Having written its screenplay years earlier, Francis Ford Coppola was able to secure funding for The Conversation from Paramount Pictures only after the unexpected success of 1972’s The Godfather; Paramount agreed to the film on the understanding that Coppola would then direct The Godfather, Part II straight after. One of only four films he directed in the 1970s, The Conversation is Coppola’s most modest of the quartet but no less serious an effort; it won its director his first Palme d’Or at Cannes – his second was for 1979’s Apocalypse Now. It’s understandable why critics look to this period as something of an unrivalled creative peak for the director.
The Conversation is a careful blend of a character study and a mystery narrative, following professional eavesdropper Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) as he assembles an audio recording of a conversation between two people (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest); when he goes to hand his work to the man who hired him (Robert Duvall), said client’s assistant (Harrison Ford) seems a little too eager to aquire the tapes, compelling Caul to keep them and re-assess what they may possibly mean.
Coppola admits on his audio commentary that the film’s story emerged from a desire to follow in the footsteps of the great European filmmakers to whom the director and his contemporaries looked, notably in this case Michelangelo Antonioni, whose 1966 film Blow-up points, for Coppola, to a “personal texture and a non-verbal way of film-making”. Adding to this a conversation with friend and fellow director Irvin Kershner, about advancements in sound technology and the advent of shotgun microphones – which could discern a particular voice amidst a crowd – and Coppola wanted to make a film on the theme of repetition, on the hypnotic process of repeating and returning to an act in order to accumulate and re-evaluate its meaning.
The opening shot of The Conversation is an intriguing example of matching theme to method: long lenses and shotgun mics observe a crowd in San Francisco’s Union Square before casually honing in on a mime, who leads us eventually to protagonist Caul. It’s as patient and integral a credits sequence as one can imagine; the opening act further grounds the work in a methodic approach and, crucially, a narrative told entirely from the perspective of one character, something that will firstly frustrate us and finally reward us.
Coppola’s conceptual aspirations to European arthouse are made explicit throughout. An early scene, in which Harry settles into his apartment and calls his landlady about his concerns over her access to his home, is filmed as if to suggest the camera is not manned and adjustable at will, but is instead some automated eavesdropping device, remaining static as its subject moves out of frame; allowing a short interval for its subject to return into the empty frame, the camera pans mechanically to catch up with him.
Similarly, the fine technological detail of Harry’s daily work is given a more symbolic edge in the recurring motif of translucency. The Mackintosh, worn by the protagonist regardless of weather, is a kind of safety measure that counters the potential menace contained in the semi-transparent audio tapes he handles as part of his profession. Indeed, Harry’s surname is “Caul”, evoking the filmy membrane that encloses a fetus, especially its head upon birth. Other translucent surfaces can be seen recurringly, veiling or distorting – and yet still suggesting – the truth in some way. The artsier repetition of the film’s visuals heighten its narrative mystery.
Regardless of other strengths, The Conversation is a textbook in filmic sound. Told so rigidly from the point of view of a surveillance expert, a lot of its mystery rests on our own understanding of sound; the film’s twist, late in the film, revolves around a mistaken intonation of voice. In his own audio commentary, supervising editor and sound editor Walter Murch says that David Shire‘s score – a lonely, eerie piano solo – was composed prior to filming and played to cast members so that they might respond to its sombre tone. Murch reveals he was disappointed to find out later that this exciting approach was not the industry norm.
As with the other three films Coppola directed in the ’70s, the casting is pitch perfect. When thinking of these films and the importance of secondary roles in creating their believable and lasting authenticity, one thinks of Lee Strasberg or Michael V. Gazzo in The Godfather Part II, or G.D. Spradlin in Apocalypse Now; to them we should add Allen Garfield, Elizabeth MacRae and Teri Garr in The Conversation – as well, of course, as Michael Higgins and John Cazale.
Cazale has less to do here than in the four other feature films he starred in before his premature death in 1978, but his performance is impeccable. As Harry Caul’s jealous and inferior competitor Bernie Moran, meanwhile, Garfield has the intensity of a small terrier punching above his weight, desperate to be respected by rival Caul.
It’s too easy to simply name names and still come away feeling you’ve done the film an injustice. Suffice to say, as an ensemble piece the film is riveting. But it also manages to be a character study too, making a protagonist of a character who would in any other film be a functionary with minimal if any dialogue. Harry Caul is a tech-fetishist whose technical genius has begot him an all-too-serious career that he lies about to his part-time girlfriend, referencing instead a life as a freelance musician (in his spare time, he plays a saxophone in solitude).
Caul emphasises the trivial concerns of his life in a confessional that helps him defer the lingering ethical doubts he feels toward his profession. The central tension of the film might be that between emotional detachment and the ease with which one can intrude upon another’s life – and, finally, the ease with which one’s own life can be intruded. Carrying this theme of inner and moral violence – for surveillance itself is an intrinsically and psychologically violent act, which places Coppola’s film up there with the likes of Rear Window (1954) and Peeping Tom (1960) – is Gene Hackman, playing at the time against type as a nerd trying his damnedest to contain the more violent indulgences his job demands.
Note the quiet rage Hackman hints at when a passing civilian taps on the public telephone booth he is using to contact his client, or that moment during the post-convention party when Moran goads him into a verbalised pride that can be contained no more. It couldn’t be any different from the foul-mouthed vigilantism of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in 1971’s The French Connection, for which Hackman won his first of two Oscars.
It wasn’t long ago that The Conversation was first released on Region 2 DVD; a Region 1 disc has been around since 2000, but its R2 equivalent wasn’t released until 2004. Even so, Studio Canal‘s new DVD is a welcome re-release that includes previously available features; Coppola’s audio commentaries are always deeply insightful and Walter Murch’s audio commentary offers technical insights, while a “Close-Up On The Conversation” featurette shows director and star on-set. Also included are interviews with Gene Hackman and music composer David Shire, an original screen test for Harrison Ford in the role Frederic Forrest secured, and for Cindy Williams in the role Teri Garr secured as Harry’s girlfriend. There’s an interesting “then and now” picture montage that compares filming locations at the time to today; and Coppola gives a short introduction alongside a short he made in 1956 (not prior to, so the actual film itself isn’t viewable alone). Finally, there are some script dictations read by Coppola at the time.
The Conversation is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday, October 31.