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Coppola’s Thriller The Conversation

When interpreting films, people usually analyze them in terms of directing and acting rather than editing, setting, as well as sound mixing. The reason for such a situation is that most editors, including sound editors, thoroughly perform their job to make the final product as smooth as possible so that the audience could enjoy the story of the movie rather than notice apparent cinematographic mistakes. Francis Ford Coppola’s thriller The Conversation of 1974 is a perfect example of films whose success significantly depends on the techniques and processes of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound. The movie focuses on the actions of the protagonist of the story, Harry Caul, who works as a surveillance expert hired by an executive with the aim of recording his wife’s conversations with her possible lover. The analysis of the study shows that the interplay between such aspects of The Conversation as film style, narrative form, and historical context help Coppola appeal to the senses of the viewers and convey the message to the target audience.

Overview of The Conversation

The protagonist of the movie Caul is hired to record the conversations and take photos of a couple walking and talking in the square of San Francisco. Thereafter, as the character compounds his audio-visual record into one master tape to give it to his client, he begins to understand that something more might happen to these people. While studying their dialogue, he notices that instead of simple, innocent topics characteristic of lovers’ talk, they converse about a possible murder. As a result, the detective assumes that the couple has become the target of the female’s wealthy and powerful husband, the executive, for whom Caul has been recording the conversations. As a result, the protagonist tries to interpret and evaluate what he hears; this is where the problem occurs. Caul accomplishes his job perfectly by putting together the recordings from separate microphones despite the fact that he faces substantial difficulty in trying to comprehend the rhetorical complexities of defining and analyzing the context in which the fallacy and truth mix up by forming a biased message.

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Film Style

The use of certain film techniques in Coppola’s thriller The Conversation shapes the audience’s understanding of Caul’s personality and his predicament concerning what might happen to the couple. Such elements as mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, as well as sound provide an insight into the way the protagonist uses the machinery to interpret and analyze what he hears. Coppola manages to successfully depict Caul’s unfortunate eavesdropping on the lovers’ conversation and his desire to help people by finding the truth that results in both a surprise ending and fatal outcomes.


In The Conversation, Coppola elaborated on the arrangement of scenery and actors in the movie with the aim of conveying his message to the audience. Such a tactic is mostly apparent in the first scene of the film. In the opening episode, the camera is slowly portraying a square park during typical lunchtime in San Francisco. Then, the camera selects a crowd of individuals wandering through the city square by picking up the sounds and voices from all the corners of the city center. Zooming in from the height of a helicopter, the camera begins to pan around, chooses the main character from the crowd, and slowly follows him along with depicting a mime. The camera’s movements indicate to the viewers that he is the protagonist of the story. The construction of the scene hints that something more than typical wandering of people or casual observation might take place in the square. However, the director gives the audience a prompt that something is wrong with the casual wandering of the characters. The camera intentionally focuses on the depiction of the mime’s actions, with the latter soon following and imitating a middle-aged male dressed in a grey coat, who turns out to be the protagonist. The shot illustrates these two individuals for a little while. Despite the fact that the mime artist continues imitating his conduct, the man ignores him by being totally dismissive. The situation implies that the character focuses his attention on another event. As the mime artist gives up following the uninterested person, the camera still holds its focus on Caul until the shot is over. Another scene that illustrates effective use of mise-en-scene is the one in which the protagonist meets the woman in the elevator. Here, mise-en-scene helps to both convey the theme of the film and emphasize the guilt and paranoia, which the protagonist feels during the episode. The lighting in the elevator is dim, which assists in setting the suspenseful mood. In The Conversation, by using other persons in the elevator and making it extremely crowded, Coppola helps evoke claustrophobic feelings and emotions in the protagonist thereby creating a strong sense of intensity and panic in the episode.

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Editing and Cinematography

Several scenes of The Conversation help the director draw the attention of the audience to the message of the film. In terms of editing, Coppola joins the shots with the aim of giving a sense of continuity. For example, in the opening episode, the director uses a specific editing shot known as a sequence-shot. Coppola uses a straight and basic shot in which the camera zooms in depicting a city square from a high angle and then chooses to focus on Caul by moving to a medium-large angle. In the first scene, the camera does not cut or jump to the other shot. The whole scene aims at finding a man in the crowd: the point at which the episode ends. The second scene that successfully employs mise-en-scene is when Caul listens to the recordings of the couple and hears the lover say a line, which makes the detective assume that somebody, presumably the woman’s husband, is about to kill the couple. The editing in the episode emphasizes the fact that the detective has become very involved in his work. The protagonist’s face is often shown as inhibited in between the shots portraying the tape player and the couple. The shots depicting the lovers walking and talking arise in Caul’s memory, what emphasizes the fact that he has become interested in the mystery of their dialogue. Such a technique helps the audience observe how exactly the character reacts towards the words and phrases that he hears on the tape. The last but not the least scene that efficiently illustrates a combination of editing and cinematography is the one in which the protagonist meets the woman in the elevator. Here, Coppola uses reverse shots to show at first the woman and then the detective who is looking at her from behind. The director also employs close-up shots of Caul who chooses to hide in the corner rather than warn the woman of possible murder. Then, the movie uses a high angle shot that makes the character seem smaller than he actually is. This way, the technique presents the man as paralyzed with fear. Overall, these scenes show that the successful implementation of editing and cinematography helps draw the attention of the audience to the importance of the theme analyzed in the film.


The Conversation also elaborates on the inclusion of sounds and music in several scenes, which assist in developing the story. Such elements as overlapping dialogues, silence, manipulating volumes, extracting sounds, as well as off-screen sounds contribute greatly to the narration. In Coppola’s movie, the subject of sound serves as one of the main features of the plot. For example, the sounds in the opening episode immediately make the audience feel that the film is about to narrate a serious story. Most of the sounds used are diegetic ones. At first, one may think that Coppola uses music in the first episode; however, as the camera zooms, it becomes apparent that the jazz music is played by several some musicians. It provides a sensation of warmth and happiness, which makes the audience feel comfortable while watching the movie. Then, the music slowly disappears as the camera focuses on the depiction of the diegetic sounds in the crowd. Such sounds as people’s laughing, clapping, and cheering, as well as dog barking help the viewers focus on the protagonist of the story as well as feel as if they were observing real-life events. As the camera begins to follow the actions of the character, jazz suddenly re-enters the episode and gradually increases in volume by using saxophones, trombones, as well as pianos. As the scene does not contain any dialogues, the viewers’ focus shifts towards the diegetic sounds heard in the episode. Another scene with a large number of sounds, which imply the theme of the narration, is the one in which Caul tries to record the conversation of the couple. The protagonist attempts to extract overlapping interactions, abstract noise, and on-location sounds with the aim of interpreting what the characters are saying to each other. The character finishes his recording with the line, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” The sound mixing in the scene draws the attention of the audience to the importance of the phrase. The last but not the least episode containing many sounds is the one in which Caul meets the executive’s wife in the elevator. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds helps emphasize Caul’s panic sand fear. When the protagonist steps into the elevator, the music uses eerie non-diegetic music. Coppola also uses a diegetic whoosh of air, which gradually turns into a louder sound as the episode progresses. At the end of this part, the audience may hear a loud screeching sound. However, it is not clear what produces that sound until the shot proceeds to the next one. As a result, diegetic sounds are important for conveying the theme of the film since the recorded interaction is a significant motif for the further murder.

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Historical Context and Narrative Form

The Conversation was introduced to the public in 1974 by the director of the film, Francis Coppola. In the movie, Coppola ignored the presentation of skepticism apparent during the 1970s; instead, he incorporated inspiration from various modernist sources including Antonioni’s Blow Up. The movie was subsequently associated with the social and political anxieties of the twentieth century period (Mayer 96). The Conversation represented “the image as a pure sound bite, a spoken line or ambient noise that filtered over and above the itinerary of a narrative progression or visual cue,” which means that the movie actualized what the viewers perceived and felt (Isaacs 32). The film draft was changed several times. The crew performed one of the major structural changes after the realization that the audience considered Caul’s regular work mysterious, thereby facing difficulty in understanding the twists of the situation in which the character found himself (Ondaatje 163). As a result, the scene was divided into two parts. Instead of the immediate understanding of the line, “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” the protagonist at first works on the tape and then discovers the hint about murder. The change helped prevent possible misunderstanding of the story.

In The Conversation, Coppola uses audio-visual aids to narrate such messages as the misinterpretation of conversation and the protagonist’s isolation. In fact, Coppola regarded technology as a more significant aspect than content (Ross 49). As a result, the director focuses on the visual depiction of the story. For example, the soundtrack strengthens the film’s narrative form through the depiction of the audio-driven nature of Caul’s occupation, the illustration of the elements of his recordings, as well as the episodes in which he re-imagines them. The film portrays the protagonist’s isolation and loneliness through the use of taped material, the effects of noise, high pitch beeps, as well as frustrating noise, all of which are essential for understanding his psyche. Therefore, everything the audience hears and sees reflects the state of the main character, his feelings in particular.

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Taking into consideration the analysis of The Conversation, one may conclude that the interplay between such elements of the movie as film style, historical context, as well as narrative form helps introduce the story to the audience. Coppola uses such techniques as mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound to appeal to the audience’s senses and convey the themes of the misinterpretation of conversation and the character’s isolation. Such scenes as those presented in the opening episode, the one in which Caul interprets the dialogue between the couple, as well as the scene in which the detective meets the woman in the elevator elaborate on editing and sound effects to represent Caul’s state of mind and evoke the emotions of the audience.