The Conversation – rated – HOT! HOT! HOT!

This is a review of the re-released film.  The Conversation was originally released in 1974 – just after Watergate broke, but it was written by 1969, so it prefigures Watergate.  It is especially interesting to see it again now, in the wake of the whole “Big Brother” thing, which we’re so used to that we’ve come to regard it as entertainment.

Editor Walter Murch has revisited his original sound track and remastered it so that the sound is much crisper.  It is indeed a wonderful sound track.  Sound plays a huge part in The Conversation, but on revisiting the film the visuals are also a revelation.  How beautifully this film was shot – in such relatively humble locations – but of course they are locations.  I’m not sure that there’s even one studio shot.  Everything is so grounded with a sense of the authenticity of place – from the beginning in Union Square to the scenes in protagonist Harry Caul’s flat, to the scenes in the office buildings, hotel convention rooms and Harry’s warehouse office, everything feels real.

And of course that is very important in a film about a man who’s feeling increasingly alienated from the world around him – the outside world.  I detected a big Antonioni influence, particularly in the final scenes.  The very modernity of the buildings alienates Harry, and marks him as a small figure in a vast hostile landscape.  And of course, there’s the similarity of the theme of the film to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966).  In fact, many such details (including the presence of the mime in the first scene) lead me to think that this is very much an homage from Coppola to Antonioni.

The film opens with high and long zoom shot.  I understand this was shot by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler – though the credited cinematographer is Bill Butler.  It is said to be the first time a motorised zoom was used in a feature film.

The zoom shot follows a mime artist who then follows Gene Hackman (playing Harry Caul) for as long as possible – then it “gives up” (as it were).  The zoom has become a tracking shot.

Then we see the directional mike (which looks suspiciously like a high-powered rifle).  It is a masterly opening, which sets up everything we need to know to follow what is at once an amazingly simple, but tricky, story.

Early on in the film Harry says, “I don’t care what they're talking about. All I want's a nice fat recording.”  That’s what he thinks he wants, but he’s wrong.  He’s trying to convince himself of his professional detachment – but he’s failing.

So many things about this film impressed me on seeing it again (for about the 5th time, I must confess).   Particularly impressive is the spare and haunted musical by David Shire (who is Coppola’s brother-in-law, having married his sister, actress Talia Shire).  It is repetitive, but appropriately so, given the repetition of other aspects of the film’s soundtrack.  And how right that the solo is a piano, rather than the obvious instrument, the saxophone (which is Harry’s hobby).

I also loved the many ways in which Harry’s increasing alienation is shown.  Here’s a list of some of the things that struck me:

•    Harry isn’t as secret as he thinks he is.  His neighbour, whom he passes in the hall, says “Happy Birthday.”  He doesn’t respond.  Then he goes to his apartment and phones her to question her about how she got into his apartment to give a present, and why she has an extra key.  Then he tells her he's getting a PO box.

•    He doesn’t play in a band; he plays along to a record (and gets recorded applause for a solo!).  Even his hobby involves recordings.

•    He nearly always wears a raincoat (cf Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher (Haneke, 2001).

•    There is a lovely little vignette from Teri Garr as his mistress.  She is another lonely individual, but Harry gives her so little that she finally chooses loneliness over Harry.  It is heartbreaking, and it is amazing that Garr can make the character so moving in a few short scenes.

•    When he tells the girl he meets at the convention about his childhood.  He says: “I was very sick when I was a boy - I was paralysed”.  Then he recounts the story of his slipping into bath and nearly dying.  It’s interesting that the “caul” (the inner membrane of the womb) is supposed to protect against drowning if it is found on a child’s head when they are born – is this where Peter Carey got the idea for his book Oscar and Lucinda?

•    When Martin Stett (played by Harrison Ford, in an early role) calls Harry on his unlisted number and Harry hangs up and just sits there with the phone line stretching across the whole screen, right into to the drawer.  It is like an umbilical cord, or a lifeline.  It is his last link to the outside world, and he rejects it.

•    At a crucial moment, the television is on – and it is showing The Flintstones episode when Wilma has a baby.  I’d love to think long and hard about the significance of that!

But for me, the moment when Harry breaks open his statue of the Virgin Mary is a wonderful moment.  He hesitates, just for a second, before smashing it apart.  But when he breaks it, he finds it is hollow & plastic – such a poignant image.  Even his faith is no answer to his fundamental aloneness.

Of course there’s the whole “voyeur” theme that directors just love.   Some of the moments along those lines were:

•    There’s a telescope in the Directors office.  Apparently he does some snooping of his own.

•    In the confessional, I just love the way Coppola makes us aware that we are voyeurs too: he makes us listen to Harry's Confession.

•    When Harry gets up from the toilet floor, we see his reflection in he mirror and it makes us think he's being watched.  But of course, it we who are doing the watching!

There’s also a very special Hitchcockian moment with a shower curtain.  It makes you realise that the suspense in that scene is due only to Psycho (1960).  The mere appearance of a shower in a film is enough to signal danger!

I also like the way that the girl, Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae) kisses Harry on his ear before they make love.  That is very much the act of a Judas, and symbolic of the way in which she will betray him.

Is there a significance in the fact that the “Director’s” numberplate is “C1”? Is he CIA?  Probably not – it seems there is a more commercial answer to that one.  Perhaps it’s just Corporation 1.

One last piece of trivia:  did you notice the Shelltox pest strip in Harry’s apartment?  What a lovely design statement of the 70s that was!  And remember the gold casing (to make it look nice)?

This is a tremendously good film – and one that gets better with age.  In my book, that makes it an absolute classic, and it makes my list of the top 50 films of all time.  (Don’t ask me about the other 49.  The list is still a work-in-progress!).  To think that Coppola made this film in between making The Godfather (1972) & The Godfather Part 2 (1974), which he then followed with Apocalypse Now  (1979) (all also in that Top 50 list, by the way).  What an amazing winning streak!  He’s one of the all-time greats.