Even silent films had music. Maybe yours should too?
...because if you didn’t realize the power of sound in cinema, you will after watching (and hearing) this movie. Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" tells the story of an audio surveillance technician who accidentally records a murder plot – or does he? As with a lot of great suspense films post-Hitchcock, the truth is as obscured as the sound levels in the crucial recording. Coppola and legendary editor/sound designer Walter Murch used every available means to examine the relationship between audio and image, making "The Conversation" a reflection on the overall sensory experience of film.
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While Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul is ostensibly the main character of "The Conversation," sound dominates the film in the same way that it dominates Harry’s life (he’s a recording technician, whose only real hobby seems to be playing the saxophone). The film reflects Harry’s subjective experience of the events, with the only divide between the audience and the character defined by the boundary between diegetic and nondiegetic sounds. In fact, the famous scene in which Harry dissects the layers of audio in his recording to zero in on a single important sentence serves as a self-reflexive gesture on how movies themselves create a world of sound and force the viewer to decide how it relates to the story; and as anyone who has ever worked in sound on a film knows, it also nods to the many frustrations and annoyances that can ruin a take and/or mix. However, even the most obvious level of nondiegetic sound – the film’s minimalist piano score – is mirrored in Harry’s world through his saxophone music, which is the note the film ends on (somewhat literally, to all you musical people). Composer David Shire even experimented with electronic and acoustic techniques, again reflecting Harry’s use of audio equipment throughout the film. More than pretty much any other film – even Brian De Palma’s quasi-remake "Blow Out" – "The Conversation" asks the audience to take an active role while listening as well as watching.
Yes, film is a visual medium. And of course, it’s also really hard to create suspense with just a blank image. Still, "The Conversation" demonstrates how filmmakers can use sound as an effective tool in storytelling. Coppola himself definitely understood this, as evidenced by his collaboration with editor and sound designer Walter Murch. The fact that Murch performed both jobs on "The Conversation" also testifies to how significant the relationship between editing the images and editing the sounds was for this film. Throughout the film, the cuts in sound and cuts in images create a kind of interplay, sometimes reinforcing the same effect or sometimes presenting a jarring contrast. The relatively static and muted visuals of the film also present a state of calm that clash with the frantic, anxiety-inducing audio. Murch and Coppola also utilized the reverberation sound effect as a way to build suspense, often heightening the emotional impact within the scenes.
Many of "The Conversation’s" ideas about privacy, paranoia and hidden recording devices seem downright prophetic today. Much in the same way that Hitchcock liked to “turn the camera” on his audience with voyeuristic films such as "Rear Window" and "Psycho," Coppola turns both the camera and the microphone on the audience. If Hitch was obsessed with how we watch people on film, Coppola uses our whole sensory perception to eviscerate the concept of privacy. Yet "The Conversation" takes this even one step further in being self-aware about its own awareness of cinema’s naturally voyeuristic role. Initially, the film places the audience in the same position as Harry, eavesdropping along with him and following him as he deconstructs the audio to uncover the mystery. Of course, Harry values his own privacy and the safety of his self-constructed world, while at the same takes no issue with stripping others of this right. Again, Coppola forces the audience to share in this hypocrisy, as the film becomes more and more intrusive into the intimate details of Harry’s life. By the end, the audience is actually placed into the role of the faceless villains, as their claim to observe Harry’s every move becomes indistinguishable from the act of watching the film. Not every film has to be a meta-cinematic reflection on the voyeuristic qualities of an audience, but it’s always nice when filmmakers show that they care about us.
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