‘The Conversation’, a 1974 film by Francis Ford Coppola, sandwiched between the two Godfathers, is one of his most under-rated films. Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’, the film follows Harry Caul(Gene Hackman), a surveillance technician, who grows paranoid, when one of his recent projects involves murder.
The first scene in the movie shows us how Harry goes about his project, recording a conversation between a young people, who are walking in a park, surrounded by a large and boisterous crowd. The second scene in the movie, which is the one I want to discuss here, takes us into Harry’s apartment, after him having completed his job, as he has a conversation on the phone with his landlady.
It is a simple scene, and there could have been so many ways that one could have shot it. But Coppola’s choice is at once simple and also somehow seems to be making a commentary on how it is impossible to grasp or understand everything about a particular situation, however hard one may try. This is also the central theme of both the movies, ‘Blow-Up’ and The Conversation’, the protagonists in both the movies becoming obsessed with their projects and trying to understand and decode as much as they can about the situation at hand.
Let me begin by explaining how the shot is setup. I have reproduced the plan of Harry’s apartment in a crude drawing here.
In the previous shot, we see Harry entering the passage through the main entrance, he finds a bottle, collects it, and there is the alarm going as he opened the door. And now we are into the shot, the camera looking at the chair, and into the dining room, which I’ve wrongly illustrated as the bedroom in the plan above. Throughout this shot, the camera remains in that position. When the shot begins, Harry is out of frame, somewhere in the passage. He stops the alarm, and now enters the frame from the right and places the bottle and his files on the chair.
And then he goes into the bedroom, is out of frame again, to emerge again after a few seconds. He again goes out of frame through the right, and then comes in again, this time with a telephone buried in his arms. He calls the woman downstairs, Miss Evangelista, who has left the bottle, and asks her how she put the bottle in the passage. While doing this, he walks across the frame to leave it on the left.
For a while, we hear his conversation with the woman, as the camera remains still. And then it turns left (it does not move from its position, it just turns) to find him seated in the sofa. And again, he gets up with the phone in his hands, and leaves the frame on the left, and again re-enters the frame, to sit down in the sofa.
This is all that happens in this shot. And it is so economically shot. So why does Coppola choose this way of shooting this scene? He could have done it in a number of different ways, cutting to show us what Harry does when he goes into the dining room, to show us from where exactly Harry has taken the phone out in the passage, and so on, never letting Harry go out of the frame.
But why does he let Harry go out of the frame, and as often? For one thing, it unsettles us, the audience. Makes us more involved in a way, trying to figure out what Harry might be doing when he is out of frame. So Coppola is forcing us to become spies, or think like a spy, like Harry, and is instructing us by example how difficult it is to know about a particular situation.
There are some more interesting shots in ‘The Conversation’, and this is why I’ve named this post, Part 1. Those shots, I might talk about them next week, next sunday maybe.
Finally, here’s an interview with Francis Ford Coppola. http://cinearchive.org/post/50854811783/read-learn-absorb-francis-ford-coppolas