The Conversation (1974)

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*. The Conversation is a great little movie that has as one of its themes the business of interpretation. The plot basically hinges on surveillance expert Harry Caul’s misinterpretation of some words spoken during a conversation recorded in San Francisco’s Union Square. That so much depends upon this misinterpretation is a flaw, as is the cheat Coppola performs in giving us two versions of the line in question, but that’s by the way. (According to Walter Murch it also came about by way of an accident: a line reading by Frederic Forrest that didn’t work but which was adopted later when preview audiences had trouble figuring out what was going on.)
*. That it’s a movie concerned with interpretation has seemed to encourage a lot of free-ranging interpretation among viewers. Apparently there are many people who believe that much of it is a fantasy of Harry’s, so that not all of the action “really” happens. I have to admit this never occurred to me. Yes, the plot involves a number of improbabilities (would the killers have really spent so much effort tidying up the hotel room only to stuff the toilet full of bloody rags?), but I had never thought to explain them away by saying they were the products of Harry’s imagination.

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*. Another point that viewers have obsessed over is the question of where the bugging device is hidden at the end. The most popular location is Harry’s saxophone, or the saxophone strap hanging around his neck, though it’s also been suggested that it’s concealed in his glasses, among other places.
*. Coppola has confessed that he doesn’t know where the bug was, or even if there was a bug. I think it’s a false question. By that, I mean it’s a real question the movie leaves unanswered but that an answer wouldn’t tell you anything important. But this is just the kind of movie that makes you want to ask questions about it anyway.
*. The inspiration was Antonioni’s Blow-Up, changing that film’s photographer in the park into a sound man. Which is a curious point, given that aural cues aren’t as easy to work with as photos or film. And yet De Palma would make his Blow-Up movie, Blow Out, about a sound man too.
*. Coppola identified with Caul, as I think Antonioni also did with the David Hemmings character. This is the age of the artist as technician and tinkerer, his studio a shop or lab. There is something postmodern about it, with the act of creation being a mechanical process, involving talent to be sure, but detached and almost inhuman. Harry isn’t interested in humanity. For Hemmings (as, to some extent, for Antonioni), the figures in his photos are just objects, reality something to be adjusted and manipulated. One has an uneasy sense of prophecy in this, a foretaste of the coming revenge of the nerds. Nerds, we might also note, who are all also into treating the lives of other people as material.

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*. Why is Harry’s studio located in such a massive empty warehouse? I hardly think that’s a safe place to store all his advanced equipment. But apparently American Zoetrope was located in a similar building because the warehouses in that area were all abandoned and hence cheap. Now they’ve been taken over by dot-com offices.
*. For what it’s worth, Coppola says that Harry probably owns the warehouse, as well as owning the entire apartment building he lives in too. That’s certainly not the impression I got, but we can take it for what it may be worth.
*. Coppola pronounces the word “mime” as “meem” in his DVD commentary. I’ve never heard anyone say it that way before.
*. Do the man and woman talking in the park (Mark and Ann) know that their conversation is being recorded? I think they may want it as part of their plan. Though ultimately I think it’s fruitless thinking too much about this
*. Harry Caul. His last name is so bizarre it must have significance, and indeed it does. But apparently Coppola, who dictated the screenplay, had intended naming him “Call.” A transcription led to the happy accident of a change. But either way, Call or Caul, I find the name one of the few jarring, overly “obvious” notes in the film.
*. Why is Harry out in the park in the opening sequence? He doesn’t have any recording equipment on him, so why bother risking it? Shouldn’t he be in the van all the time directing things?
*. The character of Harry Caul is one of the most remarkable things about The Conversation. He’s the sole protagonist, someone that Coppola saw something of himself in, and I think the audience has to relate to him at least on some level or else the movie doesn’t work. But it’s so hard. He’s sneaky and he lies. He’s physically unprepossessing, and is bald and has a moustache. We’re more familiar with the type now, but in the ’70s a nerd with a rebarbative personality was something new. We don’t like him. Nobody does. He has no friends but only uses other people. He doesn’t even have a basic pet like a fish to keep him company. He pays for a lover and even she dumps him!
*. Nora Sayre: “The scenes where two different women fawn on Mr. Hackman are unconvincing, since they have to behave as though this grubby, uptight man were irresistible.” Yes, but . . . Teri Garr’s Amy is obviously being paid, and it’s a nod to Harry’s obtuseness that he doesn’t realize that Meredith is playing him.
*. You leave Harry alone with a telescope in the room (this is Martin Stett’s office) and he’s going to look through it. He’s just that kind of guy. So how are we to take his protests that for him surveillance is just a job and that he has no feelings about any of his cases, that he doesn’t “know anything about human nature or curiosity.” Is this self-defensive, part of his reaction to the disastrous outcome of the teamsters case? Is he really just about the pay? Or does he enjoy it? Why does he spy on his girlfriend? Wouldn’t someone with voyeuristic tendencies naturally be drawn to a career in surveillance? As Walter Murch says in his commentary, people who are into surveillance do this under any circumstances “because they’re attracted to this kind of life.” And voyeurs aren’t nice people. They’re creeps.

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*. So is Meredith working for Moran, or Stett? Or is Moran employed by Stett? This is kind of vague, probably because it wasn’t part of the original screenplay but was put together later according to Murch.
*. Perhaps even more than the plot is borrowed from Antonioni. Coppola really shows off a flare for architectural compositions emphasizing loneliness — loneliness in an urban landscape that is barren and generic. Aside from Union Square, would you even know where you were? Has San Francisco ever looked less like San Francisco than in this movie? There’s no attempt made to evoke a sense of place, despite Coppola’s Zoetrope studio being based in San Fran at the time. Harry’s San Francisco is like the man: anonymous, without character.

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*. The overflowing toilet. It’s an uncanny image of domestic terror, later picked up for The Amityville Horror. I said above that it doesn’t make any sense that the killers would have cleaned up the room so well and then just tried to flush the bloody rags. I know there have been serial killers that stupid — it’s how Dennis Nilsen and Joachim Kroll were both caught — but we expect Mark and Ann to be a bit brighter.

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*. Toilets, however, are rather like the garbage chutes in apartment buildings for most people. Down the waste goes and we don’t really know or care what happens to it. The toilet is akin to the confessional Harry attends, a closet wherein we absolve ourselves of our sins with a flush. The idea came from Walter Murch, who remembered trying to dispose of porno mags down the toilet as a kid to hide them from his parents. But sin reared its ugly head, “regurgitating guilt” in Murch’s nice phrase.
*. Who would’ve thought all-American hero Harrison Ford could play someone so slimy and sinister? Did he miss his calling?
*. Neither Coppola nor Murch mention Touch of Evil in their commentary, and though it may not have been any direct influence I think they must have been thinking of the end of that film with its tightly-edited surveillance sequence when doing the Union Square scenario here.
*. I’d always wondered about the back-and-forth pan at the end of the film, what the point of it was. Murch suggests it was meant to imitate the oscillation of a surveillance camera, which is something I hadn’t thought of. The camera is often placed in a static position throughout the movie, letting characters drift away and come back to it, which was also meant (according to Coppola) to suggest surveillance. It’s an effect that works really well. It doesn’t give a sense of mechanical observation but of mechanical voyeurism, an obsessive fixity of gaze.

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*. Aside from Harry’s last name, I found the artistic gambits subtle and revealing. The motif of transparency, for example, only really registers on repeated viewings, and yet it’s everywhere (Harry’s raincoat, the plastic sheet in his studio, the drapes he struggles to get through to get onto the balcony and the glass partition between his room’s balcony and that of the one next door). This is how I like my artistic statements to be made: under the radar of great entertainment.
*. On a technical level, it’s a hard film to find fault with. And yet, perhaps because we have such a hard time relating to Harry it’s not a movie that has ever been very popular, outside of technicians (Coppola himself considers it his favourite). It doesn’t have the depth of Antonioni, though today it can be seen as having a greater relevance to the way we live, and the way we watch.

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