Lost in the Movies: The Conversation

The Conversation

In a way, The Conversation is an ironic title. Oh sure, the plot of the film centers around a private conversation recorded by professional surveillance man Harry Caul (Gene Hackman, here old enough to look middle-aged, but young enough to retain some baby fat around his perpetually dumbfounded visage). Yet so many of the film's striking moments occur during long patches of silence. Well, not silence exactly, given the film's acute soundtrack (cinema's finest ever? It's up there). But dialogue-less, to be sure. And even when there is dialogue, as at the wiretappers' convention or post-convention party, or in the hedging verbal jousts between Harry and a young executive assistant (Harrison Ford, looking remarkably pampered and smug), or even in the poignant pleading Harry delivers to a divorcee at his party and later to the object of his spying in a dream (both exchanges are very one-sided), there is hardly enough back-and-forth or connection between the speakers to call any of these dialogues a "conversation." Perhaps, then, the title is not so ironic - given the paucity of real contact in Harry's world, the importance of that brief, cryptic exchange (recorded in the first scene and re-played throughout) only grows in Harry's mind, until it dominates every waking thought and action. That the conversation may contain potentially fatal information is merely the excuse for Harry's deeper fascination with material which could potentially pull him out of his own self-imposed isolation.

This is a precise film, not spare exactly - it contains too much thematic, visual, and aural richness to be called that - but perfectly modulated. Coppola has struggled throughout the years to match his successes in the early 70s but this film reminds us that he can be a virtuoso; somehow, its proof is even more more conclusive than that of the more expansive and complex Godfather films. Harry's one delight in life is to be a professional; often he seems weak and crowded and anxious, but he's able to luxuriate in a kind of boastful negligence when a rival wiretapper gets loaded and starts pestering him with jealous entreaties. Harry's cool aura of ability, an artistic sensitivity mixed with a nerdy techno-aptitude mixed with a brainy awareness of how his world works - all of these add to the impression of a man in control of his craft, but little else; and his craftsmanship is reflected in the film around him. It's a brilliant pro's tribute to a brilliant pro.

In his own admiring review (part of the "Great Movies" series) Roger Ebert criticizes Harry Caul's professionalism. He writes (and this passage contains spoilers, as does the rest of my review), "His colleagues in the surveillance industry think Harry Caul is such a genius that we realize with a little shock how bad he is at his job. Here is a man who is paid to eavesdrop on a conversation in a public place. He succeeds, but then allows the tapes to be stolen. His triple-locked apartment is so insecure that the landlord is able to enter it and leave a birthday present. His mail is opened and read. He thinks his phone is unlisted, but both the landlord and a client have it. At a trade show, he allows his chief competitor to fool him with a mike hidden in a freebie ballpoint. His mistress tells him: 'Once I saw you up by the staircase, hiding and watching for a whole hour.'"

OK, but I think this misses the point. In terms of capturing and cleaning up conversations, Caul's skill is unsurpassed. It is in the realm beyond that where he slips up, partly because he's bumbling and trapped inside his own head, partly because he may subconsciously want to be seen, overheard, even betrayed. We're told that sometimes suicides are really "cries for help" and I wonder if Caul's mishandling of the tapes and paranoia about their contents isn't his own cry for help. A dream sequence, in which he follows one of the conversants in a misty park, telling her his life story (while she does not respond) bears out this reading - he even mentions at one point that as a child, he almost drowned in a bathtub and upon revival was disappointed to have survived. Near the end of the movie, Harry stakes out a hotel room where the two lovers are supposed to meet. He overhears a heated exchange - not between the lovers, but between one of the lovers and her husband, who commissioned that tape from Harry and plays it for his wife. Harry sneaks out on the balcony only to see a shocking sight, a bloody hand smashing against the glass, and he retreats into his room while the soundtrack shrieks at us in a rare moment of complete sensory overload.

Later Harry will sneak into the adjoining room and look for evidence of a crime, eventually finding it when he flushes a toilet and unleashes blood-red floodwaters. But at no point does he go to the police, or even hotel security. Why doesn't he call down to them when he hears the fracas next door? No one would know it was him, and he could have averted a crime. Instead he crawls next to the toilet, drills a tiny hole in the wall, and eavesdrops through a stethoscope. Maybe Harry's curiosity is getting the better of him - he wants to see how this will turn out - but I think he's also seeking violence, preferably against himself, though he's too timid to seek this out directly so he gets his thrills by proxy. He continually puts himself in harm's way and then renders himself impotent when violence occurs. Later, he is told that his own room is bugged, and he goes into a methodical frenzy, breaking furniture, ripping out floorboards, unscrewing light bulbs, and turning the whole room upside down. Our final image is of him surrounded by the detritus of his living quarters, playing saxophone alone. Having thoroughly raped and annihilated his own home (even smashing his beloved Madonna icon), he now looks content for the first time in the movie.

I did not remember The Conversation's final twist, retaining an impression of its ambiguity and falsely remembering it as an unsolved mystery. No, by the end of the film, it's pretty clear how - and why - Harry was duped, how even his suspicions were artfully engineered by the conspirators. As Harry sees the female lover safe in a car, and reads in a newspaper that her husband, not her, has died, we see in a kind of imaginative flashback the actual crime - the tapes themselves playing a crucial role in its commission. I wonder if this may be going too far. Should the story's conclusion have remained more ambiguous - leaving us wondering if Caul's conjecture was mere paranoia or based in reality? At the very least, should Coppola have avoided flashbacks which spell out in too-specific detail what went down? Likewise, should he have avoided flashbacks while playing audio loops of the original conversation - would it have been more honest and stimulating to show Caul sitting by himself with headphones, playing the dialogue over and over and trying to imagine the conversants, rather than allowing us to see them? In other words, should more have been left to the imagination?

I'm not so sure, and anyway, I suspect that Coppola would argue that the images of the murder, and even of the lovers talking in the park is Harry's imagination. Anyway, it's a minor aesthetic quibble, and on the whole the film is virtually flawless. Besides, by eschewing an aural purity, by mixing the audio with expressive cinematography, Coppola creates a compelling formal palette. Quite often, sound is expressed not only through actual sound, but through picture as well. Hence the frequent use of telephoto lenses, often obstructed by foliage or other passerby, heightening the sense of spying that the sound already conveys. And at times the contradiction between image and sound fashions a thrilling dislocation: even though we can barely see the speakers, we can hear them perfectly, while at other times they appear sharp and close to us, but their words are garbled and indistinct. The effect is to suggest an infinitely complex world, in which so much is going on beneath the surface that one can only focus on one thing at a time, only after the fact trying to piece together various fragments to construct a coherent whole (this, of course, bears remarkable resemblance to the making of a movie).

Most disturbingly, the movie suggests that even when these pieces are fashioned into a plausible and tangible reality, one can discover that the pieces were preconceived to create a certain impression, a manipulative and misleading one. Harry uses all his skill to eavesdrop on and cobble together a conversation, one which seemed to avoid being heard. Ultimately it is revealed that whole thing was an elaborate set-up, that the exchange was meant to be recorded and decoded, that Harry, in the process of duping, was himself duped. In light of the movie's final revelations - and perhaps this is why Coppola was right to make it so unambiguous - the title suddenly seems ironic in a very different sense.

No longer does The Conversation seem unsuited to the quiet little movie; no, it's ironic not because so much of the film is absent of conversation, but because the central conversation is not between the two spied-upon lovers but between them and their listener, whom they know (but pretend not to know) is spying on them. This elaborate reversal does pull Harry out of his isolation, but only to make him accomplice to a murder for the second time in his career. It's a conversation in which one side pretends not to be listening, and the other pretends not to be speaking for the listener's benefit. It is, indeed, the perfect conversation for a movie about isolation, and alienation, and manipulation. And perhaps it's the only kind of conversation Harry is capable of. No wonder at film's end he looks satisfied, despite being unable to find the bug that was placed in his room. As he wails away on his saxophone, performing in a room devoid not only of other people but now of any possessions or material comforts, at least Harry Caul knows that he finally has an audience.

[Before closing this review, I would be remiss not to mention the work of Walter Murch, whose editing and sound design are beyond impeccable. Murch is arguably the most important non-directing (aside from the one-off Return to Oz) filmmaker of the past 35 years - and it would be impossible to imagine many of our favorite films of the 70s without his mark.]


Fox said...

That smashing bloody hand/toilet sequence you mention has always shaken me. I remember not expecting it, and then when it happened.... YIKES!!!... I can't picture to well right now, but your description reminded me how violent it ended up being. More violence than I expected from a movie - as you point out - so focuses on silence and precision.

And then, yeah, to be followed up by the "raping of his apartment" (I like how you described that) is even more effective.

Joel Bocko said...

That's true - nothing in the picture up till then is even mildly violent, let alone bloody (and the shrieking sound which follows is also unprecedented). Another example of how perfectly modulated the film is - when it does rachet up the effect, you really notice.

Jason Bellamy said...

This is well timed, because I have "The Conversation" in my own personal queue to watch again soon. Haven't seen it in several years. That said, I skipped over the middle and end sections of this for now -- I have vague memories, but not specific ones, and I might turn out to be surprised.

But I saw the note at the end about Murch and had to comment now: Get the book "The Conversations," a series of interviews with Murch. As I recall, the back end is a little bland, but it's quick reading and it really underlines how much power an editor has over the finished product.

Tony Dayoub said...

A couple of points of speculation:

-I've always speculated if the bug Caul is searching for is actually in the sax, the one place he forgets to look.

-Love the high angle pan shot the film ends with, sweeping at a precise speed from one side of the room to the other as Caul plays his sax. It very much approximates the effect of a security camera spying on the proceedings. Easier to tell if you fast forward through the sequence.

- In many ways what I suspect to be an extremely personal film for Coppola , it is a sort of auditory version of Blowup that is not as direct a crib as De Palma's Blow Out.

Can you believe Coppola had both this and Godfather Part II up for Oscars in the same year?

Joel Bocko said...


I was surprised by how much I had forgotten (especially about the ending), so good call. I have read parts of that book, and also was lucky enough to see & hear Murch (and briefly Coppola) at a screening of Youth Without Youth last year, which was cool.

Joel Bocko said...

Tony, good call on the sax - and it struck me, especially as Hackman & Cazale listen to the recordings over and over, fiddling with the controls, that this movie was DEFINITELY an audio version of Blow-Up, almost rendering De Palma's film redundant (though I've yet to see the whole thing, and found what I did see interesting).

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