A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

The technology used in it may have dated, but The Conversation seems more relevant than ever. When it was made, the film was very much of the moment: the Watergate moment, which was long before email and cell phones. Julian Assange was only 3 years old. What has kept Coppola's film alive is that he had the good sense to make it a thriller about the consequences of knowledge. The real victim of Harry Caul's snooping is Harry Caul himself, the professional whose delight in what he can do with his microphones and tape recorders begins to fade when he realizes that technology is not an end in itself. It is one of the great Gene Hackman performances from a career crowded with great and varied performances. Ironically, the film that The Conversation most reminds me of today is The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's 2006 film about eavesdropping by the Stasi in East Germany, which was praised by conservatives like John Podhoretz and William F. Buckley and called one of "the best conservative movies of the last 25 years" by the National Review for its account of surveillance by a communist regime. But Harry Caul is a devout Roman Catholic and an entrepreneur, making his living with the same technology and the same techniques as the Stasi spy of Donnersmarck's film -- capitalism alive and well. The film is something of a technological marvel itself: The great sound designer and editor Walter Murch was responsible for completing it after Coppola was called away to work on The Godfather, Part II, and the texture of the film depends heavily on the way Murch was able to manipulate the complexities of sound that form the key scenes, especially the opening sequence in which Caul is conducting his surveillance of a couple in San Francisco's crowded and busy Union Square. It's true that Murch cheats a little at the ending, when the line, "He'd kill us if he got the chance," is repeated. Caul had extracted it from a distorted recording, and took it to mean that the couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) were in danger from the man who commissioned the surveillance. But at the end, the line is heard again as "He'd kill us if he got the chance," an emphasis that reveals to Caul, too late, that they are the killers, not the victims. It's unfortunate that so much depends on the discrepancy between the way we originally hear the line and the later delivery of it. Still, I don't think it's a fatal flaw in a still vital and gripping movie.