The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1975) Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is an electronics expert dealing in surveillance. His latest assignment is to record a conversation between two very innocent young people in the park. It's a routine assignment, one that Harry handles with a perfectionist's care. But after he has the raw tape—after he has clarified it and re-channeled it—he hears a whispered fear that these two kids may get killed by Harry's employer. Old haunts plague Harry—past assignments he has carried out that led to his victim's deaths. And so he goes to confession to confess what may be a future sin. Confession—where one's private actions that are considered to be sins are revealed to a priest in order to free the sinner of guilt. But this too, is a surveillance—an invasion of one's privacy—ritualized in the name of religion. Surveillance is a part of our lives, then. And privacy is an illusion.
That scene in the confessional is about as close as Francis Ford Coppola comes to really dealing with surveillance in his film, The Conversation. Despite what many critics have said, Coppola makes no judgements on this subject. Surveillance is simply there as a device to be used for the movie. It's neither good nor bad. It's there to provide Coppola with a means of getting into a rather shallow appearances-are-deceiving mystery story—it's a very weak imitation of Antonioni's Blowup. When Harry Caul is caught in a surveillance trap ala his own devising, are we supposed to feel some satisfaction in this? Just because he's getting screwed, like he screwed all the others? Is surveillance justified in retribution, in other words? No. How can we take satisfaction in that? For surveillance — the ripping open of one's privacy — is being used, and nothing, really, not even revenge should make us condone it.
Awright, already, W______is it a good movie?
Okay, okay. Yeah, it's a good movie. It's...entertaining, in a shock-lull-shock-lull sort of way. Coppola has made a good movie, despite my reservations as to his morality on the subject. It's an o-k script—a little spare at times—with a lot of loose ends, and his direction is always assured. Gene Hackman manages to flesh out Harry Caul enough to make him an interesting person to watch for the couple of hours we do. And there is fine supporting acting from Allen Garfield, John Cazale (the weak brother, Fredo, in The Godfather), Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams (she's good, despite the fact that she's totally mis-cast) and Robert Duvall (who is on for a very short time and doesn't receive a credit). But, the one thing that is technically outstanding is the sound of the film, produced by the work of its chief editor Walter Murch. Murch also worked on "The Godfathers" for Coppola, and creating what he terms "sound montages" for George Lucas' THX-1138 and American Graffiti. His talents with editing and sound mixing are outstanding,and hopefully Murch will, himself, be directing his own films.
Broadcast on KCMU-FM on January 27-28th, 1976
Murch would, indeed, direct one film (so far)—Return to Oz, in 1985—and it tanked. His intention was to make a genuine adaptation of one of L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books, rather than what the public was expecting—a sequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. And his heart-felt, but scary, recreation of Baum's world didn't click with audiences. One would be sad if Murch didn't then personally supervise the entire post-production process of about one film per year. Films like Julia, The Godfather: Part III, Romeo Is Bleeding, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ghost, The English Patient, First Knight, The Talented Mr. Ripley, K-19: The Widowmaker, Cold Mountain, Jarhead, and Francis Coppola's latest films. Busy guy. Eclectic talent.
This movie has dogged me my entire career, because it was assumed that, because Harry Caul could electronically filter out steel drums from the background of a murmured recording enough for you to hear what the people were saying that any sound facility could do it, too. No. Not really, you can't. You can tune, you can attenuate, you can try reversing the polarity of a channel to eliminate shared sounds on both channels of a stereo recording, but steel drums? That's a good one. They call that "Movie Magic."
But the kid is right...this is warmed-over Blow-up without the illusion of film-making, or illusion of illusion that makes that film so compelling. At least it's better than cold, left-over Blow-Up like Brian De Palma's Blow OUT (in that, field-audio recorder John Travolta must piece together a Chappaquidick-like incident from his sound-recordings and pictures taken from a "Zapruder"-like film--it doesn't pass the incredulity test). And Coppola has to resort to a "cheat"—he changes the actual recording, the one element in the movie that has to be set in stone, to come up with his conclusions. One could make a case...blah blah blah, the fact is, interpretation or not, he planted a card in the deck.
It is, though, a really good paranoid thriller of the type that seemed to be born of the post-Watergate era. And Hackman's insulated Caul is another example of how that actor can take an under-written part (deliberately, I should say--Caul doesn't talk much on purpose) and make him a living, breathing human being you can recognize and, despite his many failings, sympathize with. There is one actor I didn't mention because I didn't really know who he was...yet. He'd made a living doing parts on television, and done a small role in American Graffiti, but after this film he was about to quit acting and go back to carpentry when a role in a sci-fi movie by Coppola's pal George Lucas changed things for him. Harrison Ford has a small role as "The Director's" menacing assistant.
Oh...the reason I made such a big deal of the confessional scene? I used that to start off the recorded version of this review.
In 1995, The Conversation was chosen to be a part of the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress seeing it as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."