Suspense AND Surprise in The Conversation (1973)

This academic paper conducts a formal analysis Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1973), extensively focusing on its cinematography and editing. Major Spoilers ahead.

In his infamous interview with filmmaker and critic François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock details the critical difference between eliciting surprise and suspense from an audience. Using the “bomb under the table” analogy, the English director suggests that surprise stems from the audience not knowing that there is one placed under the table. The eventual effect of the explosion, then, is startling, but without any build-up. On the other hand, his forte, suspense, keys the audience in on the detail before the character, stretching out the tension to the point until the bomb explodes. Therefore, the crucial difference in achieving either effect rests on the degree to which the director allows the spectator access to the film’s narrative.

Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoid thriller, The Conversation (1973), employs this technique expertly. Introducing the film by revealing more to the audience than what the protagonist, Harry Caul, knows, Coppola immediately imbues a sense of foreboding that lingers throughout its runtime. However, the rest of the narrative diligently follows the surveillance expert obtaining a secretive and scrambled recording of a couple for his employers whose motives seem to become increasingly sinister. This gradual displacement from unrestricted to restricted narration allows Coppola to align the spectator closer to Harry’s point-of-view, subduing the degree of their unrestricted knowledge to the narrative. So much so that the viewer is left as confounded as Harry when the film’s devastating finale arrives.

This paper highlights how differently Coppola shoots and cuts two sequences in the film to establish an omniscient point-of-view and then assimilate the audience with Harry Caul’s subjectivity. Other devices in the film, chiefly sound, and mise-en-scene, also play a significant role in determining the audience’s restrictiveness. However, this paper focuses entirely on contrasting the opening scene’s noticeably mechanized camera-work with the intimate shot-reverse-shot schema of Harry and the audio tape machine that occurs midway through the film. The former technique cruelly places Harry as one of the subjects within the purview of surveillance equipment. The latter, conversely, establishes a quietly trust-worthy relationship between man and machine. Essentially, shifting from unrestricted to restricted degree of knowledge to maintain the undercurrent of suspense, but, crucially, also retain an element of surprise.

The now-revered 3-minute long-take opening shot transitioning from appearing like a brief establishing shot to precisely capturing and tracking Harry within its mise-en-scene is deliberately confounding in establishing whose point-of-view the audience is observing. Traditionally, the static high-angle wide shot that opens the film is supposed to be an establishing shot that introduces the spectator to the world they observe. However, this concretely omniscient perspective is broken in the next three seconds when the camera gradually begins to zoom-in on the Union Square park location. This disruption, then automatically, makes the spectator believe that what they are observing is the protagonist’s telescopic point-of-view. Coppola, it seems, has married the two perspectives from the very beginning of this film to restrict the audience’s knowledge to that of Harry. As the camera continues to noticeably zoom-in and gently pan to the left to focus on the street performer, the director further tricks the spectator into believing that they are still watching what Harry is. However, the major betrayal comes when the camera tracking the street performer’s movements settles on our protagonist’s figure. The camera, now similarly, begins to track his movements. Before, CUT, revealing that the audience’s point-of-view matches that of an observer entirely peripheral to the rest of the narrative.

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1973) opening scene: The lens finally finds Harry

This deceptive, and clinically detached point-of-view, exaggerated by the lack of any close-ups of the people it observes, aptly foreshadows Harry’s inevitable descent into becoming lost in this totalitarian dystopia. The entire opening minute of the zoom-in sequence primes the viewer into thinking that he/she is with the protagonist, in complete control. However, the sudden realization that they know and see more than the protagonist renders him small and insignificant. Moreover, the camera’s inability to clearly identify the subject, panning left and right, front and back, to find its subject exaggerates Harry’s anonymity in the audience’s eyes. Even when the camera sticks to distantly track him, its modulation of the zoom-lens continuously makes the operation feel voyeuristic, suggesting that he is a target of an operation that the viewer knows about but he doesn’t.

Contrary to the deliberate ostentatiousness of this opening sequence, Coppola narrativizes the rest of the film traditionally, making the viewer stick closely to Harry to assimilate them with his point-of-view. One of the key sequences that most explicitly demonstrates how differently the protagonist perceives his relationship with machines than what the director foreshadows in the opening sequence is when he intently investigates the tape recordings to decode the titular conversation’s mystery. Here Coppola primarily emphasizes shot-reverse-shots to accentuate a more classical Hollywood cinema style that captures Harry in a medium-close up, and more importantly, observers the machine, through Harry’s point-of-view, in close-up. The sequence begins with Harry observing the audio-tapes rewinding to reveal something about the conversation he does not know. The viewer then gets a reverse-shot from the audio recorder’s point-of-view to show Harry somewhat enamoured by the process. Coppola repeats this pattern of shots two more times, establishing how normal this conversation feels for Harry. Before, CUT, the reverse-shot, now, directly informs not Harry looking at the machine, but actively thinking about its contents!

This brief collection of six shots, cut together in classical editing form with medium-close up compositions, is important precisely for its ordinariness. The ostentatiousness of the camera zooms does not call attention to itself. The compositions themselves seem unextraordinary. Essentially, Coppola places the viewer in Harry’s perspective to show them how normal he feels in communicating with technology. Unlike human interactions that occur at a distance, or not at all comfortably for him, Harry’s relationship with the audio-tapes rests on these “invisible” cuts that imply a deep level of understanding between the two.

Post-it’s deliberately stylized opening sequence, The Conversation emphasizes these classical Hollywood techniques to enhance this viewer’s restrictiveness continuously. Like Harry, the viewer begins to believe that he/she will solve the mystery through the audio-recordings; that they will be able to save the couple. However, Coppola had already indicated to the viewer that Harry was always being watched. That the audience believed they could successfully help Harry out of this world speaks to how successfully The Conversation assimilates them with Harry’s perspective.

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