Monday, February 11, 2008

"He'd Kill Us If He Had The Chance": Coppola's The Conversation and Film Sound


Theories of film sound often lament that sound in the cinema is only incidental to what is seen on the image track, that it serves a secondary role. Scholars like John Belton insist that the soundtrack is not understood on its own terms but “through or in terms of the image track (387). Such a statement suggests that sound is controlled or filtered through images, serving only to enrich what is seen. But what of films where sound is a more dominating factor, where it is the images that are used primarily as a means of signifying information about the soundtrack? Director Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 thriller The Conversation, about a paranoid wiretapper (played by Gene Hackman), is such an aurally understood film. Through its main character, Harry Caul, a man who tries to be both in and yet always distanced from the conversations he records, it uses sound as a means of deception and power, portraying Caul as a man obsessed with having god-like powers of listening. In doing so, the film shows the dangers involved in trying to control the amorphous nature of sound, both by identifying Caul with his technology and making its failures parallel his own.

One interesting aspect of The Conversation is that it is told almost exclusively from the point of view of its main character. Harry, the “best bugger on the west coast,” is present in every scene, and all of the narrative information that the audience receives is first filtered, either through his technology (Harry makes all of his own recording equipment) or through his particular point of view. Caul is a very unusual, neurotic character, and his skewed point of view and personal obsessions with gathering information, with somehow being a part of conversations that he is not involved in, is part of what eventually leads to his downfall. The nature of Harry as a man identified through his recording technology and as a man obsessed with listening is on display in the film’s cryptic first scene, where he and some of his employees record a conversation in a crowded San Francisco square. This conversation, seemingly benign at first, will become the mystery on which the rest of the plot will hinge.

The scene begins with a slow zoom from extreme long shot that moves in closer to the square. As it does so, the sound is slowly raised in volume, and we hear a band playing and people laughing and talking. But as the sound becomes clearer, it is suddenly interrupted by a squeal of electronic interference. This interference is important, as it suddenly becomes apparent to the viewer that the sound they are hearing is coming through an electronic apparatus, one of Harry’s recording devices. This, in turn, forces the viewer to consider both the image track and the sound track in a different way. What has seemed like a simple opening shot to the film is quickly complicated by a simple bit of interference on the sound track. This technique of making the viewer question whether what they hear is a natural sound or routed through technology will be employed multiple times in the film, and in each use it serves to disorient the viewer and make them doubt the veracity of what they both hear and see. This is an example of what sound theorist Michel Chion has called the “reciprocal nature of added value;” that is, the levels of depth that are added to a film by sound. As Chion says in his book Audio-Vision, “added value works reciprocally. Sound shows us the image differently than what the image shows alone, and the image likewise makes us hear the sound differently than if the sound were ringing out in the dark (Chion 21).”

This reciprocality is visibly at work throughout the opening scene. After the opening shot, we are shown what appear to be snipers on a rooftop, with the cross-hairs of their scopes trained on a young couple, the target of the eavesdropping. Slowly, through the way the sound changes as the duo walks behind obstructions, we realize that the men are not armed with guns but shotgun mikes. Likewise, as we watch the young couple stroll in and out of the crowds, sound is constantly used as a means of hinting at and then adding new elements of depth. For example, we notice a man with a wire following them closely, and as soon as we see him the conversation becomes clearer on the audio track, both to show that he too holds a microphone and that it is he that the soundtrack is coming from.


In addition to setting up the film’s intention to play with our typical understanding of how sound in film operates, the opening scene also establishes the character of Harry, particularly his obsession with overhearing and having an almost god-like ability to listen in on others. This is apparent from his technique for recording the couple, which involves, as we see later when Harry creates his master tape, integrating multiple tracks and versions of this one sound event and combining them into a perfect whole to ensure absolute clarity. As Rick Altman says in his Sound Theory/Sound Practice, recorded sound is not an absolute object, but instead “a Rashomon phenomenon, existing only in the separate stories of various perceivers of the original event (24).” Harry’s recording methods mirror Altman’s notions of film sound, as he tries to get as much coverage of the conversation as possible. This attempt to create an omniscient ear that hears yet remains unseen is both an example of Harry’s skill as a bugger and his personal obsession with eavesdropping. As we find in subsequent scenes, surveillance for Harry is not merely an occupation but a mode of existence, casting a shadow over all aspects of his life.

During the same opening scene, inside a van down the road, Caul and his assistant, Stan, sit among mountains of surveillance devices and reel to reels, monitoring the progress of the eavesdropping. While Stan muses about the possible content of the conversation, Harry dismisses it as beside the point. “All I want is nice, fat recording,” he says. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Harry is attempting to separate himself from his work, to make what he does as impersonal as possible. As he later reveals in an awkward confession to a Catholic priest, his work has brought harm to people in the past, and since this has happened he has always tried to maintain a distance between himself and the actual subject matter of his recordings, a somewhat pitiful attempt to bury his head in the sand by refusing to personally involve himself in the conversations of his targets.

As Kaja Silverman says in her book The Acoustic Mirror, “exteriority is shown to be the necessary guarantee of Harry’s identification with the apparatus (88).” In other words, Caul tries to find a way to simultaneously be both in and out of the conversation. This requires that he maintain his distance from those being recorded, but still get the “fat” recording that he and his client desire. As Silverman notes, “when the targeted couple notes the earphone worn by one of Harry’s men... he is obliged to return to the surveillance van and surrender his equipment; he has entered the conversation, become part of the profilmic event, and he can no longer lay claim to discursive authority (88).” This event can be tied to the whole of the story, and to Harry’s plight in general, as when he finally assembles the tape of the conversation and hears a chilling bit of dialogue, he is forced to surrender the god-like power of his recording equipment and become a part of the conversation himself.

In the scene that originally triggers Harry’s obsession with the recording of the conversation, he finds himself in an elevator in the building of his client, the unnamed “Director” of a mysterious company. He has refused to hand over the tapes to the assistant instead of the Director himself, and has been told that “these tapes are dangerous...don’t get involved.” As he waits in the elevator, he sees the young man from the tape walk by, visibly causing him discomfort. Then, when the elevator stops on a different floor, the young woman from the tape enters and stands right next to him. Harry nervously shifts around the elevator, covering the bag holding the tapes with his arms as if the woman could somehow know what it contained. He is clearly uncomfortable being so close to his subject, to be stuck with her in the interior of the small space rather than the exteriors where he prefers to operate. As he anxiously waits to escape the elevator, a low whirring sound is played on the soundtrack, which slowly builds in volume until the camera cuts to the next scene, revealing it to be the sound of a spinning reel-to-reel as Harry once again tries to decipher the hidden meaning of the conversation.

Michel Chion calls such a technique where sound conveys “the feelings associated with the situation “rendering,” a strategy that The Conversation employs throughout the film (109). Just as Harry uses sound as a means of gathering information about his subjects, the film uses sounds as a means of cueing specific emotions in the mind of the viewer. The high-pitched whine of the rewinding tape is the perfect sound to suggest the Harry’s sense of discomfort at being in the presence of those that he considers himself to have a kind of control over. When carried over into the next scene, it also serves as a signifier of Harry’s now-maniacal quest to decipher just what it is about the tapes that is so “dangerous,” a quest that leads him to uncover a previously unheard line from the tape.

This line, “he’d kill us if he had the chance,” is only uncovered by Harry after he re-works the mix of the recording, as it was buried within the interference of the tape. Upon hearing it, Harry immediately begins to suspect that the girl on the tape (clearly the wife of the Director) and the young man are having an affair, and that perhaps the Director plans on killing them as revenge. This immediately triggers anxiety for him, as his past experiences suggest, that his work-- supposedly an exterior practice not involved in the conversation or its aftermath-- may have endangered the lives of these two young people. The world he has constructed for himself, built around his technology and its ability to render him a ghost who can hear all, begins to crumble around him.

The failure of Caul’s attempt at exteriority, to be a passive observer who receives the information of the conversation but is never a part of it, is reinforced at other times in the film. For example, an early scene follows Harry on a visit to the apartment of his mistress, Amy, a young woman whose room and board Harry pays for on the condition that she not “ask too many questions” about him. As she talks with him, she reveals that she has seen him on different occasions, hiding in the stairway, attempting to listen in on what she is doing. That Harry has failed to remain unheard himself is a symbol of his failure to be the all-hearing presence he wishes he could be. As Silverman notes, “Amy learns to identify the sounds he makes when stands outside her door, so that she is able to overhear him trying to overhear her (89).” Just as his ultimate goal is to always be in control, the one doing the listening, Harry’s greatest fear is that there is a bugger better than him, that he himself will be recorded as he does to others. This is reflected in his phobia about providing personal information about himself, even to his girlfriend. In a later scene, during a drunken party in Harry’s shop after a wiretappers’ convention, Caul’s rival, a man named William P. Moran, successfully bugs Harry with a microphone disguised as a pen. Although Moran has done this more or less as a joke, Caul becomes enraged, forcing all of the guests to leave because he is so disturbed that he has let his guard down and allowed the shell of anonymity that surrounds him to be breached.

Continually distressed by the possibility that this young man and woman will be murdered by the director and his assistant, Caul finally resolves to go to the the Jack Tar Hotel, where the couple has agreed to meet on the tape, with “the vague hope of somehow preventing the murder,” and checks into the room adjoining theirs (Silverman 92). Not yet abandoning his old curiosity and need to overhear and gather information, Caul brings along his bugging equipment. As Dennis Turner says in his essay “The Subject of The Conversation,” “in a perfect illustration of his impotence, he eavesdrops electronically on the crime. Incapable of actively involving himself, he seems to feel that if he attends the event it will perhaps turn out differently from what he has anticipated (Turner 6).” As Harry listens in, we hear the muffled sound of an argument, followed by a loud bang that causes Harry to rip the headphones from his ears and wander, dazed, around the hotel room. When he walks onto the balcony and looks through the semi-transparent glass separating his balcony from the next, he suddenly sees the figure of the young woman and hears a scream, as a man with his hands covered in blood pushes her against the glass. Frightened nearly to the point of collapse, Harry stumbles back into his room, draws the shades, turns the television on loud, and passes out on the bed.


Harry’s behavior in this scene is very peculiar, but also incredibly telling about the change his character has gone through in being tangled in the murderous plot of these strangers. Most interesting is that, upon seeing and hearing his worst fear, he turns on the TV. It is as though he is attempting to block out what is happening, that in not hearing the murder it might not happen, just as before he avoided speculation about what his clients were talking about. Harry has operated the whole film on the basis that his ability to control and master sounds gave him access to information about the activities of others. Now that he is witness to a murder, he immediately tries to drown out the sound in order to cut off the flow of information. He has finally surrendered his technology and his attempt to be an all-hearing agent. He would rather not know the activities of the other, a significant change from his character earlier in the film, who was so obsessed with overhearing that he would wait for hours outside of his girlfriend’s door, listening.

The great irony of The Conversation, and the ultimate expression of the flaws in Harry’s view of his job and his technology, is revealed the next day, when Harry, still desperate to know if a murder has occurred, goes to the Director’s office. After being thrown out by security guards, he is puzzled to see the Director’s wife, whom he is sure has been murdered, waiting in a limousine outside of the building. It is here that the whole meaning of the film is changed, as Harry notices a newspaper with the headline “Auto Crash Kills Executive.” He then sees the woman being ambushed by reporters, asking her about how much money she will inherit as the heir to the Director’s fortune. It is then that Harry and the audience realize that it is not the couple whose murder has been being plotted this whole time, but the Director, the one foil in the way of their illicit romance.

At all points in the film that the conversation has been played, we have seen it represented visually onscreen. But just as the sound of the opening scene was filtered through Harry’s recording devices, these visualizations of the characters walking have come from Harry’s own mind. In such a situation, it is easy to forget how amorphous and disembodied such a conversation really is, and how easily a character, especially one with the anxieties and past that Harry has, can misunderstand its meaning. Indeed, as Harry watches the woman brush past reporters, we once again hear the tape played, only now the line that had lead him to believe these people were in danger has been transformed from “he’d kill us if he had the chance” to “he’d kill us if he had the chance.” Harry realizes that a simple accent on a single word has lead him to misunderstand all of the events of the previous days, and as he does we once again see his imagined account of how the murder occurred, now correct, played out onscreen.

As Silverman says, this new meaning, which has turned the couple from helpless victims into cold murderers, “exposes as an utter fiction Harry’s claim to auditory control (96).” The irony is that Harry’s attempt to remove himself from the conversations, to get “a nice, fat recording” has been what caused him to critically misunderstand the content of the tape. If, like his assistant Stan, he was curious about what the people were talking about, he might have arrived at such a conclusion solely from context. But it is his obsession with clarity and audibility that caused him to misinterpret the line. This is similar to the way in which the film sound tracks are rarely questioned. As John Belton says, “The sound track...does not undergo the same tests of verisimilitude to which the images are subjected (389).” Because we have seen the accompanying visuals from Harry’s mind with each recitation of the line, we have not questioned the tone or the inflection that the characters used. Just as Harry has been deceived by his own technology, we have been deceived by the contents of his imagination.

In the film’s final scene, Harry, playing along to a recorded jazz record on his saxophone, receives a telephone call that plays back the sound of his apartment, signifying that somewhere in his house is a bugging device. “We know that you know, Mr. Caul,” says the voice of the Director’s assistant, now revealed to be an accomplice in the murder, “we’ll be listening to you.” This, finally, is the ultimate expression of Harry’s loss of power and the failure of his technology, and he tears his apartment to pieces trying to find the hidden recording device. Throughout the film, Harry has been “haunted by the thought of a heavenly surveillance system which might at any moment be turned against him (Silverman 89).” Now, with his own interior space invaded, he has become “the victim of his own technology (Turner 6).” In the film’s final shot, as Harry doggedly tears apart his meager possessions and pries open floorboards, the camera remains fixed in a corner of a room, slowly panning back in forth in an imitation of the movement of a surveillance camera, signifying that the tables have been turned on Harry Caul.

As Chion says in Audio-Vision, “the figurative value of a sound in itself is usually quite nonspecific (22).” In other words, the same sound can be used to signify different things. While The Conversation cheats this idea somewhat (sound editor Walter Murch has revealed that he recorded two different versions of the key line), it still stands as a perfect example of both the amazing power of sound and the human voice to convey meaning, as well its ability to be misunderstood (in Harry’s case) or deliberately altered as a means of deception (in the viewer’s case). The Conversation employs sound in a unusually rich and complicated manner, using it as a way to enhance its portrayal of Harry Caul, a man who thought he could master and control sound solely through his technological ability to reproduce it. As Harry learns, and as the film proves through its sound design, while recorded sound may not be questioned in the same way that images often are, it maintains just as much of a propensity for deception and tragic misunderstanding.

Works Cited

Altman, Rick. Sound Theory/Sound Practice. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Belton, John. “Technology and Aesthetics of Film Sound.” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004. 386-394.

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994.

Silverman, Kaja. The Acoustic Mirror. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Turner, Dennis. “The Subject of The Conversation.” Cinema Journal. Vol. 24 no. 4. Summer 1985.

2 comments:

george vierra said...

I watched the film again last night. After several rewinds, it is obvious Coppola shot two versions of that line. The difference is the word "us". First time, suggests the couple would be killed by "he" because they were the victims and the last time that that "he" would kill them unless they killed him first. Worth re-watching.

Anonymous said...

@George Vierra

Um, no.