The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

This is a great opening scene that invokes a lot of curiosity for the viewer. And it does not remain as an opening scene, but becomes the film’s main subject as it is decomposed and used repeatedly as an element of suspense in the narrative.

The film opens with an extreme long shot of Union Square from high above as the camera zooms in very slowly – the shot lasts about 3 minutes – to reveal details of people walking there.  The first person we catch a glimpse of is a mimer, trying to entertain the passers-by. He approaches a man, (Gene Hackman) who is seemingly disturbed by the attention the mimer draws to him.  Ignoring the performer, he quickly walks away.

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The next shot shows a figure under a huge sign on the roof and the following one reveals him to be a sniper aiming at a couple. It is this couple’s distorted and interrupted conversation that we try to make meaning of in the following shots. The voyeuristic zoom-in and the high-angles are supported by the sense of confinement that the ground-level shots produce. The couple is randomly blocked by the people on the square and Hackman is regularly present in the frame with them.

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Meanwhile the conversation is almost inaudible not only because of the noise of the crowds and the band playing but also because of the intentional sound editing for this scene.  The conversation is in the form of raw materials from various microphones and we hear it as it is recorded onto the tapes that Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is going to work on.  Therefore, the sound does not realistically match the image.

Harry Caul is a professional wiretapper and his client is interested in a copy of this conversation and his work entails putting the most comprehensible aural elements from the three microphone recordings together into one smoothly flowing piece.  As he listens to parts of the conversation over and over again, its insignificance and unspecificity expands, making him more curious about why it got recorded in the first place. His interest shifts from the recording’s form to its content; the clarity and audibility of the conversation are less important than what it really means.

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