Coppola’s most celebrated films are the first two Godfather movies. The first came out in 1972, and the second came out at the end of 1974. In between them, there was The Conversation. The Conversation has lost much of his reputation and prestige over the last two generations or so, and that is a great misfortune for such a quality film, which played quality role in Coppola’s complete compendium. The reason for this importance is simple: it is Coppola’s most personal, introverted film, in other words, it his most revealing auteur picture. Understanding the context of auteurism improves the overall viewing experience of The Conversation.
What makes it an auteur picture? First, it is very individualistic in that it remains focused on a single entity—in this case, a man—and analyzes conceptual facets from the perception of (or the observation of) that entity. When a film is split-up in focus, consisting of several important characters and stories, the nature of the film is rooted in aspects of duplicity. An auteur can take these duplicitous and multiplicitous aspects an use them to his advantage, for example the abstract biopic I’m Not There features various characters that represent various aspects of Bob Dylan. This can also be seen in Peter Brooks’ The Lord of the Flies, which is based on William Golding’s novel, wherein the characters represent various aspects of the human condition: Ralph is to order as Jack is to power as Simon is to natural goodness as Piggy is to innovative intellectualism. Remember that all these are written and created by humans: the author (auteur) is a human. These facets of humanity may represent the author’s own multiplicity, or, more likely, will represent the multiplicity of the human condition as the author sees it. This subjective nature of analysis gives color and diversity to the world of film.
Coppola had dealt with films of split-up focus (and would again) in such movies as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. In The Godfather, we see Vito’s children representing special human facets. Sonny represents a tendency to passion, Tom represents the search for order and thought, Fredo represents the mold-able nature of humans and their ignorant conformity, Michael represents the hidden potential for good and evil, and Connie represents naïveté. In Apocalypse Now, you have nihilistic Kurtz, violent Kilgore, contemplative Willard, and Dennis Hopper’s malleable “American Photojournalist.” In The Outsiders, there is innocent and artistic Ponyboy, authoritative and leaderly Darrel, flippant Sodapop, lighthearted Two-Bit, macho Steve, hardened Dallas, and quiet Johnny. But, as was stated earlier, Coppola approached a very vulnerable step in his career in filming a film focused on a single entity—Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul.
By doing this, Coppola could no longer make a movie that focused on humanity as he saw it, but he would have to step deeper into the world of auteurism and create a character full weakness and strength, searching for reconciliation. Caul does not necessarily represent Coppola, and people should not jump to the conclusion that a character is a reflection of its creator. Freud did enough of that for us; it is in the best interest of the viewer to permit the director/writer/author a little bit of creative credit. However, it is interesting to consider what facets of Coppola’s understanding inform the film. By putting the entire success or failure of the movie’s premise on one single character, Coppola exposes his interpretive ability and puts a lot on the line. He asks to observe his character, his creation.
Now, the creation is not only his, as no auteur is the complete “god” of his or her picture. I feel like I explained that phenomenon pretty well in my page on auteurism: credit also goes to Gene Hackman. But, in this case, Coppola takes complete charge of his film; he is also the writer. (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders, and The Rainmaker were all based on books by Mario Puzo, Joseph Conrad, S.E. Hinton, and John Grisham, respectively.) I know very little about Coppola’s interaction with his actors, but judging from the standout performances and legendary exchanges he was able to film, it seems quite self-evident that he was a great acting director. Of these performances, the many Godfather characters usually stand out. But Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is one that cannot be ignored.
Caul is a snoop, a bugger for hire. And he is the finest in the world. The opening sequence shows him carefully manipulating and orchestrating a complex “bug”, trying to listen in on a conversation between a man and a woman in a park. He tries to get it perfectly captured, spliced, edited, and finalized. He was hired to snoop, and he was going to do a thorough, complete job. In the process of manipulating the captured audio, however, old fears and insecurities come back to manipulate him, to pervert him towards obsession.
The original movie tag-line read, “Harry Caul is an invader of privacy. The best in the business. He can record any conversation between two people anywhere. So far, three people are dead because of him.”
It was this past mistake that pushes him to his paranoia. He is convinced that an old job led to the murder of others, and, as he gets more and more involved in the editing of his most recent bug, he becomes more and more convinced that this job will lead to more death. But, where is the balance between his work and his moral duty? His job is his life, his very existence. He has nothing but his solitude and his soundboards.
The movie is characterized by two scenes (other than the ending sequences, which I will not divulge). First, is the opening sequence, in the city park, which Coppola masterfully orchestrates through use of delicate montage. The second is a scene were a group of intelligence and surveillance specialists meet up at Caul’s lonely basement for a party following a surveillance merchandise convention. Caul’s awkward attempts at socialization do not compensate for his apparent lack of social desire, accept for a moment when he opens himself up intimately to a woman with whom he has had a short, probably less-than-passionate history. When nothing happens, and the couple returns to the small party of visitors, Caul is shattered to find that his entire conversation was bugged. The others laugh as they listen to his pathetic attempt at intimacy, and at his obvious lack of professionalism in allowing his rival, who is in the party, to have planted a bug on him.
The movie is called The Conversation. There are only several certifiable “conversations” in the film, the rest are short bouts of anti-social rhetoric. But which conversation is “the” conversation? I don’t submit that Coppola felt this way, or meant it to seem this way, but to me, “the” conversation is not the one propelling the plot of the movie forward; it is, instead, the one that Hackman’s Caul had with that woman, the one where the bugger got bugged. In this scene, we see the character of the man we watch, the basis of his identity, what he lives for, and what moves him. You see, this is not a movie about a conversation, or a mystery (though at first it may seem that way). It is a movie about a man.
That is what makes the film so difficult to review and so tough to explain. What starts out as an interesting mystery devolves into a stunning analysis of a singular character flaw: paranoia, or obsession, rooted in the mistakes of the past. The object of the title, a conversation, brought it all about. A conversation (one which we are never privileged to hear) from his past brought about death, which brought about the genesis of his paranoia. A conversation (which is heard at the beginning of the film) is what activates that paranoia within him. And a conversation (in that small post-convention after party) highlights everything that the man is, and everything he wants to be. But, the first two conversations are MacGuffins (please read my explanation of MacGuffin in my reviews of Notorious and Pyscho). The plot is not the mystery; as a matter of fact, there is little in terms of plot at all. The movie is about, again, a man.
The relationship between establishing a character as a plot device and establishing a character as something deeper—a symbol—can often be difficult to do. People get committed to the plot all too easy, and you don’t want them to get bored. Coppola provided an intriguing story line but, through his use of pacing (as well as his use of silence, which is a very important technique that the sound era has often forgot), he kept the focus on the face, on Hackman.
Hackman’s acting performance is the propelling power of this movie. He has always been a superb actor. His roles in Superman, The French Connection, and Hoosiers show a man capable of many emotions. Type-cast, maybe. Great, absolutely. He was able to, much like Jimmy Stewart before him, maintain his voice and mannerisms, while creating subtleties of emotion that greatly diversified his acting oeuvre, and gave color to his characters. In The Conversation, he provides his most introverted and scared character, a troubled anti-hero, destroyed by a past accident in his quest for investigatory prowess.
All of this should sound familiar….”Jimmy Stewart”, “troubled anti-hero”, “investigatory”, “obsession”, “past accident”, “introverted and scared”, “paranoia” that leads to destruction, a realization of fallibility that haunts him forever, “silence”, and “MacGuffin”. The Conversation is Coppola’s Vertigo.
This movie acted, for Coppola, as an opportunity to pull away from the story-driven stories and to create, instead, a character-driven auteur picture. The themes in Vertigo and The Conversation are of manipulation and obsession. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart manipulates Kim Novak to become the woman he wants her to be almost as a defense mechanism against the mistakes of his past. In The Conversation, Hackman’s adamant and persistent manipulation of the audio, his invasion of privacy, continually convinces him of his own perceptions, leading to a paranoia born of his past mistakes. There is an aesthetic undercurrent of manipulation throughout the entire film, from the montages showing the capturing of footage, to the scenes showing the editing of sound bites and audio tracks. The images of Hackman, with his headphones on, toiling over sound boards in almost sweaty focus, brings to mind images from Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, where Yelizaveta Svilova is shown making the movie that you are watching as you watch it. It is the toil of the director to manipulate audio and video to create the perfect image and to always become better.
I have often referenced Hitchcock’s manipulation of his actors—particularly his women—as a consistency that prevails in his own auteurism. This fascination with this power of manipulation that a director has was the propelling factor in his later films. It is easy to maintain that this phenomenon is inherent in all true movie auteurs: their auteurism can make reality their own re-creation, and with that power comes, not only great responsibility, but also great awe. Hackman’s Caul felt that, through his work, he was the prevailing factor in determining the ultimate fates of the people whom he had bugged. A director is also subject to that power.
It is one of the great privileges of a director to have full intrusive power in the lives, worlds, fates, and behaviors of their characters. This manipulative ability goes deeper when considering the theory I put forward in my very first pages which will be called the “Slice of Cake” theory. In essence, a movie is designed to participated in, not merely presented to. It is supposed to be outside-of-reality, and should therefore place the viewer in a new world, one propelled by emotion and imagination. A competent movie-connoisseur is an active movie-goer, not in how often he or she watches movies, but in how involved—or active—they are in watching a single film at any given time. Therefore, the director, when dealing with an active, or competent, movie audience, is not only granted manipulative powers over the characters in the film, but also the characters outside of the film, trying to get in: you and me, watching from the dark living room or theater. We are also manipulated, by an appeal to our emotion, imagination and immersion in the film and the character.
As the director is wielder of these powers, he often asks himself how best to use them. Their answer lies in doing what they do best: making film. In The Conversation, Coppola’s query is answered in much the same way Hitchcock’s is answered in Vertigo. They treat this power with reverence.