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'The Conversation': Francis Ford Coppola Paranoid Classic

Gene Hackman, The Conversation
Gene Hackman, The Conversation

There are some works of art that are both obviously derivative and just as obviously inferior to the originals. Those simply ape the earlier work, tweak a few minor things, and try to pass off their theft as an “homage.” The Conversation (1974), written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, is not one of those minor works.

Though it has an indebtedness to Michelangelo Antonioni's brilliant Blow-Up (1966), The Conversation does not merely ape that film's existential dilemma of an accidental photograph possibly cluing its lead character into murder. Instead, Coppola's film probes far more deeply into the mind of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in an attempt to show what might cause a man to misinterpret reality to suit his own psychological needs. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]

Another major difference is that the tale in Blow-Up is wholly accidental, whereas The Conversation is built upon an outgrowth of Caul's deliberate and paid-for actions, for he is the leading West Coast surveillance expert hired by the mysterious Director (Robert Duvall) of a giant corporation to spy on his wife, Ann (Cindy Williams), and her lover, Mark (Frederic Forrest).

The Conversation opens around Christmastime, with Caul and his entourage listening in to the conversation of the two lovers as they stroll in downtown San Francisco's Union Square. The opening zoom-down from a sniper's eye level focuses on a mime (Robert Shields) who is annoying people in the square. The fragmented bits of conversation Caul eventually pieces together leads him to believe that the couple is being set up for murder by his employer. (As an aside: The Conversation's opening scene was shot by Haskell Wexler; the rest of the film by Bill Butler, who took over after Wexler and Coppola had a falling out.)

Caul is a lonely man who plays saxophone and jazz records in his apartment. Outside his window, an apartment house across the street is being systematically torn down, just as his life soon will be. Despite Caul's professional expertise and paranoia about his own privacy (he has three locks on his apartment door), a female neighbor 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.

The Conversation (1974) by Francis Ford Coppola, with Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic ForrestEven his girlfriend, Amy (Teri Garr), knows his habits – such as spying on her – yet feels excluded from his life. So does his assistant Stan (John Cazale), who eventually leaves Caul's employ to work for his East Coast competitor, William P. Moran (Allen Garfield).

All that pressure, in addition to lingering memories from an assignment he did years ago, weigh on Caul's mind. In that particular case, legendary because no one knows how he obtained the information, the facts dug up apparently led to a triple murder. With that on his mind, Caul – who also happens to be a practicing Roman Catholic – is an utterly unreliable “narrator.” The viewer cannot take all that occurs in The Conversation as the absolute truth.

As in Blow-Up, there seems to be a murder Harry seems to witness it when he takes a room next door to the Jack Tar Hotel's room 773. He listens in to what is happening, and hears what appears to be violence.

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 clear. He later breaks into the room and finds no evidence of the murder until he flushes the toilet and blood wells up. (A few years later, a similar sequence would be used in Stanley Kubrick's impressionistic The Shining, and more recently in Stephen Frears' mystery drama Dirty Pretty Things, in which Chiwetel Ejiofor's hotel clerk discovers a human heart in a toilet.)

Now, if the murder really did occur in room 773, it would have been impossible to remove all the blood. Caul even runs his fingers under the rim of the bathtub stopper, but can find no trace of 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.

Besides, we get no confirmation from other sources that any of that is real. Caul tries to confront the Director, but he is tossed out of the building by security. He then sees the young wife, still alive, in a car.

Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola
Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation

Later, there is a press coterie following the young couple. Harry now believes that they are the ones who have murdered the Director, who has been killed in a car crash. Even the Director's young assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), seems to be in on the murder – if there was one.

Caul's paranoia goes back to a single sentence that 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.

Caul begins getting threatening phone calls to his apartment, telling him he's under surveillance. Going off the deep end, he tears apart his apartment looking for the bug, to no avail. The place is left in ruins – even the floorboards are ripped up, as The Conversation ends with Caul playing his jazz saxophone while the camera swings back and forth like a security device. (Still, 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, would be an audio bug. The only thing he hasn't ripped apart is his saxophone strap, which may have been bugged when, at a convention, we see another saxophonist near 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 he hired the East Coast snoop William P. Moran to get the saxophonist to switch straps with Caul.

That's as likely as any other explanation, including the fact that Caul could be going insane and imagining it all. Also of import is Caul's feelings of complicity in someone's murder (past or present), and the fact that Moran, or someone else, seems to have displaced him as king of the surveillance hill. His own fragile ego at having been bested is part and parcel of his internal collapse.

The Conversation 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 in many cultures. Another symbol is that, irrespective of the weather, Caul always wears a translucent raincoat. Caul can often see things others cannot, but misinterprets them, for to him they are translucent; he sees general outlines, but few specifics. He even has plastic sheets set up all about his warehouse office.

Once again, could it be that everything is a figment of Caul's imagination? In his version of reality, the Director has been strangled, though 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? That it isn't, suggests that Caul has made up much of this plot himself – and his violation of his ethical principle to remain uninvolved in his cases has led to the creation of a murder out of nothing. This complexity is the mark of a great character, and Harry Caul, unlikable as he is, is one of the great film characters.

Released by Paramount in 2000, The Conversation's DVD is excellent, containing the original trailer, the 1974 eight-minute-long making-of featurette “Close Up on The Conversation,” and two outstanding commentary tracks. The first is by Coppola, who, along with Werner Herzog, is one of the few directors who understand both the technical aspects of filmmaking and the need to speak naturally to a lay listener about the film, thus avoiding the usual commentary pomposity. 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 Conversation for a year while Coppola was shooting The Godfather: Part II.

In his track, Coppola discusses the similarities between Caul and Joseph K – from Franz Kafka's The Trial – the fact that Harry shares his first name with the lead character in Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, and that Harry Caul's last name was originally Call, but a secretary's typo changed it to Caul. (Coppola preferred it that way, for all the aforementioned symbolic reasons.) The director also provides good insights into the camera technique of allowing characters to walk out of frame, and then, as if robotically, panning after them too late.

Gene Hackman, The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola
Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation

There are also trivial tidbits that enliven the commentary to make it seem as if Coppola is actually speaking to you alone. For instance, he recalls that Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall were roommates, and Duvall did his brief role as a favor to him and Hackman. Coppola 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. The Conversation was also quite timely, considering the Watergate scandal, but the idea came to Coppola in 1967. Shooting began in late 1972, and wrapped shortly before Watergate came to light.

Walter Murch is as good a commentator as Coppola, albeit a bit more technical. For instance, he says that the opening shot was the first ever filmed with a computer-programmed zoom for precision's sake. He also states that he did record two versions of Mark's remark “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 audiences initially failed to get the point unless there was a difference in emphasis.

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. (However, 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 of reality.) Murch also explains that The Conversation needed to offer some poetic license to Caul, as his audio techniques flesh out background conversations from white noise that were not technically feasible then or now.

Now, despite its debt to Blow-Up, The Conversation is a far more realistic and multi-layered effort. That does not mean it's better than Blow-Up; it's just not a rip off. Coppola's film is more internalized, even if a little less subjective than Michelangelo Antonioni's. The seeming disconnect between objective reality and what is witnessed by the audience only deepens the desire to rewatch the film.

Particularly impressive is the fact that The Conversation's lead is the sort of character other films ignore in order to focus on one of the players in the love triangle, or perhaps someone like Martin Stett. Caul is a functionary, an apparatchik – yet, he's real and his struggle is every bit as interesting as that of the “sexier characters.”

In The Conversation, 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, for The Conversation is a small, simple, great film.

Never too long at an hour and fifty-three minutes, it may well be Coppola's best. Even so, The Conversation has been lost among the three other titanic films he made in the 1970s: The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and Apocalypse Now. Whereas those three efforts were operatic, The Conversation is a chamber piece. It is a shame that in the last three decades Coppola has never made a film that comes close to the power of his work from that era.

By the way, The Conversation's piano-only soundtrack by Coppola's brother-in-law David Shire, so reminiscent of Erik Satie's piano pieces, is perfect. As Coppola says in his commentary, the piano is a lonely instrument; as lonely as Harry Caul – or an unanswered question.

© Dan Schneider

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. Also, a version of this The Conversation review was initially posted in November 2006.

THE CONVERSATION (1974). Dir. / Scr.: Francis Ford Coppola. Cast: Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Allen Garfield, John Cazale, Cindy Williams, Michael Higgins, Elizabeth MacRae, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford.

3 Academy Award Nominations

Best Picture: Francis Ford Coppola

Best Original Screenplay Francis Ford Coppola

Best Sound: Walter Murch, Art Rochester

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1 Comment to 'The Conversation': Francis Ford Coppola Paranoid Classic

  1. Laurin Rensonet

    Wonderful essay!