I have a secret list of films that I think are magnificent. Some of them are silly like His Girl Friday and some are epic like Ran. But there is one film on the list that I don’t even like talking about because I really don’t know what it is, Francis Cooppola’s The Conversation. I’ve watched it twice just this week, and I have watched it dozens of times over the last three decades. It is different every time I see it. And to even talk about it is to minimize it. But talk about it I will do, even though I think it hopeless.
On its most basic level, The Conversation is the story of a murder plot. A couple has a conversation that is being secretly recorded by our hero, Harry Caul. But Caul mistakes the actual purpose of his work, which is not to uncover an affair, but to lure the suspicious husband to a hotel room where he can be murdered. But if that were all that was, it would be nothing more than Blow Out, which is a fine film, but not great. Instead, the film is interested in deeper questions, like Blowup, which The Conversation is clearly an homage to.
The Meaning of The Conversation
But whereas Blowup, in as much as it deals with anything, is about the nature of perception, The Conversation is about the nature of reality. Caul starts the film arguing with his landlord about having keys to his apartment. She tells him that she must have keys in case of a fire. He responds, “Well, see, I would be perfectly happy to have all my personal things burn up in a fire, because I don’t have anything personal. Nothing of value. Nothing personal except my keys…” That does sum up the state of his life. Since his business is invading other people’s privacy, the only thing he has is his own privacy. And what he is keeping private is a kind of non-life: he has a kept woman, Amy, he occasionally sees; he plays saxophone along with jazz records; and he has his work. And his privacy obsession stifles the blossoming of the two genuinely positive things in his life: his love of Amy and his love of jazz.
If Caul was truthful when he said that the only personal thing he had were his keys, then he has lost everything at the end of the movie. And that is, for many years how I saw the ending. He has found out that his former client has recorded him in his apartment. So Caul literally dismantles the apartment—never finding the bug. After giving up, we see him in his apartment, which is now a mess of debris, playing his saxophone. He is doubtless being recorded. The blinds and curtains have been torn down, so he is also visible to the world. He is naked. But is that a bad thing?
What Caul is doing at that moment is exactly what he would have been doing if he still had all the keys to his life. So the positive take on the ending is that Caul hasn’t lost his privacy; he has simply lost the illusion of privacy. And that illusion doesn’t shatter suddenly. Using a pen microphone, Moran manages to record Caul having the most honest conversation he has in the whole film. The next day, he learns that his client has known all about him from before they even hired him. This certainly was a painful realization for him, but in the end, he’s discovered a great freedom.
Now I know what regular readers will think about this: there goes Frank just trying to turn what is an incredibly depressing ending into something positive. Maybe. But I think there is a good reason to believe that he has been transformed. If he had been beaten, he wouldn’t be playing his sax. But there are points of his back story that point to a kind of rebirth. During the dream sequence, he tells the story of a near death experience and after he regained consciousness, “I remember being disappointed I survived.” And then, when his work in New York leads to the murder of three people, he flees all the way to San Francisco. He repeats over and over again, statements like “It has nothing to do with me” and “I’m not responsible.” But he knows better. In the confessional, after mentioning some minor things, he says, “I’ve been involved in some work that I think will be used to hurt these two young people. It’s happened to me before. People were hurt because of my work—my work. I’m—I’m afraid it could happen again, and I—I was in no way responsible. I’m not responsible.”
I think that after the ending, Harry goes into work. Maybe he decides he’ll only work for the IRS or go into another line of work altogether. He gets on better with Stan and everyone. Maybe he manages to find Amy. Regardless, he finds a woman to have an actual human relationship with. And he starts living. But The Conversation isn’t about a rebirth because Harry Caul has never really lived. It is, in a sense a birth—he’s finally made it out of the womb. The most remarkable thing about this is that our hero’s name is “Caul,” and the caul is “the amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus.” Most births take hours or days, this one took 44 years. Better late than never. Happy birthday Harry!
Other Meanings — If You Like
Okay, you don’t like my take on the film? I have at least a dozen others. One that I’m quite fond of is that nothing is happening externally in his most recent job. It is just a husband spying on his wife and the husband dies in a car crash—a pure coincidence. What’s really going on is that Harry Caul is finally coming to terms with his responsibility in the 1968 welfare fund case that led to the three murders. He sees a similarity in this case and begins hallucinating. There was no argument in the “Jack Tar Hotel. 3:00. Room 773″—no blood overflowing the toiler. There is no one recording his apartment. He tears it apart because he’s gone crazy. He is punishing himself for the sin of spying by creating a world that is now spying on him. But I don’t find that fulfilling, because that is basically what his whole life had been about up until that point: hiding from people he assumes are doing to him what he does to them.
Or you could see The Conversation the way most people see it: he has been destroyed, and now all he has is his sax that he plays alone, not even along with records. But that is not only boring, it dismisses what is probably Gene Hackman’s best acting performance ever. He is playing a character who talks very little but says very much. And it is a disservice to the character to think that he ever thought that being a good spy meant he was immune to being spied on himself. That’s why he created a life of his own that was so small that there was virtually nothing to spy on.
So right now: I think The Conversation is about the birth of a man. But I will doubtless change that opinion later. Or at least refine it.
The Conversation as Cinematic Art
Regardless of meaning, The Conversation is also a masterpiece of filmmaking as art. I’m rather glad that Bill Butler did the cinematography rather than the obvious choice of Gordon Willis (who just died last month at 83—of cancer). I love Willis’ work, but it is highly stylized and Butler’s more naturalistic approach works really well here. Some of the surveillance camera moves are a little too cute, but I don’t blame that on him.
The acting is strong, most especially Hackman. But some of the minor roles are really great too, especially Allen Garfield as the slimiest of characters: Moran. Also, I thought that Teri Garr managed to create a whole reality in her very small part. If there is one part that is weak, it is Harrison Ford as Martin Stett. He seems ill at ease in the part and although he doesn’t really hurt the film, he just seems out of place. Of course, I’m not a big fan of Ford. I like him well enough, but he’s wildly overrated.
More than most films, The Conversation lives and dies by the editing. And this editing is fantastic. Although the viewer is riveted, it is actually paced very slowly. And just as the tapes of the conversation are layered, so is the editing of the film. Taken all together, it is very much like a fugue. But with every pass we are drawn deeper and deeper into it. I think we have to credit this to Walter Murch more than to Richard Chew, who was nominally the editor of the film. Murch is both an editor and a sound designer, and that is the combination that is most impressive in the film. I’m sure Coppola was very involved too.
Over all, there were a lot of great people doing their best work on this film. But it is easy to see how the film could have been ruined. And I think we have to thank Coppola above all for never losing track of what he was making. He started with a great screenplay, got the right people to help him make it, and brought the whole thing home. Interestingly, the film lost the Best Picture Oscar to Coppola’s other film, the far weaker The Godfather Part II. But The Conversation did win the Palme d’Or, which is typical: Cannes has a much better history of spotting genius in real time.
Two Other Issues
There are two other things about the film that bug me. One is that almost everyone who sees the film is obsessed (at least for a while) about how Harry Caul was recorded in his apartment. I guess this is natural, but it is irrelevant. As Caul himself knows: there are always ways. The film also doesn’t reveal how Caul recorded the 1968 welfare fund case, but no one seems concerned about that. Both questions are irrelevant, and their answers would be boring. The point is that Caul being a great spy is of very little use to him in protecting his own privacy.
The other issue is the change in the recording of the line, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Even time, the inflection is the same, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” This implies that they are worried that he is going to kill them. But after we know that they were the ones who murdered the older executive, the line is repeated with a different reading, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” That implies that they are going to kill him before he kills them. Basically, it is a complete reversal of the meaning of the line throughout the film.
When I first saw the film, that was the killer line. It worked perfectly. In an instant, everything changed. It is highly effective. And I don’t like it. It can be justified, because it is the one time we don’t hear it repeated on the tape. It is Harry Caul’s memory and just like the audience, he suddenly sees the line differently and that he had the situation exactly backwards. But it still feels like a cheat and it isn’t necessary.