Haunted Mind: A Review of ‘The Conversation’

August 7, 2011

(This review contains some spoilers. If you want a fully-virgin experience, watch the film before reading this review. Watch it after reading the review anyway, because next week I am going to really spoil it.)

Harry Caul works at syncing three different incomplete audio recordings in a ground-breaking surveillance job.

One of the most difficult tasks a movie can attempt to do is bring the viewer truly inside the mind of a character. Of course, at some level all films try this. But what sets Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” apart is that is succeeds. Through Coppola’s patient, but precise direction, the brilliant sound editing, and Gene Hackman’s inspired acting, we are fully brought into the mind of professional surveillance expert Harry Caul.

And what a mind it is. Harry is the “best wiretapper on the west coast”, but will not let himself enjoy the honor. As we gradually find out, he may have been responsible for the deaths of two innocent people from a job a few years back. He was not responsible, he says, because he was only doing an assignment, and he is not responsible for the repercussions of his jobs. The immense guilt he feels suggests he does not believe it. Now, he is increasingly paranoid the results of his most recent eavesdropping masterpiece will cause more bloodshed.

The film opens with an amazing shot of a crowded city square that brings us into the sonic world of surveillance. For the first few seconds we are left wondering what is happening, and our eyes try to find the subject of the shot. Then the audio shifts to specific sounds of the scene below: a person talking, a band playing, sounds of movement. We find out two people in particular are being recorded, and the details of their conversation propel the plot forward. Indeed, the entire film revolves around the way a particular line is enunciated.

Harry Caul is, as we learn, great as his job. While modern viewers will not be able to understand how advanced the techniques he uses were at the time, there is much noise made about how difficult the job in the opening scene was to pull off. At the same time Harry is terrible at managing his personal life. He finds a birthday present in his room and panics. The landlord tells him she left it using the spare key. He tells her to get rid of the key. It does not matter if his apartment burns down, he says, because his only important possessions are his keys.

The soundtrack to the film is peculiar. Someone as rigid and formulaic as Harry would not be expected to play jazz on the saxophone, but I suspect he does it to try to calm his mind. People with minds constantly running need an escape, and the saxophone is Harry’s escape. The piano theme tries to be lively but falls into isolation, much like Harry himself.

Social settings allow us to observe Harry at his most uncomfortable. He cannot have a normal romantic relationship due to his paranoia, and his desire to be proud of his work among colleagues stands in tension with his inability to let go of the past.

Guilt pulls Harry into desperation.

In the third act Coppola shifts the perspective of the film. We have been observing Harry all along, and all of the action revolves around him. But in the end we are transported fully into the paranoia and see the tragic end through his eyes. The subtle way in which Coppola transitions into this perspective is truly masterful. Notice how the sounds in Harry’s mind mirror the surveillance noises we are introduced to in the first shot. The last two scenes cause us to question the reality of the rest of the movie. How much in the hotel was only in the mind of Harry?

Finally, we are treated to a concluding shot worthy of being bookended with the opening shot. Just like the rest of the movie, we have to wait a bit to understand its meaning. But that is what makes this film such a masterpiece. Coppola doesn’t fall into the trap of many modern directors in trying to keep up the pace for an impatient audience. Shots actually mean something in this film, and if you pay attention you will be rewarded. It’s not a quick journey travelling into someone’s mind, after all.

There is no running from one's own mind.

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