Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Conversation

Your auditory senses couldn’t be more alert. The Conversation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 has one of the most engaging sound tracks that will grip you in a way you cannot forget.

Establishing a unique sound aesthetic right from the beginning, the audio dynamics is quite striking with its ability in itself to build a relationship of the protagonist Harry Caul (played by Gene Hackman) and the other characters in the film.

There is a noticeable discord in the various sound elements that has a stereophonic quality, which subsequently builds a certain auditory disconnect from the visuals in the film. The scene that struck me the most is the one from where Harry leaves the office after collecting his money. As he leaves down the elevator and asks Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) about what they will do to the two young people whose conversation he had recorded, there is a slow and steady drumbeat that starts and increases momentum as he walks out in the open and is frustrated with himself for the kind of work that he does and his guilt that something might happen to the couple. The African drumbeat exudes a feeling of building action, of an impending climax. Then there enters a voice that plays in his head that acts as both non-diagetic (as the source is not from location) as well as diagetic since the voice is from the character’s mind who is in the narrative sphere. The drumbeats subside as soon as he hears in his head the repeated line “He’d kill us if he got the chance”. At this point the drumbeats fade to be taken over by the sound of the wind in the background. As he hears the voice of the girl singing “red red robin”, we hear the sound of the wind overpowering the tense atmosphere. It is at its most heightened volume when the recorded voices of the couple say the time, day and venue of their next meeting. Also there is a discreet screech of the electronic recording as we hear these voices, distinguishing it as the same recorded voice that is playing in Harry’s mind. There is a certain expansiveness that is created with this sound design of the wind, the voices and the sounds of the recording.

Following this, we only feel silence of the interiors of the hotel room and the occasional sounds of the city outside as Harry inspects the room. Once he enters the bathroom, the atmospheric sound quietens and the sounds of his equipment as he sets up the path to listen to the voices of the other room progresses. We hear his slow breathing, the flush, the cement that gets cut into, the shuffle of his body as he settles and the vibration of the volume control box of his audio device. At a distance, we hear far away voices from the other side of the room that slowly gain in volume to become clearer and closer. As the conversation gets heated up there is suddenly a screeching rewind sound that brings the voices to an end. Harry gets up in anger and we can hear his heavy breathing. Then all that is audible are the hollow voices that resonate from the other room. As they continue to argue, Harry shuffles around restlessly and we hear the sound of the balcony open. In an instant there is a loud, jarring and disturbing scream along with a loud bell sound, as Harry hallucinates and sees a murder. This has a powerful impact on the viewers as much as it does on Harry. The scream continues on a higher but softer pitch along with the bells chiming as the sound of the television that Harry puts on overlaps it. The sound of the bells continues as the scream transforms into an ambulance like a wail in Harry’s head. This I believe is one of the most powerfully simulated auditory hallucinations.

The clever overlaps in sound and the closeness that it brought me to what Harry was feeling is what I greatly admire. It brings the theme of invasion of privacy quite intensely. Harry lived hearing the voices he recorded, feeling what the voices were feeling, traumatized by the emotional implications, and most of all, his lonely existence.

Walter Murch’s seminal creativity with the sound effects has given the movie its personality and its purpose. The embedded conversation recordings, the innovative use of diagetic and non-diagetic sounds, the intense background mix, and the deafening silences are what makes it an absolute must to study the artistic value of sound with the film’s storytelling.


  1. A very well written review on the movie!!! For some strange reason I was reminded of the movie "THE COLLECTOR" that is centered on the relationship between the sadistic predator/psychopath and his victim. the graphic sense of imagery despite its blurry lines is beautifully illumined in the background drop and as u so beautifully put "deafening silences". I therefore agree that the in-depth study of what would contribute to the success of a movie lies in the gray areas of sound as well as the artistic relevance of background in relation to the story.

  2. @ Reejo: Well put. Yes it is the fine merge of artistic relevance and story telling with sound that determines the superiority of the impact the film has on its viewers. The sound design is immaculate and brings forth the personality of the film.