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The Conversation

THE CONVERSATION



US, 1974


Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Production: American Zoetrope, Paramount Pictures, The Coppola Company, and The Directors Company; color, 35mm, Spherical; running time: 113 minutes. Filmed in Union Square, San Francisco, California.


Producers: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Roos (co-producer), Mona Skager (associate producer); screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola; cinematographer: Bill Butler; editors: Walter Murch, Richard Chew; music: David Shire; casting: Jennifer Shull; production design: Dean Tavoularis; set decoration: Doug von Koss; costume design: Aggie Guerard Rodgers; production manager: Clark L. Paylow; sound: Walter Murch, Nathan Boxer, Art Rochester.

Cast: Gene Hackman (Harry Caul); John Cazale (Stan); Allen Garfield (William P. "Bernie" Moran); Cindy Williams (Ann); Frederic Forrest (Mark); Robert Duvall (The Director [uncredited]); Michael Higgins (Paul); Elizabeth MacRae (Meredith); Teri Garr (Amy); Harrison Ford (Martin Stett); Mark Wheeler (Receptionist); Robert Shields (The Mime); Phoebe Alexander (Lurleen); Timothy Carey (uncredited).


Awards: British Academy Awards (BAFTA) for Best Editing (Murch, Chew) and Best Soundtrack (Rochester, Boxer, Evoe, Murch), 1974; Cannes Film Festival Best Film, 1974; National Board of Review Awards for Best English-Language Film, Best Director, and Best Actor (Hackman), 1974; National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director, 1974.


Publications:


Script:

Coppola, Francis Ford, "The Conversation: Original Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola Final Draft November 22, 1972," in Film Scheduling, Film Budgeting Workbook by Ralph S. Singleton, Beverly Hills, California, 1984; republished in Scenario, vol. 5, no. 1, 1999.

Books:

Johnson, Robert K., Francis Ford Coppola, Boston, 1977.

Pye, Michael, and Lynda Myles, The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood, London, 1979.

Kolker, Robert Philip, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Oxford, 1980; revised edition, 1988.

Chaillet, Jean-Paul, and Elizabeth Vincent, Francis Ford Coppola, Paris, 1984.

Zuker, Joel S., Francis Ford Coppola: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1984.

Frundt, Bodo, and others, Francis Ford Coppola, Munich, 1985.

Ray, Robert B., A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema 1930–80, Princeton, 1985.

Chown, Jeffrey, Hollywood Auteur: Francis Coppola, New York, 1987.

Cowie, Peter, Coppola, London, 1989.

Bergan, Ronald, Francis Ford Coppola-Close Up: The Making of His Movies, New York, 1998.


Articles:

De Palma, Brian, "The Making of The Conversation: An Interview with Francis Ford Coppola," in Filmmakers Monthly/Newsletter, vol. 7, no. 7, May 1974.

Denby, David, "Stolen Privacy: Coppola's The Conversation," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 43, no. 3, Summer 1974.

Palmer, J.W., "The Conversation: Coppola's Biography of an Unborn Man," in Film Heritage, vol. 12, no. 1, Fall 1976.

"'America's Culture Is Controlled by Cynical Middlemen," an interview with Francis Ford Coppola, in U.S. News and World Report, 5 April 1982.

Turner, D., "The Subject of the Conversation," in Cinema Journal (Austin), vol. 24, no. 4, Summer 1985.

Anderson, C., "The Conversation as Exemplar and Critique of Sound Technology," in Post Script (Commerce, Texas), vol. 6, no. 3, Spring-Summer 1987.

Cockburn, A., and Adam Barker, "John and Oliver's Bogus Adventure: Cries and Whispers," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 10, February 1992.

Atkinson, M., "Role Models," in Movieline (Escondido), vol. 4, July 1993.

"Classic Scene," in Premiere (Boulder, Colorado), vol. 13, no. 7, March 2000.


* * *

The early 1970s were Hollywood's era of the Cinema of Paranoia. In those edgy post-Watergate years, with the shots that killed the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X still echoing from the previous decade, the idea of a vast malign conspiracy behind the scenes, manipulating events and eliminating awkward witnesses, seemed all too plausible. Films such as Alan Pakula's The Parallax View and All the President's Men, Arthur Penn's Night Moves and Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor fed off these anxieties— and also latched on to a growing disquiet about the threat to individual liberty from increasingly sophisticated surveillance techniques. No one and nowhere, it seemed, was safe from intrusion, and personal privacy might soon be obsolete.

Most of these paranoia films adopt the outsider viewpoint, inviting us to identify with the individual conspired against and spied on. The Conversation goes one better. Coppola's film takes as its protagonist one of the perpetrators of this sinister activity, and explores its corrosive effect on him as well as on the society he preys on. And in the end the machine devours its own: the bugger, punished for a momentary deviation into human feeling, becomes the bugged.

Having chosen such an unsavory figure as his hero, Coppola perversely seems to go out of his way to alienate us yet further. Harry Caul (a performance of clenched introspection by Gene Hackman) has no friends, rejects all attempts at intimacy, denies feeling any kind of personal emotion. Even his name—the result, apparently, of a typist's inspired misspelling of "Cal"—suggests something hooded, veiled against the world; he wears a cheap grey see-through raincoat, and Coppola often shoots him through semitransparent screens. Achingly secretive, Harry can barely even bring himself to confess to a priest, even though he's a devout Catholic; as he kneels in the confessional, the words appear to be dragged in pain from his mouth. "I don't know anything about human nature," he snaps at his assistant, as if the very suggestion were an insult. Regarded in his sleazy profession as "the best bugger on the West Coast," his sole concern—or so he claims—is to get "a nice fat recording" that he can hand over to his client.

It's this recording that we see Harry securing in the film's opening sequence, a conversation between a man and woman in a busy public place (Union Square in San Francisco). This scene, a virtuoso piece of film-making in itself, will be endlessly played and replayed throughout the film, in full or in brief snatches, sometimes with pictures, sometimes just on tape or re-echoing in Harry's mind, as its various levels of meaning are gradually teased out. (This examining and reexamining, the compulsive search for hidden significance, carries resonances of two key pieces of footage from the 1960s: the Zapruder film of JFK's killing, and the park photographs from Antonioni's Blow-Up.) Finally, the crucial element that eludes Harry's ear until it's too late proves to be a tiny shift in emphasis: not "He'd kill us if he got the chance," but "He'd kill us. . . ."

The Conversation is a fiercely moral work. According to Coppola, what he had thought would be a film about privacy became instead one about responsibility. Once before, we learn from predatory rival snoop Bernie Moran, one of Harry's operations led to the killing of an innocent woman and child. Since then Harry has retreated into perfecting his own technical virtuosity, repeating like a mantra that he's "not responsible" for what his clients do with the recordings he gives them. Disused, his moral power has atrophied, and even when he finally decides to get involved he can do nothing to prevent another killing. In a dream sequence, Harry finds himself telling the supposed victim how he was paralyzed as a child (a memory drawn from Coppola's own childhood) as if to excuse his present moral paralysis. Skulking in a clinically impersonal hotel room, hands over his ears to block out the screams coming through the wall, Harry is locked into his own cold, impotent nightmare. The bathroom sequence that follows may be his dream too, but it's no less horrific for that.

In the film's final shot Harry sits amid the ruins of his devastated apartment, ripped apart in his vain search for the bug planted there. Not even a statue of the Virgin Mary has escaped destruction, and he sits playing his sole remaining intact possession, a tenor sax. In his book on Coppola, Peter Cowie finds in this shot "a mood of tolerance and devotion. Harry is absolved . . . free." But the image seems equally to express utter, irretrievable desolation. With the technology he lived by turned against him, Harry's life is over; spiritually and morally he's dead already, alone in a grey featureless hell of his own making.

Coppola made The Conversation between The Godfather Parts I and II, and its sombre, melancholy tone and subdued visual palette comes as a striking contrast to the narrative and pictorial gusto of the Mafia saga. Having finished shooting, the director went straight into pre-production on Godfather II, leaving Walter Murch to spend nearly a year working largely unsupervised on the visual and sound editing of The Conversation. For the subtlety of his achievement, especially on the all-important sound mix, Murch can justifiably be credited (as Cowie suggests) as the film's co-creator.

—Philip Kemp

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