“The Conversation” is not so much about a conversation as it is about a man whose life is so empty that the idea of communication inherent in the act of conversation is not something to be engaged in, but to observe. This man (whose name is Harry Caul, and is fascinatingly portrayed by Gene Hackman) has a job as an electronic surveillance expert—the best in the country, in the estimation of his colleagues—which allows him tremendous control over information concerning the lives of others. However, he has constructed his own life so that there is little or no information to learn about him.
In the first scene we see of Harry at home, he berates his landlord over the telephone for having access to a key to his apartment, when she only entered to give him a birthday gift. Why is Harry so obsessed with his privacy? Has he done something incriminating that he does not wish to be discovered? The film never indicates that he has, indeed, it gives us the notion that Harry doesn’t do much at all. Yet, as Harry makes the call, he removes his pants. If anyone saw Harry in his underwear, it would surely be a nightmare for him (in an ensuing scene, he begins to make love to a woman in her bed without taking off his coat and shoes), but Coppola forces us to see Harry at this vulnerable stage. He is crystallizing Harry’s fear while casting us as the enemy Harry consciously distances himself from.
To achieve this effect, in this scene, Coppola has the camera behave as a television surveillance camera would: it starts static as Harry walks into, then out of the frame, then back in again with his telephone. (We are later given the information that he keeps it in a desk drawer, since he hates to use it.) He again exits the frame, and after a sizable number of seconds, the camera pans lazily over to observe him on the couch, his location having been determined before the pan by his shadow on a curtain. After a moment, Harry exits this frame too, and we wonder if the camera will again follow, but Harry returns to the couch in a few seconds. By making the audience aware of the fact that our observation of Harry is a conscious act that must be deliberately maintained, Coppola asserts that he, the filmmaker, is guilty of the same sin as Harry. That sin, of course, is voyeurism.
Though most of Harry’s job seems to deal with audio surveillance, not video, the attitude of the camera in this shot is clearly delineated later in the film when Harry uses a video camera to follow Harrison Ford’s character, Martin, around a crowded convention floor. The filmmaker-as-surveillance-artist precept is reinforced by our view of the television monitor that Harry watches: it fills the screen, making our perception Harry’s perception; then, Harry pushes a button to find a camera looking at himself. He looks into the lens, at us. Coppola wants us to know that we are seeing events through Harry’s eyes, but primarily, we’re watching him.
This surveillance-camera attitude pertains to at least two other prominent shots in the film, the first and the last. In the first, we begin looking down from a great height at the square in which the conversation takes place. Slowly, slowly, we zoom downward. Perhaps the first actions to catch our attentions are those of a mime. He moves unlike any of the other people in the square. Eventually, though, the camera moves in on a balding man with glasses and a mustache, in a trenchcoat. He is doing nothing to set him apart from others, and giving us the impression that he is wandering aimlessly. This is how we are introduced to Harry: as a member of a crowd, unremarkable in his own right, singled out only by the camera, acting as a stand-in for his own attitude toward voyeurism. We are forced to see the separation that Harry sees because he creates it in his own mind, and through his vocation.
The last shot in the film is, according to Coppola, an escalation of this device, “meant to be like a supermarket TV camera.” 1 The camera pans toward Harry as he plays his saxophone amidst the rubble that is now his home, then continues to pan almost past him, then starts back the way it came. This has the effect of distancing us at an extreme level from his suffering, the way he must now be doing to himself.
In addition to seeing much of the film through Harry’s eyes, we hear much of it through his ears. The sound design for the film is ornately complex in its efforts to tailor the world to Harry’s sensibilities. Many lines of dialogue are mixed so low as to be inaudible, because Harry isn’t listening to what the person is saying, or because his emotional reaction is caused by the mere fact that the other person is speaking, and their specific words don’t affect him. (Two examples are, respectively, when Stan tries to finish telling him about the convention and when Meredith tries to coax a secret out of him.)
An additional sound technique used to enforce Harry’s perspective is the replaying of the conversation itself. This mostly occurs late in the film, when Harry has listened to it so many times that he has it memorized. It plays over the scene after he has left the Director’s office and tosses away the money, after he has been divested of the tapes. We hear the voices repeating in his head, and now that we know that the Director is Directly involved with the young woman whose voice is on the tapes (is she his daughter? His wife?) we can postulate even more interpretations of mysterious lines like “Oh God” and “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”
However, these sound techniques ultimately have the same effect as the camera techniques used to create the illusion of surveillance. They do help us to grasp Harry’s mindset, but they force us to be reminded that we are engaged with a perception, a depiction of Harry’s mindset. You’re never more aware that you’re watching a film than when you’re leaning forward to strain to hear what the characters are saying, or hearing dialogue be unnaturally played over a scene that doesn’t contain the speakers.
Another trait of Harry’s that is brilliantly and economically portrayed through sound is his musicianship. At several points in the movie, Harry puts on a jazz record and plays saxophone accompaniment to it. This is a perfect symbol for his willingness to belong to society and inability to commit to it, fearing that his identity will be compromised if it is revealed. Harry is not strictly composing, he is jamming in the jazz tradition--letting the works of others define himself within a group, and not on his own terms. And yet, he isn’t able to jam with other musicians. The closest he wishes to come to humanity is a recording of it.
What motivates Harry’s fears? Why are other people so untrustworthy? It would make sense if Harry believed that they will all eventually betray him, since every character in the film does. Amy decides he isn’t worth waiting for, Stan seeks employment with Moran, Moran exposes Harry’s exchange with Meredith, and Meredith steals Harry’s tapes. Yet, Harry cannot seem to see that all these things happen because he cannot share himself with anyone. Amy is tired of his suspicious nature, Stan wants to be let in on the details of jobs, Moran wants to be Harry’s partner, and Meredith, who is working for Stett, would not be needed if Harry had not kept the tapes from Stett. (Ironically, the reason most of these people are drawn to Harry is that because he reveals so little, he is enigmatic. His true secret is that, as he claims, he has no secrets.)
There are interesting parallels that can be drawn surrounding the author-function of Coppola 2 when “The Conversation” is compared with some of Coppola’s other films of this time period, particularly The Rain People and the two Godfather films. The theme of Catholicism, and of the hypocrisy involved in sinning, is a major point at the end of the first Godfather film. The difference between Harry and Michael is that Harry goes to confession, while Michael seems resigned to the fact that he has sold his soul in exchange for power. (Whether or not Michael might actually be an atheist, though it would help explain some of his attitudes, is never discussed as a possibility, yet never denied.) Even at the end of the second Godfather film, when Michael has isolated himself from everyone he ever cared for, and we finally sense through his tortured eyes that he sees the wrong in what he has done, his sins are given no religious grounding. He betrayed his family, not his god. If anything, the church (in the bookend sequences in the beginning and end of the first film, in the wedding and baptism) seems only a forum for celebrating family. Harry has no family, and hence must deal with God directly.
So, the major difference between Michael and Harry is that Harry wants to be a good Catholic. But for Harry, going to confession is especially painful and problematic, because the average Catholic is not so obsessive about their privacy. In other words, confession for Harry is not so much an admittance of sin but a chance to let someone do to him what he does to others, and thus understand how it feels, and why it is wrong. Confession is his punishment.
Near the end of The Rain People there is a sequence that mirrors the love-making one between Harry and Meredith in “The Conversation”. It too takes place almost in total darkness, but more importantly, a cloud of guilt suffuses the event. The heroine of The Rain People knows that she should be faithful to her husband, though she has no longing to return to him. Harry, on the other hand, is convinced that to do anything but attempt to help the people he believes to be in danger is a waste of everyone’s time. He cannot relax and enjoy his own life, because he has no life and is determined to keep it that way.
(A slight digression, occasioned by the mention of Harry’s desire to help: The position of Harry’s birthday at Christmas seems to me a very crude device for comparing Harry with Christ. I can find little thematic justification for this, but if Coppola did not intend it, why did he even present the issue of Harry’s birthday? Why not make the wine a Christmas present?)
It is, of course, an understandable Catholic viewpoint to season an extramarital sex scene with generous portions of guilt, but the fact that in “The Conversation” the guilt comes from a source other than the obvious says to me that Coppola (being, of course, a Catholic) is now more aware of his own idiosyncrasies and better able to decide when they belong in a film of his or not. Nonetheless, I admire the way, in the lovemaking scene, the twin reels of the tape recorder appear as eyes watching Harry on his bed. Naturally, this is a projection of mine upon the scene, but I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to think it.
“The Conversation” is not a simple film. It can mean many things to many people. Even at the surface level, it must be seen as a conglomeration of genres: suspense, spy, science fiction. But it is primarily a character study of a deeply troubled man who is the source of all of his own pain. There are few truly tragic figures in modern cinema, but Harry Caul stands among them--or rather sits, contemplatively playing his saxophone. It is a shame he cannot hear the sad music that he plays, the sound of his own tortured soul.
1. De Palma, Brian and Francis Ford Coppola. “The Making of The Conversation: An Interview with Francis Ford Coppola,” Filmmakers Newsletter. Vol 7, No. 7. May 1974. p. 32.
2. Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” excerpts Theories of Authorship John
Caughie, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1986). p.285.
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