throughout the film, as Harry listens over and over to the recording, the film shows us vision of the original conversation, though these are not necessarily the same shots that we saw in the opening scenes. Piecing these images together with the repeated recording, we are inclined to interpret them as flashbacks, and therefore understand them as being objective. However, they are not objective, they are subjective. This is because they are not flashbacks at all. Rather, they are Harry’s recollections or Harry’s interpretations of what he is hearing. So the first time we see the “He’d kill us if he had the chance” vision, we are seeing something which didn’t actually happen. The visuals are imagined by Harry to accompany his misinterpretation of the sound. But, interpreting them as objective flashbacks, we don’t question them for a second. We heard it too. We just don’t realise that we are hearing it the way Harry hears it rather than the way it was actually said. It is subtle, but incredibly effective in leading us down a path and then setting up the reveal late in the film.

As well as functioning as an intelligent thriller, The Conversation is an important product of its time. The 1960s and early 1970s had seen a number of quite prominent events occur in the US which fostered an uneasy sense that oppressive forces were at work against individual liberty. For the first time in history, the US citizenry began questioning the trustworthiness of its government and institutions. President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas in 1963 and people had been left dissatisfied by the findings of the Warren Commission. The Vietnam War was a wildly unpopular conflict, and revelations in the Pentagon Papers that the US had enlarged the scale of war by knowingly bombing Cambodia and Laos compounded the venom. The Watergate scandal started with a break in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972, escalated with revelations of bugged offices and other abuses of power, and resulted in dozens of convictions and the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. Add to these the revelations about US involvement in coups and assassination attempts abroad, and the public were losing faith in their government.

Out of this tumultuous political context arose a cycle of thrillers in the mid-1970s which were notable for their pervading sense of paranoia and their interest in conspiracy, both government and corporate. At the heart of this group of films were Alan J. Pakula’s trio Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, but the cycle also included the similarly themed Executive Action (David Miller), Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack), Killer Elite (Sam Peckinpah) and Network (Sidney Lumet). With its pervading sense of paranoia and its focus on surveillance technologies, The Conversation was right at home in this very topical group of films. Released just a few months before Nixon’s resignation, The Conversation explored the moral ambiguity of surveillance and the limits of personal responsibility. Yet despite falling bang in the middle of this group of films, and seemingly drawing on the same societal anxieties, The Conversation actually predates the cycle. As mentioned earlier, the film was conceived of almost a decade before it was released, well before the revelations of Watergate. Coppola himself has actually stated, “I never meant it to be so relevant… I almost think the film would have been better received had Watergate not happened.”

Obviously The Conversation was dwarfed by Coppola’s other monumental achievements in the 1970s, and it failed to make a big impact at the box office, though it did manage to make $4.4 million at the box office off a budget of only US$1.6 million. It did, however, win the Palme d’Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for three Academy Awards in one of the strongest ever fields: Best Picture (which it lost out to Coppola’s other film that year, The Godfather Part II), Best Original Screenplay (in which it was pipped by Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown) and Best Sound (where it lost to the far less subtle Earthquake), and it remains one of the decade’s best films and one the true gems to come out of the Hollywood Renaissance period.

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