starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams
written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola
by Walter Chaw The moment I decided that movies were something to be respected, studied, opened layer-by-layer rather than merely enjoyed and cast aside was at a 16mm screening, in a college film course, of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 masterwork The Conversation. If we were speaking in different terms, film before it for me is the equivalent of the girls I dated until I met my wife. It taught me about what it is to respect the medium; it showed me the joys of complexity and investment, and it showed me what it was to be in love. It hit me like a freight train. And not only had I never seen The Conversation prior to that hot, close afternoon in the common room where that seminar took place, I had never so much as heard of it. I was humbled by my ignorance, and that helped. I was also at a personal crossroads in my life--that didn't hurt, either. My sense memory of The Conversation is bifurcated between the feeling of my feet in socks walking along the carpeted hall of my dorm, down the concrete stairs, and into the screening area and sitting next to the girl I liked, who was wearing her sweats, no make-up--and the feeling, years and years later, of watching it on a shitty old laptop in bed with my wife while we waited for the first terrible contractions to happen during the first of our trio of miscarriages. Neither of us ever questioned the wisdom of putting it on, knowing that the toilet backflow scene was coming down the pike. We were naïve. We didn't know why we wanted to watch it so desperately that night. When people ask me what my favourite movie is, I tell them it's The Conversation. I don't even have to think about it.
It's an accident that the hero is named Caul, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). As Coppola tells it, he was dictating the script to his secretary and she misspelled "Call." He liked it. I like to think he liked it because a "caul" is a birth sack and people used to believe that if a child was born with one over its face, it suggested the gift of second sight, of prescience. I like to believe that Coppola, studied in the classics, was thinking of seers like Cassandra and Tierisies, for whom there was no profit in their clairvoyance. I like to think this mistake inspired the wardrobe choice for Harry of a translucent raincoat as well as an opaque scrim that Harry at one point steps behind, cocking his head...to listen. The film is a collection of serendipitous mistakes like this. Coppola abandoned the picture, after all, with pages left to shoot and police harassing him on his last day on set for filming without a permit, to focus his attention on The Godfather Part II. His instructions to Murch were to see what he could do with what was already in the can, no matter any lack of connective tissue. In its way, the instruction holds true to Hermann Hesse's Harry Haller from his Steppenwolf (the inspiration, along with saxophonist Pablo from the same book, for Coppola in writing Harry Caul in the late-'60s), with Coppola assuming the role of Haller, seeing himself as distinct from society, turning his back at least for a time on normative function.
When Murch talks about Harry's raincoat (as he does in Michael Ondaatje's book-length interview with him, The Conversations), he mentions how lucky it is that he and Coppola shared the philosophy that in non-movie reality, people generally wear the same things all the time, thus aiding editorial continuity. He talks about David Shire composing the repetitive, haunted piano theme before production began so that Coppola could play it during the shooting of scenes in which it would actually be heard. Murch mentions how, in the course of cutting The Conversation, he would see Caul's hands stop a reel-to-reel taperecording and have a moment of wonder that the film itself hadn't stopped in Murch's KEM. Lines blurred. They blurred again when Murch awoke from a dream with the idea that the way to incorporate a scene in which Harry warns the girl whose secrets he's been trying to unearth throughout his long ordeal (a scene that needed an establishing sequence that was among the unfilmed material) was to turn it into a nightmare. He plays with inflection; he has Harry say, "I'm not afraid of death. But I am afraid of dying" after Harry recalls an illness he suffered as a child. (Implicitly, polio--which Coppola himself overcame.) Murch even makes sense of the inexplicable smoke in the air. It's devastating, and terrifying--an absolutely vulnerable moment from a character not given to expressions of vulnerability.
The Conversation's poster is one of those seventies articles that has not a tagline, as would become vogue once Spielberg identified the rules of that game, but a short paragraph:
Harry Caul is an invader of privacy. The best in the business. He can record any conversation between two people anywhere. So far, three people are dead because of him.
For ten years, I had this one-sheet on the wall in my office. Now it's hanging in my living room. It gives away Caul's backstory, hints at his damage and why the events of The Conversation proper represent a watershed, and provides a dangling warning that there will probably be more murder that's Harry's fault in the film. Harry is a surveillance expert; the buzz around him is just as the poster says. I like to imagine that in 1974, as you were passing this poster on the way into the theatre, you were inaugurated into the world with exactly the same information about Harry as everyone else has in the picture. He lives in a sparsely-decorated apartment with too many locks, and when his landlady surprises him with birthday wishes, he recoils at his privacy having been invaded so easily. There's a scene, shot but unused, that has other residents of the apartment building wanting to complain, alongside Harry, to the owner of the building, only for us to discover that the owner of the building, unbeknownst to anyone, is actually Harry. It doesn't fit, Murch knows, because making Harry part of the establishment would have undermined the movie's overriding sense of Orwellian, nay, Kafkaesque helplessness in the presence of faceless godheads.
The Director (Robert Duvall) of a nebulous Company hires Harry to record a conversation between Ann (Cindy Williams) and her maybe-lover Mark (Frederic Forrest). Harry doesn't know why; he's learned not to wonder. It's a task complicated by the location--Union Square in San Francisco during lunch hour--and by Ann and Mark walking around in circles. Getting this onto celluloid was equally complex, necessitating the invention of a mechanized zoom that allowed for an extended bird's-eye push-in that, in the film's opening moments, introduces us to Harry (though we don't know him yet) and to the couple who will become the central figures in the story despite only having these few diaphanous snippets and snatches of dialogue to define them. The first fascination of The Conversation is the understanding that we never, until the last minutes of the picture, have the faintest idea of what they're talking about, who they are, or what Harry's role might be in their fate. As we witness the recording of their conversation through crosshairs and boom mikes that look a lot like sniper rifles, it's difficult to shake the then-recent memory of a generation founded on tenets of free love and revolution exploded by a rash of assassinations. (The Parallax View, from the same year (1974), functions as a handy correlative to The Conversation, from looming corporate demon to pervasive air of paranoia to culture of death and distraction.) The fate of Ann and Mark, however, is more ambiguous than a sniper's bullet, although Harry comes to fear that it will have the same result. Their fate, in fact, is far more telling of the post-idealist state: Ann and Mark are neither victim nor antagonist; their motives are either love of each other or love of power, and by the time we realize that Harry has benefited not one iota from his discoveries, we realize simultaneously that neither have we, nor could we ever.
My relationship with The Conversation has changed over time. The confusing first couple years of college, the bar fights and nasty break-ups, led to my meeting my lovely wife and finding acceptance and direction. The miscarriages led eventually to the birth of my beautiful daughter on what was going to be our last try. About two years later, my beautiful son followed. The Director and his lackey (Harrison Ford) have consequently metamorphosed in my eyes from Big Brother, capricious and venal, into something desperate and pathetic (as I now feel was intended). It's sadness that I detected on Duvall's face on my most recent viewing, right before Harry is ushered out of his office. I don't see a bogeyman anymore, corporate or otherwise--I see a guy who thinks he knows what's going on, but, like the rest of us, truly doesn't. He is, in fact, no more or less powerful than Harry in all of this. I understand that the film is, for me, about the parameters of the fight and whether or not to wage it. In its closing moments, The Conversation is, with thanks to Keats (who also makes more and different sense with age), about knowing that the only truth is beauty and that this is all we know and need to know. I wonder if I like The Conversation so much because I completely identify with it no matter the eyes with which I see it. The lines blur.
Harry completes his assignment and tries to turn it in to the Director, but he's not there and said lackey is perhaps a little too eager to claim it. It causes Harry to revisit the conversation, to try to decipher the last garbled bit of it. When he finally does unravel it, Shire's music tinkles back onto the soundtrack. Murch reveals in that same interview with Ondaatje that this was dictated by test audiences who didn't understand what it was, exactly, that Harry did and, more, didn't understand the significance at that point of what Harry was hearing. Harry celebrates in his style by breaking up with his girlfriend, Amy (Teri Garr)--or, more accurately, by causing her to break up with him. He attends a convention, where he suffers Bernie (Allen Garfield), a loudmouthed competitor who has, lately, acquired one of Harry's former assistants, Stan (John Cazale). Stan understands that Harry would never have shared any trade secrets with him. Harry hangs out with them because he's wounded and, more importantly, because he wants to be sure that Stan isn't going to share whatever it is he doesn't know he already knows. They end up back at Harry's place because Harry wants to show off. It's likely, too, that Harry's lonesome and at his weakest. Evidence is that Bernie manages to bug him, literally and figuratively, with a microphone hidden in a pen; evidence is that after he orders everyone to leave, he lets Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), convention model and semi-obvious hooker, stay. As she and Harry lie down, the titular conversation unspools. Ann tells Mark that she loves him as Meredith tries to get Harry's attention; Harry, lying there in the dark in isolation, is commented upon by Ann's expression of grief for a homeless man alone on a park bench: "He was once someone's baby boy, and he had a mother and a father who loved him, and now there he is, half dead on a park bench, and where are his mother or his father, all his uncles now?" This present melts into that past. The lines blur.
When Harry wakes up, the dream of Adam finds not Eve but an Eve of St. Agnes: Shaking off post-coital disgust, he realizes that the tapes of the conversation are gone. He gets the hotel room next to the rendezvous he's betrayed to the Director, and he digs a hole in the wall their bathrooms share so he can eavesdrop. There's fighting. There's a noise. He sees something thump against an opaque glass, bloodied. Birth of a kind, yes? He curls into a curtain and tries to shut out the world. The next morning, he breaks into the room adjacent. It's pristine. He pulls back the shower curtain to find no wizard, no Marion. But then he flushes the toilet, and it boils over with secrets of blood and drowning. Now he knows everything...and still nothing. The Conversation is for me the masterpiece of American cinema. In structure, its inspiration is Antonioni's Blow-up, and in construction it stands as an example of a genuine collaboration between the genius who left to make his next masterpiece and the genius who stayed behind to finish this one.
Of every moment that's a part of my memory and experience as indelibly now as any of my own, there's an image from The Conversation that seems peculiarly sticky. It's at the party. Harry and Meredith are off by themselves and he's telling her things he doesn't usually share. Then a partier drives by on a scooter and begins circling them. I relate it in my head to the last shot of another Hackman film, Night Moves, as another Harry (Moseby this time) solves the crime, learns nothing, and circles in the vast, empty ocean, bleeding out into the bottom of a boat that isn't his. Hackman cements his status here as one of the pillars of the 1970s. He's there at the beginning with Bonnie and Clyde and he carries the flag, along with guys like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, for this age of matinee idols lacking the chiselled physique and dimpled chins we'd come to expect. The sort of characters Paul Newman made a conscious choice to play were suddenly embodied by people who could, because they didn't look anything like Newman, arguably play nothing but these lawyers and reporters, these hustlers and health inspectors, these schlubs and nebbishes and long-time losers. The Conversation is impossibly good, a long, tantric revelation within and without that ends with the camera panning, mechanically, back and forth in medium shot so that we don't know if Harry's defeated or just finally free. It indicts us, inculcates us, accuses us of being afraid to see what it wants to show us. (And it's right about that.) It's the finest Hesse adaptation there ever was, the finest evocation of the European sensibility the film brats were at that time trying to capture. And despite Coppola boasting films like the first two Godfathers and Apocalypse Now as his legacy, it's easily the best thing he's ever done. I had the rare chance over lunch a few years ago to tell him so. It's meaningful to me that he didn't argue.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Conversation hits Blu-ray in a brilliant, AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that opens up the film's aspect ratio slightly to 1.78:1. Any differences in composition are negligible and I like the image filling the 16x9 frame, which enhances the surveillance effect. Although I near wet myself over the DVD release almost eleven years ago, placing it side-by-side with the BD reveals obviously superior detail, truer, more autumnal colours, and a significantly improved dynamic range of blacks. Different shooting techniques result in grain spikes and the odd soft-focus shot, but frankly it all plays into Coppola's desire for vérité in this presentation, down to his resorting to some of the same surreptitious filming techniques his band of wiretappers employ in their spying. Lines blur. The disc offers two listening options: the original mono track, encoded in 2.0 DTS-HD MA; and the 5.1 remix of the DVD, similarly bumped up to lossless audio. What a difference a higher bitrate makes in this case: the remix is a true surround-sound experience, replete with bass and a crisp centre channel. It may piss off purists to no end, but I'm personally mollified by Murch's own hand in it. In any case, I have to say that I don't feel like it does anything to dishonour the original intentions of the film as I understand them. I realize this may brand me a philistine--did I mention my theory that Tony Scott's Enemy of the State is a sequel (and a pretty good one) to The Conversation? Best not to, I guess.
The two main "gets" in terms of special features are ported over from the 2000 DVD. The first is a feature-length commentary from Coppola that tells much of the known lore of the film from inception and inspiration (though he doesn't mention Hesse) through to a few of the many frustrations and doubts that plagued him on set. Listen carefully to mark the moments that will lead to his nervous breakdown on Apocalypse Now in a few years' time. He talks of casting and of how Hackman, a dick, was more of a dick than usual while playing this dick. A good yakker in the manner of every Coppola yakker; I know this is just me reading too much, but he seems less distant in this one than he does in some others. Murch theorizes that Coppola's best work could be encapsulated as a close-up of an actor held for two hours--I would expand that to say that Coppola's best work is that same close-up, held of himself. The best art is, after all, about the artist. Murch's own 2000 commentary track is brilliant and detailed. He discusses Shire's contribution, the various innovations, the dream sequence; he makes smart analyses of key takeaways (my favourite is when Stan snaps photos of girls through a one-way mirror on the side of a van), and he outs himself as so very good at his job because he plays every part and internalizes every moment. I think if Hackman got sick, Murch would've stepped in brilliantly.
"Close-Up on The Conversation" (9 mins., HD/1.33:1) is a vintage doc full of B-roll and behind-the-scenes stuff that's interesting for the hardcore fan and probably to no one else. Better are new-to-Blu-ray features like the "Cindy Williams Screen Test" (5 mins., HD), which has her reading for Amy. A note about Garr as Amy: her five-minute interlude is up there with the most professionally, delicately played and devastating cameos of the 1970s. Williams would have been great, too, but in an entirely different way. Her thing isn't warmth. When Ann comments on the hobo on the bench, it sounds artificial, forced, the social consciousness we were supposed to have and maybe, in the casting of her and the revelation of what she really is at the end, a mute satire of the era that had just ended. Garr, on the other hand, exudes sincerity and warmth. My primary memory of her is as Michael Keaton's wife in Mr. Mom, who not a lot of actors could've made sympathetic. (Imagine, for instance, Williams in that role.) The "Harrison Ford Screen Test" (7 mins., HD) has the actor reading for Mark, walking around in that circle with Williams and doing the conversation from start to end. When he clears his throat, I wondered what it would be like to be so famous that a throat-clearing recalled any number of Thuggee temples and shootouts with stormtroopers. Alas, Ford lacked the intensity at this point in his career to be represented by one conversation.
"No Cigar" (2 mins., HD) is a 1956 Coppola short, introduced and narrated by him, that clarifies this is what he'd like posterity to view as the inspiration for the Harry Caul figure. I'm not buying it. "Harry Caul's San Francisco - Then and Now" (4 mins., HD) is one of those comparative travelogues whose purpose I've never understood, while "David Shire Interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola" (11 mins., HD) is misleadingly titled in that it's more promo reel than interview. Shire has warm remembrances, especially of a particular pre-release dinner and a rather disastrous early, private screening of The Conversation. And I do like Coppola's memory of a similar screening experience during Apocalypse Now. "Gene Hackman Interview" (4 mins.) has some fascination mainly because it's Hackman in his Harry Caul get-up describing the "fun" moments in the film involving a razor, a saxophone, and lock-picking. Biggest score from this brief featurette is the actor's confession that he and Coppola fought, naturally raising the question of who Hackman didn't fight on set. Incidentally, whoever's holding the camera here really, really likes the zoom function. "Script Dictations from Francis Ford Coppola" (50 mins., HD) will be a familiar scenario to anyone who's seen George Hickenlooper's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, with the writer-director dictating pages of script underneath stills and clips. Super cool. The Conversation's theatrical trailer (in HD!) rounds out the indispensable presentation, available in identical issues from Lionsgate in the U.S. and Alliance in Canada. Originally published: November 16, 2011.