Sam Wiebe Introduces the 1974 Classic
Slated to introduce The Conversation at the Vancouver Film Center before the pandemic, Canadian crime writer Sam Wiebe, the creator of private eyes Dave Wakeland and Michael Drayton, finally got to do it in April 2022. The screening was part of a free day of programming in memoriam for VIFF staff member Kathy Evans, and Wiebe says he was honoured to be a part of it. Below is the text of his introduction, reprinted with permission.
THE CONVERSATION (1974) is a difficult film to discuss because I love it, dearly, but articulating why always seems to lead to dead ends and cul de sacs, taking me back through the film again and again, trying to figure out what it is that makes it special.
It’s not an easy film to pitch to a friend who hasn’t seen it. It’s a downer. It has great performances, but not showy performances. There aren’t a lot of memorable lines, even though the whole film revolves around dialogue.
The main character, Harry Caul, is a virtuoso wiretapper, known as ‘the best bugger on the west coast.’ But the story is about a series of fundamental errors Harry makes, as he moves from a disinterested technician, to caring about the people he’s listening to, to being bugged himself.
In trying to interest people in the film, the biggest selling point is that it stands between, next to, and in the midst of a lot of great films. The Conversation comes between Godfather and Godfather Part 2 in the career of director and screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola. It comes between Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning performances in The French Connection and Unforgiven. Between the “New Hollywood” of Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, and the Blockbuster era launched by Jaws and Star Wars.
And what’s remarkable is how different The Conversation is from any of those films. Coppola never directed a film like it, Hackman never acted this restrained before or again, and Hollywood pivoted from art to commerce around The Godfather not around The Conversation.
But the impact of the film has been wide-ranging, so much so that Hackman unofficially reprises the role in Tony Scott’s blockbuster action film Enemy of the State, this time as a mentor and sidekick to Will Smith. But as a selling point, this is like saying you should watch James Earl Jones in King Lear because he’s really good as the bad guy in Conan the Barbarian. (On a sidenote: he is, and you should).
Meryl Streep made a point about The Conversation in the documentary I Knew it Was You, which is about John Cazale, the actor who plays Stanley, Harry Caul’s assistant in the film. Streep says, with the tone of every girlfriend or boyfriend who’s had to listen to too much obscure film talk,
“The Conversation was a cult film. People already had it as their favorite film of all time. Especially people who wanted to show that they were impervious to mass taste, y’know, ‘It’s not The Godfather I love the most, it’s [The Conversation].’”
The documentary then cuts to a series of famous actors—Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell—all nerding out over John Cazale’s performance in The Conversation. She’s kind of right—this is a film lover’s film to love. Which is logic that leads us back to the starting point, which is why?
Let’s table the question of what makes it’s a great film, and instead, let’s look at three scenes from the life of Harry Caul.
The opening takes place in Union Square in San Francisco, with a long tracking shot of the entire public space, full of people on an afternoon. We see a Dixieland jazz band playing, a wide variety of people milling about, dogs, there’s even a mime. These are good conditions for anonymity, for being lost in a crowd.
The camera slowly zooms to follow a man walking. He’s in a raincoat, thick glasses, a mustache. The mime actually starts imitating him for a second. He passes to a utility van with mirror repair on its side, and climbs in. The is our first glimpse of Harry Caul.
Something is going on with the sound—we hear bleeps, noises cutting in and out. We don’t know why yet, but it’s disorienting, gives us a sense of something going on.
Inside the van we see Stanley, Harry’s assistant, and a bunch of analog and early digital recording equipment. It dawns on us that Harry and Stanley are bugging someone in this crowd, and the audio and camera bears this out. A young couple, walking around Union Square, talking to each other. The audio cuts in and out. At one point the couple notices a man with an earpiece behind them. This makes them nervous.
It’s worth pointing out here, the conversation that Harry is picking up is boring. The woman sings along with the band, “Red Red Robin,” they remark about a derelict who seems in bad shape, but they’re obviously yuppies and they’re not really involved in anything but their own discussion. There’s a lot they’re not saying, and there are things we can’t hear. It’s dull, so dull Stanley even remarks that the only people who’d pay to listen to something this boring would be the IRS.
But Harry’s not bored. The words the couple are saying don’t matter to him. What matters is the quality of the recording itself, the fidelity. He wants to hear them crystal clear. He’s being paid for that. It’s his job, and it’s also his passion.
So how do you record someone when they’re moving closer and farther away from whoever’s got the microphone? With a second mic. With two recordings, you can synchronize them and then blend them, what’s called cross fading, making each side louder or softer depending on how good the sound quality is. The best of both. And Harry does this not with two recordings but four, including a man with a shotgun mic up above union square. Each style of microphone picks up a different pattern of sound and has different ranges of frequency, so if you blend them, theoretically you could pull together most of what they’re saying.
All this technology is outdated now and has a cool vintage look, but what Harry is doing is creating a solution, out of technology, out of other people, and out of his own skill at manipulating sound. Throughout the film we see him stitching the audio together from these sources, hooking up different homemade enhancement devices, trying to isolate the two voices, leaving only their discussion.
I think this is really the key to understanding Harry Caul and the film as a whole. People often compare it to Blow-Up and Blow-Out and other films where technology and conspiracy feature prominently.
Up until recently, I would say the other genre of films The Conversation most resembles are the neo-noir private eye films like Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, and Night Moves, which took detective stories and gave them cynical, murky endings. In those films, someone is hired to do a job, the job becomes personal and deadly.
These of course are both important lineages. This is the era of the Watergate burglary and wiretapping, and even though the film was written and shot before Watergate, that era of film is defined by a paranoia and cynicism towards the government. Someone may be listening in. Something is going on that we don’t realize.
But what if we see Harry Caul not as a tech wizard or a working class investigator in over his head—what if we see him as an artist? A Great Artist whose medium is sound, like a record producer or engineer. There’s a long history of films about Great Artists who sacrifice everything else in their lives, hurt others immensely, forsake their humanity, and in the end destroy themselves in pursuit of art.
Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes. Anthony Quinn in La Strada, and Marcello Mastroianni in 8 ½, all the way through Roy Scheider in All That Jazz to Natalie Portman in Black Swan… the danger of art as a substitute for life, how seductive that is for some people. And how they often lose everything.
Which brings us to our second scene, Harry at home.
After a long day of sound capture and manipulation, he rides the electric bus home to his locked apartment. It’s his 44th birthday, and he finds a bottle of wine placed inside his door by his landlady. His fellow tenants are raising a stink about the building’s conditions, and want him to speak to the owner. All of this upsets him, and he tells the landlady he’ll have the locks changed. His privacy, or his illusion of privacy, has been destroyed.
Harry visits his girlfriend Amy, a wonderful small performance by Teri Garr, and even here he’s somewhat distant, still judging how much of himself to share with her. She mentions she’s caught him waiting around her building sometimes. It’s not that Harry doesn’t trust her; he doesn’t seem able to trust anyone.
Alone in his apartment again, he plays the saxophone to relax, but again this is sound manipulation, controlling tone, duration, all the things he does at work.
When I think of Coppola’s films, one of the first words that comes to mind is family. How important that theme is to his work. The Godfather is nothing if not about family. Think also about the different surrogate families of Kurtz and Kilgore and the boat crew in Apocalypse Now, the youth gangs in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, the couple which becomes a love quartet in One From the Heart, the legal cases Matt Damon takes on in The Rainmaker, and let’s even stretch it to include the danger that Gary Oldman poses in taking Winona Ryder away from her family in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The cast and crew he employs are often his relatives—actors and composers especially. Coppola’s brother-in-law David Shire did the fantastic score for The Conversation, the piano theme which is the sonic equivalent of a Moebius strip.
We have a filmmaker immersed in the idea of family who wrote and directed a film about a person who is utterly alone. Harry refuses to be a boyfriend, to be a mentor or partner, even to be a neighbor—and in the screenplay, you find out Harry owns the building, and you realize how deep this solitude goes.
The word “caul” refers to a part of the amniotic sac that can enclose a baby’s head when it’s born. David Copperfield, another famous literary orphan, is described by Charles Dickens as being born with a caul, which can signify something special about a person, but also something closed off or encased. Shot after shot shows Harry isolated from others. Protective of himself, but also isolated.
Harry Caul has no home life. He just doesn’t realize it until the end.
The third and last scene I want to discuss is Harry at the convention, which is both the funniest scene in the film, the most vulnerable we see him, and the pivot of the film’s plot.
Harry has been advertised as a celebrity attendee at a security professionals convention, and even though part of him doesn’t want to go, he does. We see this strange admixture of cutting edge spy technology, shabby men in loud suits and loud men in shabby suits, and weird elements of showbiz glitz like models and curtains and such.
Stanley is moonlighting at the booth of William P. Moran, played by Allen Garfield, who calls himself the best bugger on the east coast. Moran gives Harry a promotional pen, asks about his trade secrets, and tries to get him to partner up. Moran is everything Harry isn’t—willing to schmooze, chatty, and clearly something of a bullshit artist. Harry doesn’t think he’s very good at all.
The look that passes between Harry and Stanley when Stanley is ordered by Moran to watch the booth is rich with shared sense of betrayal. Stanley is Harry’s assistant, but only his assistant. Not an equal and not even an apprentice. But it hurts both of them.
A small group of wiretappers start drinking, pick up some prostitutes, and they end up at Harry’s workshop. Harry can’t help but brag a little about the surveillance job he’s just done. He and a woman named Meredith end up talking privately, only for Moran to reveal that he’s bugged Harry with the pen, humiliating him. Harry screams and throws everyone out. Meredith stays. In the morning she’s gone, and so are the tapes of his work. His unfinished masterpiece, which may be evidence that the couple are in danger.
Why does Harry go to such lengths to control everything, to distance himself, yet again and again he leaves himself open to being tricked and deceived? Why can’t he follow his own advice? I don’t have an answer for you, other than loneliness and ego. A bad combination.
Another question to ask as you watch the film: where does he go wrong? Is it taking the job in the first place? Caring too much, or getting too involved? Or not involved enough?
These aren’t the questions you typically ask about technological thrillers. These are the questions you ask about tragedies. Why couldn’t Macbeth just be happy being Thane of Cawdor? And they’re questions we ask of our own lives, why did I do this, where did I go wrong…Was it fated to happen this way, some mistake I made?
It’s a film that is stingy with answers. As life sometimes is. We see Harry going back to his recording, again and again, each time teasing out slightly more meaning, never getting the entire conversation, until it’s too late.
He’ll kill us if he got the chance.
- THE CONVERSATION | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman as HARRY CAUL
Also starring John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Michael Higgins, Elizabeth MacRae, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford, Mark Wheeler, Robert Shields, Phoebe Alexander