The Conversation, a film by legendary Director Francis Ford Coppola focuses on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert hired by an executive (Robert Duvall) to record his wife’s conversations with her possible lover. Caul is great at his job, putting together recording from separate microphones in a crowded San Francisco plaza, so perfectly captured by the film’s masterful opening sequences. Yet, Caul’s mastery of surveillance does not translate into a mastery of security. While he prides himself on being able to keep his life private, we watch as he continually fails to do so.
Caul is drawn into a sleazy profession that he tries to redeem by emphasizing the technical aspects over the moral. Yet, as a devout Catholic, Caul feels as though what he is doing is wrong and sinful, therefore believes. Once, he confesses, his work led to the death of a woman and a child. Now, after hearing the two lovers say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” Caul worries his work will bring more death and he refuses to turn in his finished recording. When the tapes are stolen and tragedy does occur, Caul is helpless, forcing him to realize his failures.
Below is a scene from the Film, which I will analyse and discuss.
Mise En Scene
The Scene begins high above Union Square in San Francisco and by the time it ends, nearly three minutes later, the opening shot of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film, "The Conversation", will hone in on one as-yet-unidentified man (Caul).
The scene is from the film's opening, where the camera slowly glides over a park on a typical San Francisco lunchtime. The camera picks up crowds of office types wondering through a city park and as it zooms in on a crowded park, it picks up the voices and sounds from all corners of the park. Zooming in from perhaps a helicopter far above, it begins to pan around and picks out lead character 'Caul' from the crowd and slowly follows him around. This indicates to us the viewers, that he is the lead character in this movie.
As the camera zooms in, the credits roll in the lower right corner of the frame, directing our gaze to the left hand side of the screen. Here, from a distance, we are able to observe a wide variety of people, but it is a very active mime that commands the most attention. All of this seems very normal until about the 1:15 mark, when a strange bleeping noise disorients the viewer. It comes and goes quickly, but will return, unexplained, several times throughout the shot.
Throughout this scene, you kind of have the feeling that something more than a casual observation or location setup may be going on here. The one indication of this comes when the camera intentionally settles on the action of a 'mime', who soon begins to follow and imitate a middle aged man dressed in a grey raincoat (Caul). The camera stays with these two for a little while. The mime continues his act while the man is totally dismissive. Soon the mime gives up on the uninterested man steps out of the frame, leaving the camera to hold on him until the shot is over.
The specific editing shot used in this scene is called a 'Sequence-shot'. It is very basic and straight forward, as the camera does nothing more than zoom in and pan around a park from a high angle to a medium-large angle as it picks out Caul. The camera never cuts or jumps to another shot and the entire scene is of it searching and then ending up finding (Caul) from the crowd.
If there is anything this scene has plenty of, it is sound. Both authentic and non-diegetic, nevertheless sound plays a key role in this scene.
Throughout this scene there is plenty of confusing and odd bleep sounds, which appear out of the blue. The sequence of shots that follows informs us that the strange bleeps we heard in the opening shot were sound interference captured from a long-range microphone. It becomes apparent now that the camera's slow zoom in the opening shot is a standing for the microphone, a tool used for surveillance that will play a key role in the following narrative.
As the camera zooms in on the crowds you can clearly hear a jazzy song in the background, perhaps one part of the film's soundtrack. It gives a feel of happiness and warmth, yet it gently disappears as the camera picks out diegetic sounds from the crowd. Sounds of people laughing, cheering, clapping, dogs barking and that of a street dancer shuffling his feet whilst dancing. All these are authentic sounds picked out from the crowds and then added on to give a raw sense of realism.
The Jazzy sound of the background music suddenly re-enters the scene and towards the end, as the camera begins to follow Caul it gradually increases in volume and the usage of trombones, saxophones and pianos are clearly evident.