Cuts We Love – The Conversation
In a scene from The Conversation – a classic psychological thriller steeped in the paranoid political climate of the time – surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) believes he’s heard, on a wiretapped conversation between a man and a woman, that a murder will take place. He feels compelled to go to the location of the murder. According to the film’s editor, Richard Chew, ACE, it was Walter Murch, ACE – credited as supervising editor – who originated the unique editing style.
“[Harry] has history in that previous surveillance subjects of his have been killed and he is driven by this mixture of not wanting another victim on his resume and in a weird way he has fallen in love with this girl. … He feels protective of her,” explains Murch.
“My key to this scene was from a shot I’d seen in dailies in which Harry first enters the next door apartment,” recalls Murch. “The camera tracks away from him, around the room, then he walks back into his own point of view. It’s unnerving. Although we had the material to have Harry move continuously from shot to shot – somehow that particular shot encouraged me to break the rest of the scene into discontinuous action – taking the action up to a certain point and cutting to something else, even cutting to an empty frame to emphasize Harry’s sense of dislocation.”
The scene is split in two: Harry setting up a wiretap in one room and witnessing murder; then breaking into the next-door room to view the aftermath. “I remember Francis saying that it’s wonderful in a film to simply watch somebody do something they are good at. Harry is very good at what he does. There’s very little dialogue. We see him on his hands and knees drilling through the wall then spiking a mic through. He hears what he didn’t expect to hear, which is his very own recording coming back at him. At that point the pace of the scene intensifies.”
This includes a shot of the wall with a bland print of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. “I decided to take out all the sound at that point, beyond arguing and muffling, and in a weird way this is more shocking than actually seeing and hearing what’s happening. There’s a clunk, and silence. Like Harry, the audience has to imagine what’s happening on the other side and we are equally impotent.”
At the startling sight of a hand smearing blood on glass, Murch brings music in. “We’ve held back any kind of declaration of what’s going on until we see blood. Suddenly there’s screaming violin sounds (actually a piano transposed through a synthesizer) and the editing becomes accelerated and jumpy.”
Like the screeching violins, images in the following sequence were inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho, says Murch. Caul breaks into the adjacent apartment. There is silence except for a subtle drip from the toilet cistern.
“In the bathroom there’s a shadow on the other side of the shower curtain and we expect to find a dead body in the bathtub. But the whole apartment is clean and he’s at a loss as to what has happened.”
Coppola, who was busy with The Godfather Part II, challenged Murch to solve the problem. “Harry has to find a clue to the murder in a clean room. Where would it be? I remembered as a teenager when I’d tried to flush a porn magazine down the toilet, but it had backed up making the situation much worse. I suggested this and that’s what we did. There’s a wonderful low angle shot at the level of the bowl of blood regurgitating over the edge. It’s dramatic and begs the question whether this is completely real or part of Harry’s imagination?