Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Viewing: The Conversation - 1972

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola – Supervising Film and Sound editor Walter Murch
After reading In the Blink of an Eye I was pleased when I found that the DVD of this movie had the option of a commentary by Walter Murch on how the film and the sound  were edited. Although a lot of it was pretty standard stuff, I did make notes on a few of the more interesting techniques employed, some because of their historical context and others for their effect on the narrative.
A technique often employed at the start of a movie, the long shot slowly zooming in on the action to pick out central character was used here for the opening titles. New at this time (late 60s early 70s) was a programmable zoom which is capable of slow and precise change not possible by hand. The title sequence lasts 3 minutes and over that time the camera changes from a wide shot of Union Square in San Francisco to a wide shot (i.e. full body) of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) a freelance surveillance technician, the main character in the story.
The conversation featured in the title and around which which the thriller is based, takes place immediately after the opening sequence and is replayed constantly through the film as the mystery deepens, seems to unravel and then deepens once again. The technique employed for shooting and acting this scene was unusual. The two characters having the conversation were afraid of being overheard so met in a public square and kept walking  amongst the crowd so that they could not be overheard. Using 6 cameras (in,around and above the square) and new (but fairly crude by today’s standards) radio mikes they were filmed and acted constantly on the move with no control over the crowd or the diegetic sound. They acted the 6 minute scene over and over again which gave Murch more than enough material for his edits. Despite this, he still had to re-record the conversation in a quieter location to be able to reinsert sections that had not been clear from the radio mikes. It is interesting that Murch points out that if you can get good actors to repeat dialogue very soon after shooting, the timing and cadences of their voices will be almost identical to the original performance, enabling  accurate syncing with footage. This is how he was able to replace the missing dialogue from the shoot.
Murch also points out some unusual footage that he was presented with, a static frame into which the character moves in and out. This was in Caul’s apartment, showing the lack of personal touches, indicating an aspect of his personality.
Another interesting feature was how the scenes showing Caul analysing and re-recording the conversation were cut. The plan was, for the whole process to be shown; including  the revealing moment when the couple appeared express that they were in danger, to be shown in one scene. However it was felt that this would provide too much information to be processed by the viewer so the director developed the plot so that the “reveal” was shown in a subsequent analysis and recording after Caul had refused to hand over the tapes to a lackey of the client.
The narrative structure of the film is a thriller with a character study of loner Harry Caul, the narration restricted to that of Caul alone.  The viewer only knows what Caul knows and at the conclusion of the film, there is still a lot that the viewer does not know, reflecting the attitude of Caul in that he does not want to know about the lives of his clients or those that he listens to, except in this case where he was involved on the periphery and learned too much.  Murch describes it as a balance between the styles of Hitchcock and Hienrich Hess.

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