Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Gene Hackman (Harry Caul), John Cazale (Stan), Allen Garfield (Bernie Moran), Frederic Forrest (Mark), Cindy Williams (Ann), Harrison Ford (Martin Stett).
Genre: Drama / Thriller
At the time of writing Dan Gilroy’s slick Nightcrawler has just hit the cinemas, a new yet decidedly retro-feeling thriller that satirises shock-hungry 24 hour news coverage and – more pertinent to this piece – revives cinema’s occasional fascination with the reclusive voyeur. It reminded me most vividly of Brian De Palma’s ambiguous antiheroes of the early 80’s. Yet voyeurism has been the thriller’s stock in trade back through Hitchcock and beyond. One of it’s very best examinations occurred in 1974; Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘small’, personal picture The Conversation, a film unjustly overshadowed by The Godfather movies. Like Nightcrawler this is an instance in which a form of technology is an essential medium through which the lead has access to his subjects; unlike Nightcrawler, The Conversation‘s Harry Caul uses sounds, not images. Most pointedly of all, he has a moral code and a conscience.
The Conversation opens on a wide shot of a plaza and pushes in slowly as a jaunty piece of street jazz competes on the soundtrack with the slow bleeding in of other source sounds; an applauding audience, a dog barking, a pop song. Before we know it we’ve located Harry Caul, receiving unwanted attention from a mime, he walks on. Only after this does a cut reveal other members of his surveillance team; they’re on a job to record a couple’s conversation. Walter Murch’s sound editing is intrinsic to how this sequence and many others in the film work; he populates the viewer’s mind with distinct and conflicting sounds, and with bubbling interference. We think like Caul’s men think; trying to separate the necessary from the dissonant.
As the film progresses, the recorded conversation takes on incredible importance as Harry comes to believe, from the couple’s words, that they are in danger, and that by gathering this information he may have made the situation worse. We hear their words over and over, until what seemed like non-sequitors sound more and more like the foreshadowing of something awful. Harry, a devout Catholic, can’t rest for fear that his work – in which he takes a great amount of pride – might cause the suffering of others.
At the centre of Harry Caul is Gene Hackman. Along with his work in The French Connection 2 (see Why I Love… #30) this marks his finest work, and details his diversity as an actor. Far removed from the blowhard stubbornness of ‘Popeye’ Doyle, his Caul is a careful, well-mannered reclusive soul, a paranoid introvert and a reflective figure of the era he is living in. This is the America of Watergate and impeachment; where personal privacy was a hot topic. Some of the biggest hits in cinema were spy films, coining on the rising Cold War threat. Surveillance and covert men lurked in the shadows of public consciousness. Coppola’s film attempts to make one of those shadows into a person, and he does this by painting a haunted, troubled individual whose soul is muddied by his own work. Work he obsesses over.
Caul isn’t excusable. Though his main passion is clearly for the technical aspects – “I don’t care what they’re talking about; all I want is a nice, fat recording” – he could always allow this to manifest in a less sordid enterprise. But he is a voyeur. Left alone for a second with a telescope, he peers into it. As much as he appalls encroachment on his personal space (near the very top of the film he is troubled that his landlord has been in his heavily secured apartment), his life revolves around profiteering on the violation of others’. Coppola suggests that this weighs on Caul, a burden perhaps released to the stratosphere as he plays his sax? But this one case, this one conversation brings that guilt, that regret to the fore. The Conversation charts his struggle with himself. It’s an intimate character piece and for this it can, on first encounter, feel small, wildly less ambitious than Coppola’s sprawling gangster epics.
However, The Conversation is just as impressive as Coppola’s other films of the decade for its steady-handed, deft focus. Like that opening shot you can see the whole film as a slow push in. At first, here’s Harry Caul, a man in a raincoat with his back to the camera, walking away from us. But we’re going to very slowly push in and in, until he’s all we can follow. Focus yourself hard on one thing and the world around it will skew. Separation. Objectivity. These things become dangerously slippery. As Caul becomes obsessed with the taped conversation he loses his objectivity, acts with risk and eventually, at the film’s close, is consumed by the paranoia that has been prickling him throughout, tearing every aspect of his apartment to shreds before he can rest and play his sax.
Above all, and this is largely unusual for a notable American picture, he’s a sad man. Sadness is a trait rarely coveted by mainstream thrillers; it’s not exciting, not sexy, not heart-warming. But it’s wholly relatable. The audience feels deeply sympathetic for Caul, despite his work, because he carries the burden of loneliness around with him, even if it is self-imposed. A quietly beautiful moment in the film occurs soon after he breaks contact with a woman he’s evidently been sleeping with. He rides the subway and the power goes out. Harry is left in silhouette, waiting for the journey to resume. Reflective piano on the score. Resigned to his lot, the disappointment at another friendship lost goes on, one feels, a long list of losses. It’s recalled in the power outage. Another light out. It’s a small moment, but one indicative of the film at large; The Conversation takes time for the beats in life other films would not have time for. It is a thriller, but that element is secondary to the primary focus of who this man is and what his life is like.
The film takes a long diversion in the middle to contrast Harry with a competitor; the extroverted, conceited Bernie Moran. He’s the perfect foil for Harry, revealing for the audience Caul’s reticence at spending time with someone he doesn’t feel comfortable with. It’s a social awkwardness that a lot of us can relate to, but one that has rarely been played for the camera this astutely. It’s not necessary to the conspiracy plot at the heart of the story; but it enriches our understanding of Harry. It is here most plainly that we see he is the story as much as the mystery. As important in this sequence is his conversation with a tipsy woman, Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae); a private moment at which Harry is as close to trusting someone as we ever see, only for the moment to be intruded upon. It’s a stresser for the controlled explosion within Harry in the next scene when Bernie presses him, revealing Harry’s culpability in three deaths previously, before exposing that he’s been bugging him all along.
It’s a smartly built sequence, showcasing all of Harry’s inner turmoil without Hackman even having to raise his voice. In the calm afterwards Harry listens to the recording as Meredith undresses and cares for him; it is only then that the film moves more directly forward with the thriller element at hand. Coppola demands that we understand and know Caul so we can appreciate how he acts. He dreams of appealing to the woman he surveilled, pleading for her understanding. Similarly The Conversation feels like a plea from Coppola to understand him. One senses a lot of Coppola in Caul, albeit with a need to communicate with us, his real voyeurs, to express himself through the mask of fiction. To reach out through technology to all those faces in the dark.
The Conversation is his two-way mirror.