The Conversation – A Study of Ambiguity

A Tuesday morning… I sit here again with the kitten in my lap.  The flow of films which I have been casting my net over continues with, perhaps, an obvious choice. The Conversation.  This is a mid ’70s film starring Gene Hackman and directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  Actually, just saying “directed by” is doing Coppola a disservice.  He actually wrote, produced and directed this film.  For that reason this is a very personal film.  Now… you could google the film title and find out all you need to know about the workings and the worth of this film.  So I’ll just issue swathes of my own colour on the subject.

I’m taking a break from music at the moment.  I completed a couple of albums recently and I feel the need to recharge my batteries.  What better than to just discuss art that has influenced, or is influencing, my life?  You’ll get a vibe of where I’m coming from… and I may just find a nuance for my next mojo-period.

The Conversation is a very interesting film.  It has a pace that only ’70’s cinema seemed to allow.  A slow, dripping, rhythmical time frame.  The film’s plot concerns the intricacies of sound.  Therefore… this film could be viewed as a piece of music that happens to have been filmed.  Music as visual.  Sound as sight.  For me, this is the most important aspect of The Conversation.

Harry Caul is a professional eavesdropper. He uses the most modern methods of the time to record people’s conversations.  He inhabits the background of life.  He is a shadowy figure who is dedicated to his work at the expense of everything else.  Gene Hackman pulls off the performance of his career here, and you can again draw a line through the likes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.  The ‘actor’ portraying reality rather than ‘acting’.

Harry Caul is given an assignment to record a conversation between two people in a busy city centre.  He does so, and then listens to the tape.  He believes he’s stumbled upon a murder plot and goes about trying to save the people concerned.  A very simple premise… made very complicated by the layers of impenetrable sound.  This film is the audio equivalent of the ’60s film, Blow-Up (which is a classic film in its own right!).

This film has rhythm… almost pulsating.  Not pulsating with ‘excitement’!  This is a film that washes over you like ambient music.  It’s not until the ending that the true ‘thriller’ nature becomes apparent.  For the most part this film is a character study.  In fact it seems I’ve been basking in ‘character study’ films recently.

The nature of the sound recording is fascinating to me.  Remember that I am a music producer.  The nostalgia, the clunkiness of the analogue tape reels.  The wires, the buttons, the dust… Harry Caul lives the life that I hanker for – but a life that no longer exists.  For we live in a different age.  Honestly, any of you could download software from the internet right now that would put all the equipment in The Conversation to shame.  But nevertheless… it still takes talent and dedication to derive meaningful sound from sub-par field recordings… and it is this time-consuming slog upon which The Conversation concentrates.  I love this film.  I remember seeing it when I was a teenager.  I was hooked by it. Hooked in a way that the general public wouldn’t be.  For, like the films I have reviewed before… this is no blockbuster.  This is a heartfelt, personal trip.  Coppola had just made The Godfather.  When asked by the studio if he would make The Godfather Part II, Coppola replied “Only if I can make The Conversation“.  He realised his personal flight of fancy on the back of a blockbuster.  For this I tip my hat in his direction.  This is a man who has made some of the greatest films of all time.  And The Conversation might just be the best of them.  I’m probably alone in that opinion… but as I say… this film has particular relevance to anyone who is interested in sound design.

A mention must be made to Harrison Ford’s performance.  He plays the ‘baddie’ to a very sophisticated level considering how little he is actually required to do.  A mesmerising performance and you can see how he rose through the ranks to be an international superstar.

So… I don’t necessarily feel I need to go any further.  I just wanted to give you a flavour of a film that has resonance with me and my life.  Only watch it if you enjoy slow, smouldering film.  Otherwise you will cry “BORING!”.  Ha ha!

Positives then?  Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford.  The study of personal freedom and loneliness.  The camera work which feels like surveillance.  At times you feel like you are a peeping tom looking into a man’s life where you have no place being.  The technology is fantastic.  The grime, the dedication, the obsession.  The drip, drip of plot.  The layering of detail.  Detail upon detail until a picture begins to emerge.  The sublime piano soundtrack (referenced years later in Zodiac – see the links? 🙂 ).  This film is a study in ambiguity.  There is a key line which Harry coaxes from his taped conversation, and depending on the way you hear the words – the inflections – depends on how you understand the plot.

The Negatives?  Harry plays Saxophone to relax.  I’m not a fan of the sax… reminds me of people at school who didn’t really like or understand music.  When asked what their favourite instrument was they would always say “saxophone”.  I wish Harry had played a bit of blues/jazz guitar.

There is a scene in the middle of the film where Harry brings a load of ‘friends’ back to his ‘secret’ sound studio.  They hang out and party.  This does not seem fitting for a character who has been established so strongly as a man dedicated to personal secrecy… to being unnoticed, to being a person with no ID.  The scene is necessary for plot development… so I understand its inclusion… and I don’t feel it is a huge negative.  I can kind of understand that Harry has been out for the evening with people who also work in surveillance and therefore people who he considers ‘friends’.. or at least ‘acquaintances’.  Perhaps it’s a reveal that Harry is perhaps a little human after all.

So… a beautiful, intriguing personal film made by a great director at the very top of his game.

The Conversation – 9/10

Any opinions?

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