Time for another post discussing an instance when a director chose a sustained shot as opposed to a more conventional, edit-filled approach. Today is all about Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the camera in one scene in The Conversation.
My prior examples in this series (Laurel & Hardy’s The Finishing Touch; Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus; and Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) were static shots, with all the movement occurring via the blocking of the actors. Today’s example broadens the scope a little, since the camera does move, yet it’s the way it moves that makes it note-worthy. Coppola does something I call character-driven filmmaking, which is when a character’s emotions dictate the mechanics of the film, such as the editing, the lighting, and, in this case of this entry, the shooting. (I wrote about this before in my post about the editing in Silkwood.)
The Conversation (1974) is about surveillance expert Harry Caul. It’s a 70s character study disguised as paranoid thriller: Harry eavesdrops for a living but, not surprisingly, lives in fear of being watched or even noticed, preferring solitude.
In this scene, which happens early in the film, Harry enters his apartment at the end of the day. He checks his mail, calls his landlady, and takes off his pants. Such a straightforward scene could be shot and cut several different ways, all expanding our understanding of Harry. These possibilities include:
• a handful of medium shots where Harry’s décor is visible in the background, each with Harry in the frame as he walks from room to room
• a dolly shot either in front of him (camera dollying backwards) or behind him, showing only his back; in both cases his décor would be visible on the sides of the frames
• a slightly more esoteric approach: static medium shots or close-ups of parts of his apartment, without Harry in frame
So how does Coppola shoot it? Well, I think when a filmmaker is crafting a scene, he or she needs to constantly ask, “What information does the audience need to know right now?” Here’s how Coppola answers that question…
I love this shit. Coppola’s tableau is wide and sparse. Harry lives simply, so the director foregoes showing us his apartment in detail and instead lets the camera behave as an extension of Harry’s state-of-mind, which is one of surveillance. In fact, the first time he leaves the frame, he appears to be consciously trying to get away from the camera.
Gratefully, Francis Ford Coppola did an audio commentary for this film, so I can let him speak for himself. Here’s a minute-long clip of his explanation of this shot and its style:
Couldn’t be much clearer than that, could he? It’s nice to hear him say that, but, truthfully, when I first saw this film in the 80s, it was crystal clear to me.
(For what it’s worth, I think the lone CU in the scene—a generic birthday card from his bank—is so sad it only reinforces our understanding of Harry’s isolation. Instead of showing us one of Harry’s personal belongings, Coppola shows us the exact opposite: what could be more impersonal than a form birthday card?)
Obviously, such a self-conscious shot could be perceived as gimmicky, but if you haven’t seen the film, believe me: Coppola successfully uses this style for maximum effect, abetted enormously by Gene Hackman’s performance.
I could go on and on about this film—I freakin’ love it—but I’ll leave it at that. However, if you’re interested in a great essay about The Conversation, I recommend this post at Precious Bodily Fluids.
Next in the When Not to Edit series: Director Tod Browning thinks freaks work best without too many edits.
By the way, the DVD for The Conversation is unique: It not only has a full-length commentary by the director, it has one by the editor. Why? you ask.
Those familiar with the history of this film are aware of the uncomfortable relationship between Coppola and editor Walter Murch. The director had to leave the project prematurely (to begin pre-production onThe Godfather, Part 2) and left a good deal of The Conversation in the hands of the editor. Murch’s changes to the structure of the film were radical enough for some to claim he saved the picture, and it seems it’s been a sore spot for both men ever since. Case in point: for the aforementioned DVD, they each say surprisingly little about the other’s input on the film.
Anyway, I had planned the second half of this post to dissect that seemingly rocky relationship, but, alas, that will have to wait for another post.