DVD Review Of The Conversation

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/6/06


  There are some works of art that are obviously derivative of others, and obviously inferior, because they simply ape the earlier work, tweak a few minor things, and try to pass off their theft as ‘homage’. The Conversation (1974), written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is not one of those minor works. It has a manifest endebtedness to Michelangelo Antonioni’s brilliant 1966 film, Blowup, yet it does not merely ape that film’s existential dilemma of an accidental photograph possibly cluing its lead character into murder. Instead, The Conversation  probes far more deeply into its lead character Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) and his life, to see what might cause a man to misinterpret reality to suit his own psychic needs.

  Another major difference is that the tale in Blowup is one that is wholly accidental, whereas the story The Conversation is built upon is an outgrowth of the deliberate and paid for actions of Caul, the leading West Coast surveillance expert, who has been hired by the mysterious Director (Robert Duvall) of a giant corporation to spy on his wife Ann (Cindy Williams) and her lover Mark (Frederick Forrest). The film opens, around Christmastime, with Caul and his entourage tailing and listening in to the conversation of the two lovers as they stroll in Union Square, an open air park in downtown San Francisco. The fragmented bits of conversation he pieces together only later, and comes to feel that the couple is being set up for murder by his employer. The opening zoom down from a sniper’s eye level, focuses on a mime (Robert Shields) who is annoying people in the square. Eventually he sidles up to and mimics Caul, who walks away. The opening scene was filmed by Haskell Wexler, and the rest of the film by Bill Butler, who took over after Wexler and Coppola had a falling out.

  Yet, despite Caul’s professional expertise, and paranoia about privacy (he has three locks on his apartment door), a female neighbor of his knows his birthday, and when he gets home we see that she, or someone else has gotten into his apartment and left a bottle of wine. His mail has also been snooped through. Caul paranoidly reams out his landlady, and says his mail will no longer be delivered to his apartment. Even his girlfriend, Amy (Teri Garr), knows his habits- such as spying on her for over an hour on etime, yet feels excluded from his life. So does his assistant Stan (John Cazale), who idolizes Caul, and eventually leaves his employ to work for his Caul’s East Coast competitor William P. Moran (Allan Garfield), from Detroit. Caul is a lonely man who plays saxophone in his apartment, along with jazz records, but never in public. Outside his window an apartment house across the street is being torn down, systematically, as his life soon will be.

  All of these pressures, plus the fact of an assignment he did years ago, weigh on his mind. In that case, which Moran says is legendary because no one knows how Caul got the information, the facts Caul dug up apparently led to a triple murder. With that on his mind, and knowing that he is a practicing Roman Catholic who goes to confession, Caul is a very unreliable narrator, and the viewer cannot take all that occurs in the film as being true. This also accounts for his professional demeanor of not caring about the reasons he is hired- they are just jobs to him. Yet, he violates this, due to his guilt.

  As in Blowup, there seems to be a murder, and Harry seems to witness it when he takes a hotel room next to the room- Room 773 of the Jack Tar Hotel, a while before the 3 pm trysts time. He listens in to what is happening, and hears what appears to be violence. Yet, we never see what really happens. There are some subjective shots, all hidden by frosted glass. We see blood, and Harry believes the young wife has been killed. The references to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho are manifest. He later breaks into the room and finds no evidence of the murder, until he flushes the toilet, and blood wells up. A similar bloody sequence would be used in Stanley Kubrick’s impressionistic The Shining a few years later, and a few years ago the Audrey Tautou mystery film, Dirty Pretty Things, found a hotel clerk discovering a human heart in a toilet. Yet, if the murder really did occur, there is no way all the blood could be removed. Caul even runs his fingers under the rim of the bathtub stopper and there is no blood. That the blood wells up only after the flush is just too symbolic to be real, in the interior of the film’s universe.

  We also get no confirmation from other sources that any of this is real. Caul then tries to confront the Director, but is tossed out of the building by security, and sees the young wife, still alive, in a car. Later, there is a press coterie following the young couple, and Harry now believes that it is they who have murdered the director, for he sees a newspaper headline that the Director was killed in a car crash. Even the Director’s young assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), who seemed to be behind alot of the things leading to the paranoia Caul felt, seems to be in on the murder- if there was one. Earlier, he had wanted to take the tapes from Caul, for his $15,000 fee. Caul refused, believing he could only turn them over to the Director. He and Stett tussled and Stett warned him to stay uninvolved: ‘Now look, don't get involved in this, Mr. Caul. Those tapes are dangerous. You heard them. You know what I mean. Someone may get hurt. Mr. Caul, be careful.’ As he left, he saw Ann and Mark on an elevator, and was alone with her, and moved to the other side of the elevator.

  His paranoia all gets back to a single sentence that Forrest’s character, Mark, utters to Ann, ‘He’d kill us if he had the chance’. Throughout the film, Caul hears the emphasis on kill, meaning the couple feared the Director’s wrath. After the Director is dead, Harry believes the emphasis was on us. He then gets phone calls to his apartment threatening him, telling him he’s under surveillance. They could be from Stett or Moran- who seems to have been hired by Stett, Ann and Mark, or the Director, as well, to spy on Caul. After having fallen prey to Moran’s bugging by a free pen, given at a surveillance convention- something out of a James Bond film knockoff, at the party at his office, and having his information regarding the Director’s case later stolen from him by the blond woman, Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), Moran hired to seduce him, Caul is off the deep end, and tears apart his apartment looking for the bug, to no avail. His apartment is left in ruins- even the floorboards are ripped up, as the film ends with Caul playing his jazz saxophone as the camera swings back and forth like a security camera. Yet, it is clearly not a security camera, for we have seen Coppola’s God’s-eye view from the same position earlier in the film.

  The bug, if there is one, is an audio bug. Whether or not it is real is the question. What is real is Caul’s mental breakdown. Even a plastic Madonna is suspected, and destroyed, as the big, but to no avail. The only thing he hasn’t ripped apart is his saxophone strap, which may have been bugged when, at the convention, we see another saxophonist in the area of Caul and Stett. Since we know Stett is playing both sides against the middle in the power struggle between Ann, Mark, the Director, and Caul, it’s conceivable that, since he likely hired Moran to bug Caul, who hired Meredith to seduce Caul, he’s also gotten, or hired Moran to get, the saxophonist to switch somehow switch straps with Caul. It’s as likely as any other explanation, including the fact that Caul could be going indsane and imagining all of it. Also of import is that part of the reason that Caul seems to lose it is not only his feelings of complicity in someone’s murder (past or present), but the fact that Moran, or someone else, seems to have displaced him as king of the surveillance hill, and his own fragile ego at having been bested is part and parcel of his internal collapse.

  The film is awash with symbolism, starting with the name of Harry Caul. A caul is part of the embryonic sac, the amniotic shroud, that sometimes remains on a newborn baby after birth. It is translucent and seen as an omen of many things in many cultures. Another symbol is that Caul always wears a translucent raincoat, despite the weather. Caul can often see things others cannot, but misinterprets them, as they are translucent, not transparent, to him. He sees general outlines, but few specifics. He even has plastic sheets set up all about his warehouse office. Late in the film, Caul even dreams that he meets the young wife in a park. He warns her of the danger and also speaks of his own life, and his paralysis as a child.

  Yet, could it be that all of this is imagined by Caul? In his versions of reality, the Director has been strangled, yet there was clearly a car accident. If the corpse had been stashed in a car, surely the strangulation would be discovered by a competent coroner, even if a plastic bag was about the Director’s neck at the time? That it is not suggests that Caul has made up much of this plot himself, and that it is his violation of his ethical principle to not get involved which has built up a murder out of nothing. This is the mark of a great character, and Harry Caul, unlikable as he is, is one of the great film characters. The Conversation is also one of the greatest character studies ever filmed. It deserved being nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Original Screenplay), and, although it lost out to Coppola’s other film, The Godfather II, The Conversation did win the Golden Palm at Cannes, though.

  The DVD by Paramount is excellent, with the original 1974 eight minute long making of featurette for the film, ‘Close Up On The Conversation’, the original trailer, and two outstanding commentary tracks. The first is by Coppola, who, along with Werner Herzog, is one of the few directors that understands both the technical aspects of filmmaking, and the need to speak naturally to a lay listener about aspects of the film, and avoid the usual commentary fellatrics. The second commentary is by film and sound editor Walter Murch, and it is every bit as good as Coppola’s, without repeating too many of the same points. Murch edited the film for a year while Coppola was off shooting The Godfather, Part II. Both commentaries were recorded in 2000, when the DVD was released. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen format of 1.66:1.

  Coppola speaks of many things in his track, including similarities between Caul and Joseph K, from Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the fact that Harry shares his first name with the lead character from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and the fact that Harry Caul’s last name was originally Call, but a secretary’s typo changed it to Caul, and Coppola preferred it that way, for all the symbolic reasons stated above. He gives good insight to the camera technique of allowing characters to walk out of frame, and then pan after them too late, as if robotically. He also explains how he gave Harrison Ford free reign to expand his Martin Stett character, and the effect that repeating certain scenes and motifs has on the viewer. There are also trivial tidbits that enliven the commentary to make it seem as if Coppola is actually speaking to you alone. He recalls that Hackman and Duvall were roommates, and Duvall did his brief role as a favor to him and Hackman. He also explains how the dream sequence was originally a part of the film’s end, but how he had trouble shooting it, and scrapped the idea, in favor of the film’s current end, yet wanted to use the scene, as it is the only glimpse the viewer has into Caul’s past.

  Murch is as good a commenter as Coppola, albeit a bit more technical, explaining that the opening shot was the first ever filmed with a computer programmable zoom, for precision’s sake. He also states that he did record two versions of Mark’s comment that, ‘He’d kill us if he had the chance.’ In his commentary, Coppola expresses some regret that he went with that choice, but Murch explains that initial audiences did not get the point unless there was a difference in emphasis. The difference, however, can be internally explained away as being part of Caul’s own subjective filter, due to his guilt over the prior triple murder, and his role in it. Another point Murch makes is that we, the audience, have some distinct advantages over Caul, in that we can see scenes that Caul only hears. But, if many of the scenes are merely Caul’s subjective reimaginings of events he only hears, we may actually be even further detached from what really went on, since we are only privy to Caul’s versions, not an objective reality. Murch also explains that the film has to give some poetic license to Caul when his audio techniques flesh out background conversations from white noise that were not technically feasible then, in 1974, nor even today.

  It is a shame that in the nearly thirty years since the 1970s, Coppola has never made a film that comes close to the power of his films from that era. Despite its debt to Blowup, The Conversation is a far more realistic and multi-layered film. That does not mean it’s better nor worse than Blowup, just not a ripoff. It is far more internalized, even if a little less subjective, than the earlier film. This seeming disconnect between the objective and that witnessed by the audience only deepens the desire to rewatch the film. Especially great is the fact that the film’s lead is the sort of character other films ignore, to focus on one of the players in the love triangle, or perhaps Martin Stett. Caul is a functionary, an apparatchik- yet he’s real, and his struggle is every bit as interesting as the ‘sexier characters’. Yet Coppola heeds Juvenal’s query from his sixth Satire: ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ (‘Who watches the watchmen?’) There are many watchers in this film, yet the final watcher is the audience, and what they watch is greatness, simple in its complexity.

  The Conversation is a great, simple, and small film, never too long at an hour and fifty-three minutes, and it may be Coppola’s best. It was very timely, considering the milieu of Watergate, but the idea came to him in 1967. It started filming in late 1972, and wrapped shortly before Watergate came to light, yet it has been lost between the three other titanic films he made in the 1970s: The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, and Apocalypse Now. Whereas those three films were operatic, this film is a chamber piece, and apropos of that, the piano only soundtrack by Coppola’s brother in law David Shire, so reminiscent of Erik Satie piano pieces, is perfect, for, as Coppola says in his commentary, the piano is a lonely instrument; lonely as Harry Caul, or an unanswered question.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Alternative Film Guide website.]


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