Review: The Conversation

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Gene Hackman’s quietly desperate face looms huge in so many frames of Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent film that by the end of the movie we know his features just about as intimately as Harry Caul (played by Hackman) knows the lines of the conversation he has bugged. Both we and he are, in a sense, obsessed: we, the viewers, by Harry’s troubled image on the screen; Harry, by the voices he hears and the implications, slowly realized, of what those voices are saying. This hardly seems a coincidence—Coppola obviously intended it that way. Closeups, especially of Hackman, virtually fill the movie, serving perfectly to visually reinforce the theme of violated privacy with which the story is so much concerned. The correlation between those who bug and those who are bugged (bugger and buggee?) is ultimately turned into a nearly inevitable irony as Harry’s situation is reversed and he becomes the one who is watched and listened to. Indeed, the screenplay as a whole moves just a bit too predictably and ends up being too readily reachable, too readily analyzable, what with its neat ambiguities and psychological uncertainties and sticky relevancies (not to mention some of the painfully pointed dialogue: “You’re not supposed to feel anything about it,” a blond seductress says to Harry just before swiping his tapes of the conversation; “It’s just a job”). But if you’re willing to disregard some of the story’s weaknesses as narrative and actually look at the film more closely, you might find it has some visually interesting ways of “saying” things.

Consider the scene in which Harry is inside a darkened confessional pouring out a list of insipid transgressions to an unseen confessor. As he asks forgiveness for swearing and stealing newspapers he is trying to work up enough courage to expose his real sin: bugging the conversation of two lovers whose lives may thereby be endangered. OK. Visually we start with a closeup of the side of Harry’s face. As the confession progresses the closeup becomes—impossibly, it seems—closer, until Harry’s nose fills almost the entire frame. Well, that nose just keeps growing until suddenly the focus shifts to the confessor’s cage behind Harry. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s something behind that cage and finally, just before the cut to another scene, we can make out a gigantic EAR listening to Harry’s confession. The implications, if somewhat obvious, are nonetheless pretty overwhelming: everything, it seems, is a potential bugging device; even God may have a team of surveillance experts lurking behind the closed doors of your neighborhood church.

Later in the movie, Harry and some of his colleagues are having a party in Harry’s loft workshop. Harry is talking privately (we find out later that his conversation is being bugged as a joke) to a sexy blonde, wanting to tell her his personal troubles but unable to do so because of a persistent psychological and emotional block which prevents Harry from revealing anything about his personal affairs. After this little talk has been going on for a few moments, we begin to notice something strange about the movement of the camera; it has been repeating the same sweep (beginning with a sideview of Harry’s face, then swinging around toward the front) over and over. An odd cinematic gesture, but in context it comments perfectly on Harry’s moral dilemma: even at the moment when he is closest to revealing his human side to another person, there is this mechanical redundancy in the way he is visually portrayed which tends to counteract his efforts. It is a visually subtle moment from which the viewer derives not so much an explicit thematic statement as a kind of “vibration”—one might not even consciously notice the repetitious camera movement, but the feeling that something is out of kilter in the scene is nevertheless there.

Coppola develops a variety of visual motifs, but I must admit I still haven’t figured out some of them. For instance, the movie is full of reflected images, of people and things seen in mirrors, glass, any number of shiny surfaces. But this never culminates, is never brought into any sort of thematic focus. At other times, Harry is often shown behind some semitransparent “veil”—a shower curtain, a sheet of plastic in his workshop. Again, this doesn’t seem to mean anything specific, but the motif is carried to some kind of conclusion in the murder scene where Harry sees only a bloody hand on the other side of a frosted-glass partition and surmises that the woman whose conversation he has recorded is being murdered by her jealous husband. Well, OK, so it all has something to do with the uncertainty Harry experiences as he sinks deeper and deeper into the muddle, something which began as just a job, but which his conscience has forced him to turn into a personal crisis. Still, the connection is vague and tenuous, and as a result the motif has no real impact. Too many of Coppola’s visual signals simply fail to signify anything. They give the impression of significance, but finally they don’t take us anywhere.

In general, Coppola seems uncertain of just what it is he wants his movie to do of what its tone should be. The actual conversation fades or grows in significance as the movie zeroes temporarily in on one of its many focal points: Harry’s character and the problems he faces reconciling his conscience and his job, the gradually revealed murder plot, the social implications of a world where surveillance devices are sold like motorboats or new-model cars. Thus, it was probably as much the director’s fault as anyone’s that most of the audience (at least the audience I saw the movie with) laughed during the final scene in which Harry, now under surveillance himself because he knows too much, tears up his apartment in a frenzied search for the bugging device. Because of the lack of any clearly established overall tone, this scene does not quite come off; it simply can’t hold its own weight and hence appears either as a kind of perverse, melancholy slapstick (hence the laughter), or as something altogether too heavy. In either case it lacks effectiveness. The pointed heaviness detracts rather than adds to the psychologically unsettling effects of the movie as a whole. It is too blatant to be really frightening.

THE CONVERSATION
Screenplay and Direction: Francis Ford Coppola. Cinematography: Bill Butler. Production: Coppola.
The Players: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Robert Duvall.

Copyright © 1974 Rick Hermann