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Sound Upon Sound: The Conversation

Undertones: Volume 11

Having the misfortune of being dwarfed by the releases of the critical and commercial giants, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974), The Conversation (1974) stands as somewhat of an under-appreciated gem in the Francis Ford Coppola filmography. Though lauded by critics upon its release, it was not a hit at the box office with the general public. Concerning an expert electronic surveillance officer called Harry Caul suffering a crisis of conscious due the moral repercussions of his occupation, the film stars Gene Hackman in the lead role and features a solo piano-driven score composed by David Shire.

Shire, Coppola’s brother in law, was approached to write the score and given the huge financial takings of The Godfather, felt sure he would be allocated a budget that would allow him indulge himself in the luxury of writing for a full orchestra. Coppola however, had other ideas in mind for the film’s score. In the liner notes of the film’s soundtrack release Coppola notes, “…I stressed to David Shire that I did not want a large orchestral ensemble, but something simple, haunting and lonely as I imagined Harry Caul was himself.” Given Harry’s interest in playing along with his favourite jazz records on the saxophone in the film, Coppola also went on to say that he felt a solo instrument playing material with roots in the genre would best accompany the depiction of Harry’s solitary existence and “wanna-be” jazz musician leanings. Interestingly, Shire wrote the entire score before any of the film was even shot and was even asked by Coppola to score imaginary scenes that did not take place in the film, purely to establish a definite mood and character.

The central theme of the score, simply titled, “Theme from The Conversation” and heard only in its entirety on the soundtrack release, takes the form of a simple ‘bluesy’ waltz in its pace and delivery. The theme’s giddy chromaticism however, belies the stability ingrained in the waltz tempo and hints at something disturbing not immediately apparent at the film’s inception, namely that of Harry’s slowly unraveling mind.  It could also be construed as an imitation of the urgent nature of Harry’s work, mimicking the speed and chaos of the radio waves he monitors. Throughout the film, the theme is modified depending on the situation onscreen, particularly as Harry’s mental state worsens.

What is particularly unique about The Conversation’s score is the input of sound designer and film editor, Walter Murch, whom had previously worked with Coppola on The Godfather.  Working alongside Coppola, Murch manipulated and tracked Shire’s already written score to the completed film, adding electronic effects to heighten the intensity of the theme in certain scenes. For his innovative work on the film, Murch was nominated for an Oscar for “Best Sound” at the 1975 Academy Awards, “losing” to his work on The Godfather: Part II.

A strong example of Murch’s potent sound design occurs in the latter half of the film when Harry rents a hotel room adjacent to the apparently adulterous couple he has been hired to tape. Knowing they will be meeting at the hotel and believing that their lives are now at risk at the hands of his client, Harry is now racked with an overwhelming guilt for having taken a part in what he sees as their imminent demise. As he listens in to the conversation going on in the couple’s room, Harry begins to believe that a horribly violent fight is taking place. When Harry steps out on to the terrace he is met with a woman’s horrific scream and observes something heinous taking place in the next room. Here, the Murch’s score distortion kicks in with a shriek, bringing to mind the ‘stabby’ string score in Psycho’s (Hitchcock, 1960) famous shower murder scene.  The combination of the altered, lower register piano notes, repetition of the shrill shriek, and noise of the television Harry turns up to evade the woman’s screams results in overwhelming cacophony of sound.

What the score/soundtrack of The Conversation achieves is a strengthening of the film’s narrative in that it plays with the intensely audio-driven world of Harry’s occupation, taking elements of his recordings, scrambling and re-imagining them. The somber, character study by Shire commenting directly on Harry’s loneliness and isolation plays wonderfully off Murch’s use of taped material, effects and ambient noise, which so aptly underscore Harry’s psychosis, and the resultant soundscape haunts the listener/viewer long after The Conversation has ended.

– Clare Nina Norelli