The Conversation

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Davey the Fat Boy
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The Conversation

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 03 Sep 2017, 00:59

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Prompted by the Gene Hackman thread, I watched it again. These are my thoughts on what I saw. If anyone of them conflict with the DVD commentary track on Matt's DVD, you should defer to that:


The first time we see Gene Hackman's Harry Caul, he's oblivious to the fact that he is being followed by a mime aping his mannerisms. It's an apt bit of foreshadowing. Caul's job is to secretly record the conversations of others, but he'd vastly prefer not to hear them. Throughout this film it is he who will be stalked. Not only by Harrison Ford's menacing corporate operative, but by conscience, paranoia and a growing suspicion that he is losing his tightly held grip.

I'm not the first person to take notice of that thin translucent raincoat, nor the first to wonder if it has a symbolic relationship to his last name (a caul is the amniotic membrane encasing a fetus) - intended symbolism or not, it seems too poetically on point to ignore. Harry's trying hard not to be birthed into the chaos of the world. But his protection against it is wafer thin.

There are a few sequences in which we learn important things about him. His first trip home shows us a man with multiple door locks and an alarm, but one who can't even keep his landlady out of his apartment or his mail. Is he truly as careful as he presents?

Then there is the scene with his drop-in girlfriend, barraging him at first with her questions - but then unknowingly touching on his insecurities when she casually mentions that she has spotted him watching her and had suspicions about him tapping her phones. For a guy who is supposed to be the world's best at surveillance, this has to be a kick in the teeth.

It's even there with the couple in the central conversation of the film. The woman spots one person following her and wonders aloud if her phone is tapped (Is it? There is some odd continuity in this film, with Caul trying to deliver the tapes while he is still working on them in subsequent scenes. Is he deliveing tapes of previous conversations? Perhaps, but when he's paid someone says "not bad for a day's work").

The confession scene (complete with raincoat) makes clear that his conscience is tortured. His repetition that the deaths the have resulted from his work were not his fault seem more like Hail Mary's than a statement of truth.

Then there is all of the stuff around the convention and it's after party. Harry clearly feels threatened by Moran...especially given that Moran has hired his top guy away (after Harry verbally attacks Stan for the recent shoddiness of his work - which seems like a huge projection of Harry's own recent sloppiness). Moran then indulges in an open play for dominance, demonstrating at every turn how much information he has been able to compile on the supposedly hermetically sealed life of his rival.

The revelation that he has bugged Caul is not only a bridge too far for Harry because he has been bested. It also contains a recording of the most vulnerable personal moment we will see of him in the whole film. So it's worse than being beaten at one's own game. It is his greatest fear about being "known" made manifest.

Again the issue of Harry's meticulous nature comes into question. Why would he allow his rival into his workspace? Knowing that he's being followed, why would he let strangers in? Is it anything but his own carelessness that gets his tapes stolen?

In the end I would argue that that lack of judgement on his own part is the central betrayal of the film. Who do you trust when you cannot trust yourself? His almost fetal impotence during the murder is emblematic of just how deeply he doubts his own agency. But even worse is the aftermath, and his having to face that even when he uses his eyes and ears, he still cannot trust what he sees and hears. What a terrible thing to be left in the end only with his statue of the Virgin Mary - only to ultimately find it hollow in your moment of need.

Anyone else have any thoughts?
Last edited by Davey the Fat Boy on 03 Sep 2017, 14:34, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Bumblecorn Cats Nightmare » 03 Sep 2017, 05:48

You've got too much time on your hands?
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 03 Sep 2017, 06:38

Kinda goes with the BCB territory, doesn't it?
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Bumblecorn Cats Nightmare » 03 Sep 2017, 09:16

:)

I suppose so.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby K » 03 Sep 2017, 09:38

Great insight from Coan, as ever.
I love it, probably my favourite Coppola film. The first time I saw it I was just mesmerised by Caul's control freakery, the stunning moment when we heard, "He kill us if he had the chance" for that time and the miserable, paranoid ending.
Subsequent viewings made Harry's paranoia more plain, and his impotence. He is an observer, who cannot affect what he sees. He is torn during the confession scene - was he to blame - and seems to want to stop this murder... by recording it? Perhaps the pen scene shows a man formally at the top of this game but now seeing technology moving on: it won't be long before he is yesterday's news.
The end is incredible, if depressing. Tearing the place up to find a bug that may not be there - his own industry turned back in on him.
I'll probably watch it again this week based on this thread.

And to take the symbolism further, Harry means "To plunder or destroy" and Caul was once a word for a net or hood that covered the head.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby German Dave » 03 Sep 2017, 11:21

Hodgson wrote:You've got too much time on your hands?


You cry out for thought-provoking posts and then when someone puts one up, you mock it. :roll:
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 03 Sep 2017, 15:32

Another area of strange continuity is the bit with Harrison Ford and the cookies. Ford's Strett offers them to Caul who turns them down. Then takes one when Strett leaves, only to smell it and put it back.

But when Strett comes back in the room, he eats a cookie (seemingly to show that they aren't poison). Harry considers eating the one in his hand (didn't he already put it back - did he take another??), but again returns it to the dish when he decides to take his tapes back.

Given the strange continuity with the tapes themselves (mentioned above) - this is easily the most problematic scene in the film. Add to that the convoluted plotting around the murder plot itself. Are the conversation participants aware of being taped and performing for Harry's crew? If not, how does Strett know that what he'll get wil be useful to him? It's all pretty underbaked, but ultimately beside the point. This film is a character study, not a thriller.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Charlie O. » 04 Sep 2017, 07:34

Just watched it, thanks to this thread.

(Although no-one else has said it, I will: SPOILER ALERT...)

Davey the Fat Boy wrote:There is some odd continuity in this film, with Caul trying to deliver the tapes while he is still working on them in subsequent scenes. Is he delivering tapes of previous conversations? Perhaps, but when he's paid someone says "not bad for a day's work").

I gather that it was all one conversation - which is odd in itself, though in keeping with the film's title. Why would the company director hire Harry to record just one conversation? And was somebody else given the job of tapping Ann's phone?

Anyway, Harry tries to deliver the tapes, but isn't able (or isn't allowed) to see the director and doesn't trust his aide, so he takes the tapes back. He continues working on them because he can, and because he's increasingly interested in/paranoid about what they're saying.

Davey the Fat Boy wrote:Then there is all of the stuff around the convention and it's after party.

Indeed. That whole sequence, riveting though it was, felt preposterously false to me. Why on earth would someone as uptight and asocial as Harry invite all those people to his work station? He surely wouldn't want Moran to see (never mind hear) what he's got there, and it's hardly the obvious place for a party - why not just take 'em to a bar? And he must have been seriously off his game to trust Meredith - I mean, what the...

Moving along... Why were Ann and Mark planning on doing their deed in a hotel? I mean, really clear-headed plotting there, kids. Nice screaming too, Ann - were you assuming that the other guests on that floor were all deaf?

And whose side was Stett really on, anyway? Just... whoever's? Or was he playing a "divide and conquer" game, presuming all the while that regardless of who ended up getting hurt/killed, he'd come out on top eventually?

A clever detail: when Harry realizes what really happened at the hotel and flashes back on Mark saying "He'd kill us if he had the chance", the line reading is different from what we heard earlier in the film; the emphasis is now on the word "us" rather than on "kill."
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 04 Sep 2017, 19:40

***more spoilers here***

Yeah...it's strange. If you think too deeply about the details, a lot of it doesn't make sense. But the narrative also makes it clear that not everything we see is completely trustworthy. The scenes with Duvall's killing and with him wrapped in plastic...Harry doesn't see any of that. So maybe we're being showed what actually happened,or maybe we're being shown Harry's thoughts...what he thinks may have happened.

The famous scene with the toilet is a case in point. Ultimately logic says that this doesn't actually occur. If it did, wouldn't he report it? Even if he walked away, someone at the hotel would find the mess and a murder case would have been commenced. So maybe that's just a snapshot of his state of mind. Maybe he doesn't really see her and all of the blood - but that's what he fears he'll see. The condition of the room when he comes out of whatever state he was in indicates serious mental disturbance.

It's entirely possible that there was no murder in the film. Perhaps Duvall leaves the hotel and drives his car off of the highway in despair. Maybe the conversation was just proof of infidelity.

I don't think we're supposed to know. Ultimately I think it doesn't matter. There isn't a single "flaw" we've discussed here that makes the film any less thought provoking for me, but a few of them make it all that much more interesting.

I'm going to take the position that Coppola purposely obscured the truth. I think this film is ultimately intended to be something like a one man Rashomon. Maybe I'm like Harry Caul and that's my delusion, but I'm holding to it.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Charlie O. » 04 Sep 2017, 21:16

No, I think you've got something, there.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Charlie O. » 05 Sep 2017, 16:34

Then again, if it was all in Harry's mind, why did Stett call him and tell him "We know that you know"? Or was that a hallucination as well?
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 05 Sep 2017, 17:00

Could be.

Could also be that Strett doesn't want knowledge of the tape to get out, as it would certainly complicate matters for him as well as Ann and Mark. Or perhaps Strett gets a bit of a charge about playing up his power (sure seems like he does).

It's worth saying that even if this interpretation were right (and I'm not sayin it is), Harry's work has still actually led to a death - if not actually a murder.

Regardless - I don't think the truth is all that crucial in this film. We the audience get too much of our information from an unreliable source to ever be sure about what happened.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby K » 10 Nov 2017, 23:07

I'm watching it again, tonight. It strikes me that Harry, "preeminent in his field", is not as good as he hopes. His landlord gets into his flat, he's really keen on "payment in full", his girlfriend spots him hiding in the shadows and suspects he taps her phone (and his reaction suggests he does).
Davey, above, is spot on. Harry wants to hide but can't. He wants to eavesdrop but is suspected.

By the way, the piano music that accompanies the film is remarkable. Delightful dancing, bluesy lines. As lonely as Harry.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby K » 10 Nov 2017, 23:24

Hmm... But at the convention the way the guy reacts to discovering who Harry is suggests he really is "preeminent".
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Re: The Conversation

Postby K » 10 Nov 2017, 23:39

Davey the Fat Boy wrote:Image



Again the issue of Harry's meticulous nature comes into question. Why would he allow his rival into his workspace? Knowing that he's being followed, why would he let strangers in? Is it anything but his own carelessness that gets his tapes stolen?


He's drunk. Before they go back to his place I think they're all drunk. Harry has met his guard slip through drinking. He probably wouldn't have done this previously ("The Welfare Fund of '68") but of course, "three people were murdered". This is a portrait of a formerly great talent at the end of his days. This is why he misses the pen. Distracted by seeing Stan he doesn't realise what Moran has given him.

God, this is a marvelous film.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 11 Nov 2017, 07:53

He definitely has a big reputation. He probably deserved it for most of his career. But we’re catching him at a moment in which he’s slipping in more ways than one. I’d argue that the alcohol is a symptom.

But again...while I think Ebert was onto something when he pointed out that Caul isn’t as meticulous as he seems - I think the bigger point is that he’s really afraid of the uncontrolled universe.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby sneelock » 15 Jan 2018, 23:41

Brian DePalma asks FFC good questions about "the Conversation" and he gives him good answers.
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Re: The Conversation

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 19 Jan 2018, 19:41

That’s a great read, Snee! Thanks for posting!

Imagine a modern filmmaker being as distant from their own most recent work!
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Re: The Conversation

Postby the masked man » 19 Jan 2018, 20:47

It was supposedly influenced by Antonioni's great film Blow-Up, in which David Hemmings' photographer may perhaps have captured a murder unwittingly on his camera, although he seems an unreliable narrator. Seen this way, the fact the film is seen through Hackman's character's increasingly paranoid point-of-view it's understandable that it may be seen that the murder never took place. But what I like is how Coppola switches swinging London's colour of Antonioni's film for a bleak vision of San Francisco. And, of course, when it came out, everyone connected it with Watergate, although that was never the intention.

However you read it, it's Coppola's best film in my eyes.

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Re: The Conversation

Postby The Modernist » 20 Jan 2018, 10:35

It's not nearly as good as The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, although it's always been the film snob's Coppola film of choice.

It is interesting on a cerebral level, but slightly less successful dramatically where it's let down by a certain flatness or coldness. I should say I do regard it as being a very good film however.