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Not Privy to The Conversation: Harry Caul as a Peripheral Character in Coppola’s Film

Not Privy to The Conversation: Harry Caul as a Peripheral Character in Coppola’s Film

Michael T. Smith   |   May 2020

In 1974, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation opened to nearly unanimous acclaim.  The story was formed after filmmaker Ivan Kershner sent Coppola an article about a sound wizard named Hal Lipset (who was later summoned east to analyze the notorious eighteen-minute “blank” section of White House tape during the Watergate Investigations).  Regarding surveillance technology, film scholar Turner finds a social dimension surrounding works like Coppola’s, stating that “electronic surveillance techniques and strategies influence the entire social order.”1  The goal of Coppola’s film was to present the story of a man at work in such a field.

Walter Murch, the (sound) editor on The Conversation explains:

The inspiration for Billy Wilder’s The Apartment was a tangential character in David Lean’s Brief Encounter: the man who agrees to lend the lovers his apartment for the night. Wilder wanted to take a peripheral character from one film and make him a central character in another.  What is it like to be that character?  Harry Caul is very much in line with that.  In a “normal” film, Harry would be the anonymous person recording the tape:  you would see him only briefly as he comes into the office and hands the tape in, is paid, and leaves.2

Yet, I argue Harry is a periphery character in his own film.  As Ondaatje claims, he is an “anonymous person.”3  We don’t follow Harry as the protagonist of his own film; we survey him as an imperfect object.

Harry himself claims “All I want is nice fat recording,” and that’s precisely what we get of him: a man who works but not a man who acts.  I would further add that – most importantly – Harry is relegated to the periphery through the use of sound throughout the film.


The Mind of Harry Caul

I have always wanted to read The Conversation as a film documenting Harry’s breakdown – complete with wild hallucinations.  This might sound like a counterintuitive claim to make given my thesis, but allow me to explain.

I think a large part of my desire to read a psychological space within Coppola’s film comes from the fact that a good ten days of material was never filmed – Coppola and his production team simply ran out of time and money to shoot the entire script, which sound editor Walter Murch estimates was a full fifteen pages; he reports “his [Coppola’s] advice to me at that point was, Well, let’s just cut what we have together and see if we can find a way to compensate for that missing footage. So from the beginning we couldn’t structure it the way the screenplay called for.”4 Thematically, I see this “cutting out” of scripted material very much akin to Harry’s scenes overall being cut out from some “other” movie Murch mentions above, preserving the destiny of Harry Caul to be on the periphery.

If we are to look at the “dream sequence” in particular (which was not originally envisioned as such), we can see this process at work.  In this scene Harry pursues Ann – the young woman who was his surveillance target – to a park.  Coppola had (obviously) shot the park material, but not the material leading up to it (including a chase on electric buses).  There was no fabric with which to knit this into the reality of the film, so it was salvaged by turning it into a dream sequence.  It’s interesting that Harry’s biggest moment of character insight could only happen in post-production as a means of salvaging film; but what do we actually get in the film?

Harry Caul in bed during the dream sequence
The camera zooms out

The scene opens with a shot of Harry lying on his side in bed; the camera slowly zooms out.  We can already see how much Murch is “compensating” for the missing footage through editing by juxtaposing a shot of Harry sleeping before this scene.  Similarly we cut to a close-up shot of the “target” couple – so close up, in fact, that much of the image is ambiguous.

But wait a minute…did Harry ever actually ever see this shot of the couple from his surveillance van in the beginning of the film?  The shots of Harry sleeping undeniably signal the viewer that we are entering Harry’s unconscious mind.  If he did not see them – which he probably did not at this close-range – are we not left with Harry envisioning some experiential memory space in the dream sequence (much like he seems to do by hanging up a picture of the couple when he synchronizes the three tapes in an earlier scene)?

The woman running up a flight of steps during the dream sequence
Harry walking into the frame
The woman walking opposite Harry (while ignoring him)

We cut to a shot of the woman running up a flight of stairs to a bridge shrouded in a thick layer of fog.  And I will here take a moment to point out the heavy motif of “veiling” around Harry.  We cut back to an image of Harry sleeping, who is seemingly jolted in his slumber by this dream-image.  We cut back to the woman running across the foggy bridge – always at a surveillance-appropriate distance from Harry.  He tries calling to her: “…listen, listen, my name is Harry Caul, can you hear me?…Don’t be afraid, I know you don’t know who I am, but I know you…There isn’t much to say about myself, I-…”

And here he pauses.  I cannot help but stress that at the most psychologically-close moment of the film, Harry claims “there is not much” to say about himself (essentially, my thesis).  For his entire conversation with the woman, she never once responds to him aurally.  Though, Harry does give us the most information on his history at this moment. He speaks:

I – was very sick when I was a boy. I was paralyzed in my left arm and my left leg. I couldn’t walk for six months. One doctor said that I’d probably never walk again. My mother used to lower me into a hot bath – it was therapy. One time the doorbell rang and she went down to answer it. I started sliding down. I could feel the water starting to come up to my chin, up to my nose, and when I woke up, my body was all greasy from the holy oil she put on my body.

Though not stated explicitly, we once again hear a tale of Harry unable to communicate with someone – this time, his mother as he slowly slid into the water.  Aurally, there seems to be gap between Harry and the rest of the world (fitting for a surveillance expert who only analyzes tapes of conversations and never partakes in a conversation himself).  I see this as another trend of him placed on the periphery – one-way communication as indicated aurally.

Furthermore, I will reiterate that the dream sequence in the film was not originally intended as a dream sequence, and once again, our perception of Harry is as off as his perception of the surveillance tapes.  The Conversation is a movie that invents itself as it is written, shot, and edited.


That Which We Hear

The Conversation features a piano score composed and performed by David Shire.  It was created before the film was shot.  On some cues, Shire took the taped sounds of the piano and distorted them in different ways to create alternative tonalities to round out the score.  It is precisely these sound distortions that aurally connect us to Harry’s mind in some of the most important moments in the film.

For example, we see this in the eventual denouement of it all.  We hear for the last time the oft-repeated phrase “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” but this time re-recorded by Murch to add the emphasis “he’d kill us if he got the chance.”  At this point, the piano is allowed to come in, functioning as a simple grace moment underlining the clarifying moment of Harry’s perception.  The sound clarifies Harry’s mind as Ondaatje in his interview with Murch eloquently outlines:

In that scene in The Conversation, you go through a good five or six minutes with no music accompanying what’s happening, other than the music that’s actually on the tape.  It’s only at the moment when Harry realizes, to his chagrin, Oh no, this apple is poisoned that the music comes in.  As I said, music seems to function best when it channels an emotion that has already been created out of the fabric of the story and the film.5

The piano seems to connect us to psychological space within Harry, but the complication is we get so much of the distorted effects early on as well. Turner notes, “The appearance of surveillance imagery in narrative cinema has become a naturalized code that is neither arbitrary nor incoherent but comprehensible.  When surveillance codes are employed, these codes bring within the viewer’s ken a reduction of strangeness and offer a framework of appropriate expectations.”6 Examples abound in the repeated scenes we get of the original titular conversation.

Opening (surveillance-esque) shot

The film opens with a jazz song being played in a large outdoor area as we slowly zoom in from a large distance, a distance appropriate to convey the idea of “surveillance.”  But we must ask: if music underscores Harry’s understanding, what is it underscoring here?  Moreover, after about two minutes of zooming in, we hear the distinctive warble of the recording equipment.  We realize the diegetic sound that seems to be emerging from the film’s world (because we do hear applause afterwards) is in fact being filtered to us through some kind of recording equipment: an intermediary.

Zooming into the mime
Who then stumbles around to Harry
And proceeds to follow Harry

As the camera zooms in closer, it tracks a mime, and the first sound effect of the film’s soundtrack is heard: footsteps, presumably from the mime; how interesting is it that the only noise we hear comes from a mime.  A voice begins to sing a song.

Affectively, this moment resonates with me.  Due to the singing voice being louder and of a higher quality – without the echo-effect of the first song over a long distance – I initially wonder if this is not a nondiagetic sound.  However, we then hear more sound effects like a dog barking as well as slight imperfections in the singing itself; clearly, it’s the same singer as before.  But I do feel like Coppola is establishing in our minds the variability and uncertainty of the sounds we as an audience hear.

Harry next comes into the shot, with the mime following close behind him.  Thematically, the surveyor is being surveyed.  That song that seemed so enigmatic to me gets louder as Harry walks through the park and camera zooms in even further. Ah-ha! I think, we are getting sound through Harry’s perspective; but actually it is not so, as the coded warble of the audio equipment comes on the soundtrack.

Thus, the use of surveillance codes does not make a psychological space or a space subjective to Harry.  If anything its presence reveals Harry trying to find his way into space, Harry as a displaced (or misplaced) character in this world he can never own.  By the very nature of the audio equipment, Harry can only ever serve as an intermediary to the action – which is the very definition of a character on the periphery.


That Which We See

Even visually, Cowie notes that “as the camera completes its descent and tracks Hackman’s Harry Caul across Union Square, the changing focal lengths supply a visual equivalent to the tantalizing ebb and flow of sound on magnetic tape.”7  We see Harry through an audio-code.

All the while, the camera is still at a surveillance-appropriate distance.  Cowie notes that “Coppola lets his characters leave the frame before following them with the camera, shaping an awareness of psychological space – as well as tension – beyond the immediate image.”8 Though, I would ask, what or whose psychological space is this?  Certainly it is not a space under Harry’s control.

In Discipline and Punishment, Michel Foucault famously analyzes the Panopticon – an 18th Century French prison designed by Jeremy Bentham.  The prison contained a circular guard tower in the middle of the structure to allow the observer to observe all inmates of annular building at the periphery without them being able to tell whether or not they were being watched.  It was described by Bentham himself as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”9  Foucault used the Panopticon prison design as a metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and their propensity to control through observation.

Foucault’s work has often been cited in conjunction with The Conversation, but I think more details can be gleaned from revisiting Foucault’s book than has hitherto been said.  First, in describing “Panopticism,” Foucault traces the origin back to 17th Century ordinances as to how towns dealt with outbreaks of the plague.  In short, a strict spatial partitioning was put into effect.  Families were confined to their houses on penalty of death and portions of the segmented towns were assigned syndics who would regularly check on each household for development of plague.  Thus, the possibly infected are ever put on the periphery; he writes:

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and the periphery […] all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism.10

The major effect of the Panopticon is to induce the inmate into a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the functioning of power: “he is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”11 Harry is almost never a subject in communication (and never when it counts): he could not speak with Ann in his own dream; he says nothing back into the phone when he is told he is being observed, and his conversations with his colleagues barely extend outside the task at hand.  Recall the opening scene in which the mime follows him; it’s as if Harry is haunted by silence itself.  He is little more than a peripheral object.

It’s worth noting that Harry’s situation is properly panoptic because the vision field is limited.  What matters is that he knows himself to be observed; as Foucault says, power should be visible and “unverifiable.”12 The more anonymous, the more powerful the observation.  Consider the film’s final shot: we open on a telephone.  Pause as we hear a saxophone with electronic accompaniment.  The camera, then, pivots right to reveal Harry sitting upright in a chair playing his sax.  A ringing phone comes on the soundtrack.  After a few rings, Harry stops playing and walks to the phone.  This is one of those key moments Cowie identifies when he walks off-screen as the camera lingers on his empty seat (the electronic accompaniment still playing).  I wonder if we can view these moments of Harry leaving the frame not as only a psychological space but a symptom of panopticism throughout the entire film.  We cut to Harry holding the phone to his ear hearing those key, coded audio distortions come through.  The voice of Martin Stett comes on and states “We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don’t get involved any further. We’ll be listening to you.”  If the company merely wanted information on Harry why would they tell him they are spying on him?  They tell him in order to put him under panoptic surveillance.  Harry then proceeds to tear his apartment to shambles looking for the bug, but to no avail.

The end of this scene (and the final shot of the film) shows Harry after he has torn apart his apartment so completely that it looks like a war zone.  The camera starts to the right of Harry (who is off-screen again) and pans to the left to reveal him playing his saxophone on the same chair as the beginning of the scene.  In terms of surveillance “codes,” this camera moves exactly like a typical security camera (slowly left to right and back again).  And, in doing so, it allows Harry to be off-screen as Cowie articulates above.  Visually, there’s no continuity a la panopticism; moreover, we can read this as Harry being marginalized to the periphery, for as he moves away from the camera as a peripheral character, he simply moves away.  The camera will never follow someone on the sidelines.

This “surveillance camera” shot at the film’s end might function as an objectifying gaze, of which so much has already been said (and also fitting with silence – so central to Harry – being a trait of an object).  But I do think I can add one more thought as to Harry’s position on the periphery.  Namely, that in order to occupy this position in the film itself he cannot be completely anonymous nor entirely in view.  Hence, panopticism functions as a metaphor for being on the periphery (much as Bentham’s architectural design notes the space around the central viewing tower to be peripheral).

Also, for a moment, I will allow myself to speculate on the bug itself.  Harry’s apartment is demolished, the destruction is so heavy onscreen that the screen itself looks dirty, so where’s the bug?  It would seem to me there are three primary possibilities.  First, there is no bug; we have panopticism purely through the suggestion of being watched.  Second, the bug is in the phone as the opening shot would suggest through the lingering of the camera (and much like the device Moran demonstrated earlier in the film).  If being an object is associated with silence and – as Foucault suggests – losing the ability to take on a subjective position in conversation, then how appropriate is it that the lifeline outside of Harry’s confined existence is the very thing that makes him into an object of observation (although, we do have a shot of Harry taking apart the phone in this final scene).  The final likelihood as I see it is that the bug is in Harry’s saxophone, the only object that appears to be still intact at the scene’s conclusion.  If there is anything more devastatingly isolating than having the bug be in the phone, it is this possibility.  The saxophone appears to be the one significant characterizer for Harry.  It is the one thing that distinguishes him as person over object.  If the bug is placed here, then Harry seems doomed to be an object.

One final note on the visualizations comes from Turner, who claims we have numerous instances of frames within the frame in The Conversation, which function as a “synecdoche for futuristic apparition.”13 There’s typically a kind of sci-fi element to this type of reading (and certainly the advanced technology that Harry describes could fit into this category), but I think the more interesting focus is how this is an “apparition.”  Turner continues: “There is a hint of spectatorial dehumanization here.  In a society reduced to spectacle, no one is immune to becoming representation or object; and Harry Caul, who has functioned as a distant observer, now himself becomes the vulnerable target of distant observation,” adding that the representation of the “exteriority of the world is interiorized on the screen.”14 I’ve already discussed at length in what ways Harry has become an object in the world, but I think we can further place Harry on the periphery by working with this concept of the internalizing of the external world.  Narratively, Harry can only encapsulate snippets of the world (his recordings), and look at portions of it as if his existence was a walk-on role.  Harry’s function is one of isolating sound, of reducing the exterior to ever-smaller bits (ex. a single conversation from a crowded park).  For Harry to be visually framed within the frame is a very appropriate parallel to the individuated cells of the Panopticon.  Remember, it was derived from individuated houses quarantined from one another over fear of the plague.  And the act of internally framing Harry grants him the filmic place of a medium, an extra of sorts who cannot roam freely throughout filmic space, but is confined to his own unique segment on the peripheral.


That Which We Hear (II)

I’m going to return to my discussion on sound as that is the focus of this paper.  While the image can be discontinuous and disjointed, the audio file is not.  Sound is everywhere, and an audio field cannot be “walked out of” like a frame.  Chion states, “Human vision, like that of cinema, is partial and directional.  Hearing, though, is omnidirectional”15

And I have to be careful about how I get the mix to silence if it happens too abruptly, it can seem to the audience that something has gone wrong with the sound system in the theatre. Sound is more organic and fluid than the visual: one sound is always merging into another. Also, sound comes at us from 360 degrees and that makes it even more difficult to restrict it to one dimension. Vision is exclusionary, both in space and time: at any one moment we see this not that; whereas sound is inclusionary: at any one moment we hear this and that.16

I’ve always been a little dismayed at how many scholars seem to ignore sound when doing panoptic studies on The Conversation.  Moreover, do remember Martin’s phone call said they would be “listening” to him.  Though I do see how tempting it is to analyze the visual as it is linked with the audio.

Let me return to the opening scene as Harry walks away from the mime to illustrate the continuality of sound.  Much like the mime is the only one whose footsteps we seem to hear, the only sight to verify the sound we hear in this initial scene is Harry himself.  Thus, he (as a surveyed object) visually serves as an anchor to the sounds of the film.  Film scholar Miller writes: “Harry himself demonstrates how any given conversation in a huge crowd can be isolated from crowd noise until nothing but that one conversation is audible.”17 Similarly, Cowie notes how the noise of the city is hushed through the technological medium.18  This fits with my view of surveillance technology as both isolation (Harry’s character) and isolating (Harry’s job).  And so, he eventually retreats out of frame and back into the surveillance bus, and we lose the visual anchor we thought we had.  But, the sound is continuous through the recorded medium despite the visual discontinuity.

And why is this fact important to the editing?  Michel Chion notes that of all the senses hearing is probably the first to develop: the fetus listens to the mother’s voice and will recognize it after birth.  Thus, a vocal continuum will maintain the mother’s presence when she can no longer be seen (and, in fact, seeing her can actually imply distance and separation).  Chion continues:

This dialectic of appearance and disappearance is known to be dramatic for the child.  The cinema transposes or crystallizes it into certain ways of mobilizing offscreen space (e.g. masking characters but keeping their presence perceivable through sound).  In some ways, film editing has to do with the appearance-disappearance of the mother.19

Thus, because the sound must be continuous, what we’re left with are audio noises without a visually identifiable source.  Pierre Schaeffer is credited with bringing up contemporary knowledge of the term “acousmatic,” which “specifies an old dictionary […] is said of a sound that is heard without its cause or source being seen.”20 Historically, the term comes from Pythagorean sect whose followers would listen to their Master speak behind a curtain, so that the sight of the speaker wouldn’t distract them from the message.  But is this the world of Harry?

I claim Harry’s world is a one of acousmatic voices (typical of all films), but what makes Harry’s case unique is that he cannot get the message so to speak (only the recording).  We can see him fighting against this existence most when Harry hangs up an image of the recorded young couple in an attempt to reduce the acousmetre (and at this point we can say he is starting to care about the consequences of his actions).  Chion states that constant repetition of the “mother” voice can bring subjectivity to a child who masters its abandonment.  In this scene, we certainly see Harry listening to the taped conversation repeatedly but does he does not understand the message (i.e. the couple are not the at-risk party).  The acousmetre prevails and Harry moves ever-further towards the periphery.  In terms of screen-time Harry certainly has the most visibility.  However, aurally – to reiterate my thesis – we see Harry as secondary to the conversation and its participants (and is not the collective anonymous voices of a corporation a perfect model for both the voiceless-body central acousmetre and panoptic viewers?).  With Harry, we don’t get a voice – acousmatic or otherwise – we get a filter.

Harry destroying his apartment before the final scene
The final scene's surveillance camera swing
To reveal Harry playing the saxophone

To illustrate this further let me return to that concluding final shot with a focus on the sound.  As Harry sits in his torn-apart room playing the saxophone, a piano comes on the soundtrack.  Only now the sound non-diagetic.  This is unlike the recorded accompaniment Harry had when the scene began.  I know return to my earlier confusion that I described in watching the opening scene – which sound is which?  As all voices seem to move into the acousmatic realm so Harry’s playing is accompanied by the film’s soundtrack.  As the final shot continues, it seems that Harry’s sounds become less real, less “tangible” as the piano motif comes back in as the camera pans back right to the empty room after including him in the frame.  We now lose the visual anchor of the saxophone, and I am even tempted to wonder if Harry was even playing in the first place.  Or, perhaps, we should envision his playing flittering into the realm of the non-diagetic as well.  Why is this important?  Does not the mix of diagetic and non-diagetic sound indicate that Harry is not only insignificant to the company he tries to foil, but in the film itself?  Harry is ever-pushed to a peripheral position even in the film itself – this is my main point in this discussion.


Who is Harry Caul?

At this point I want to clarify some of my terms by exploring who Harry is.  Harry is clearly the archetypical antisocial detective who works alone, but I see a large difference between being a flat or stereotypical character and remaining on the peripheral.  The oft-cited note of Cowie’s that Harry Caul’s first name is a tribute to the main character in Steppenwolf shows this characterization best.21 Both Harrys are middle-aged and saxophones feature prominently in their lives.  What we know most about Harry we can say is what we don’t know about him.  And the same goes for the other characters “in” his life:  Harry has a mistress who knows little more about him than his name.  In all scenes with his collogues Harry is an awkward conversationist who seems hopelessly out of place.  Moreover, his apartment is sparsely furnished, with an array of locks and alarms to keep out any outsiders, even the super seems at bay.  Harry is not a character, but a job – a profession, which has a “Frankenstenian double edge.  Thus, Harry’s alienation, so piteously portrayed in the closing scene, is the deserved result of his cold professionalism, which he allowed to immure himself from a sense of responsibility.”22 I would read this statement as follows: “to be responsible” means to interact with the world, which Harry is incapable of doing as he is veiled from the world in his many different ways (i.e. as a peripheral figure).

Harry's translucent raincoat (seen in many scenes, including the dream sequence)

One significant symbol of Harry’s throughout the film is the translucent raincoat he wears everywhere.  New York Times Reviewer Vincent Canby interprets this as a “prophylactic protection against society,” much in line with the Steppenwolf view of Harry given above.23 Peter Cowie notes the coat relates symbolically to the mesh curtains in Harry’s room at the Jack Tarr surveillance site and particularly to the frosted glass that obscures his view of the murder – all of these elements in totum representing “spiritual myopia.”24 I think we can build off of these claims even further.

First, we can ask: “in what way is Harry translucent?”  However, I think this might be a more misleading question than it initially appears because by the very nature of asking it, we are presupposing there is something underneath Harry that we are privy to – a moral resignation perhaps.  And this might seem an idea we want to grab onto were it not for the fact that Harry explicitly reveals his moral apprehension in the confessional.  Thus, in what way are we seeing into him beyond the translucence of his willing confession?  I will speak more on this later, but for now, I think it best to further explore in what way Harry is veiled – as his coat would symbolize.

I’ve already talked about how Harry is veiled in his reclusive apartment and life as surveillance expert (as his coat might very well symbolize), but I further think we can argue that the world is veiled from him.  An interesting route to proceed might be found in Heidegger’s Parmenides, in which ponders how the ancients perceived that ever-slippery term called “truth,” (or “Aletheia” in the original Greek).  He claims it is fundamentally different than how we process the notion of truth today, writing:

We are pursuing the […] directives provided by the name [Aletheia] as translated ‘unconcealedness.’ In this way we hope to experience something of the primordial essence of truth in Greek thought…First, un-concealedness refers to concealment.  Concealment hence permeates the primordial essence of truth. Secondly, un-concealedness indicates that truth is wrenched from concealment and is in conflict with it.25

Thus, “truth” for the ancient Greeks was something that had to be unveiled, un-concealed.  I find this reference to Heidegger fitting due to the fine line between fact and truth in this film: “As The Conversation aptly illustrates, technical expertise can provide facts but not necessarily truth in matters of conspiracy.”26 For Harry, the truth is unpenetrable, most notably – as my thesis claims – in the titular audio-recording he tries to hopelessly to understand.

Moving forward, Cowie further suggests that Harry’s see-through raincoat could represent the amniotic shroud that shields the head of the newly born, a notion gaining a lot of credence from the fact that Harry’s last name is “Caul.”  But I think more can be said about this amniotic shroud surrounding Harry.

In his analysis of “The Wolf Man,” Freud notes that his patient was born with a caul, the German word of which – Gluckshaube – means “lucky hood.”  Though, it would be hard to see in what way Harry is lucky.  According to Freud, “the caul was the veil which hid him from the world and hid the world from him.”27 This is clearly Harry Caul, a peripheral character hid within his own film.  In Freud’s terminology, the caul symbolized an inhibited superego, which was the formation of societal morals that resolved Oedipal Complex.  Again, Harry’s problems only emerge when he becomes curious of his fellow man at a moral level.  Prior to this moment, Harry is an inhibited social creature without a properly formed superego.

Significantly, Freud also argued in this famous case study that this veil was, in fact, “a wishful fantasy of flight from the world,” which signifies a desire to return to the womb.28 We could discuss how Harry’s social skills are underdeveloped (i.e. childish), but I think a more insightful connection comes once again from an analysis of the aural.  In an interview conducted at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Walter Murch provides the following lengthy comment regarding his work on The Conversation:

In the womb, the child never experiences silence. He enters into consciousness in that sightless world surrounded by continuous sound, twenty-four hours a day: his mother’s heartbeats, breathing, voice etc.  It is only when he is born and opens his eyes that he begins to experience silence, which may consequently seem threatening: the heartbeat sound has stopped, therefore mother is dead! Maybe that’s why babies wake up and cry in the middle of the night. But I try to use silence in unexpected ways three or four times in every film. I can’t use it more often or it would become predictable. And it has to happen at a point in the story where I want the audience to use their own sonic imagination, rather than feeding them with sounds.29

If Harry’s coat is emblematic of his desire to return to the womb, it is also emblematic of his desire to be surrounded by sounds.  Professionally, this is hard to disagree with; though we can hit on a deeper filmic truth by returning to Michel Chion’s work.

In writing on the voice in cinema, Chion cites Denis Vasse’s work titled Umbilicus and the Voice, which posits a primal relationship between the voice and the umbilical cord.  We can imagine the voice of the Mother weaving around the child a network of connections “it’s tempting to call the umbilical web.”30 Interjecting a connection to The Conversation, Harry’s umbilical web is the acousmetre; he is aurally surrounded by a wall of “unknown” voices.  Vasse claims the umbilical zone as a wound inscribes at the very center of the infant a mark of desire ‘that he experiences as a member of his species;’ this desire perforce becomes, consciously or not, ‘implicated in the act of the cutting of the umbilicus.’31 For Vasse, the act of cutting the umbilical cord at birth correlates strongly with the doctor’s attention paid to the opening of the infant’s mouth in uttering its first cry.  Thus, “the voice is inscribed in the umbilical rupture,” in which the “umbilicus means closure” and “the voice is a subversion of closure.”32 Thus, the acousmatic voice destroys the infant’s separation from its Mother.

Chion takes this notion one step further:

Denis Vasse doesn’t say, but I am suggesting here, that the voice could imaginarily take up the role of an umbilical cord, as a nurturing connection, allowing no chance of autonomy to the subject trapped in its umbilical web.  Clearly when the voice is heard separate from the body – i.e. in a regressive situation – it can play this role the most easily.33

Thus, we have Harry – an infant subject caught in an umbilical web of nothing but acousmatic voices.  As a result, he has no autonomy and can never rise out of the peripheral.


Can Harry ‘Act?’

The reason I see Harry as a peripheral character – as almost an extra in some other movie as Murch describes – is that he in no way effects narrative action.  And is this not the definition of an “extra”?  Turner notes that “surveillance technology and its technicians may be more directly involved in creating reality rather than making a record of it.”34 But when Harry tries to act he is continually pushed to a peripheral role.  We can see this most when he begins to assume a moral stance on his actions – something that an object (or bit player) cannot do.

Harry seems to fall into a kind of Russell paradox: the listener who listens to all but does not listen to himself.  He is not self-aware.  In the bathroom scene at the hotel, we see Harry look at himself in a mirror, but we never see him hear himself. His voice is as foreign to him as a recorded voice typically seems foreign to its owner.  Thus, when Harry becomes morally involved, his voice is a foreign sound (and recall my discussion above that the caul represented an inhibited superego to Freud – an inhibited moral function).

The ultimate act of Harry’s rebellion against surveillance and the Mother’s umbilical web is his confession to the priest, in which he attempts to become the acousmatic voice.  The act of a confessional alone reveals a thematic split between a willed and unwilled subject of surveillance.  To the priest, Harry wills himself to be heard but only as an unseen voice (although, not unseen to the audience obviously).  This is unlike the targets of his recordings which both have no choice and are visually known to those who do the recordings.  Why is this important?

As Chion explains, an acousmetre is associated with power – with a subject position as opposed to object position in the umbilical web: “Everything hangs on whether or not the acousmetre has been seen.  In the case where it remains not-yet-seen, even an insignificant acousmatic voice becomes invested with magical powers as soon as it is involved, however slightly, in the image.”35 Thus as Harry confesses to the priest, he not only assumes a moral position which I would connect with a subjective position, but also – aurally – puts himself into a position of subjective power.  The audio is the key to unlocking Harry’s position.

Of course, for all of Harry’s religious faith, it is not as strong as the conviction that someone is listening to him at the film’s end.  The defining moment of Harry’s collapse into the periphery is when he breaks the Virgin Mary statuette in the final scene: leading up to his crucial moment we see Harry, breathing heavily, slowly going across the wall of his apartment with a bug detector.  Cut to him walking to his windows; the camera rotates around him as Harry is finally the gravitational center of the camera.  He unscrews the wall outlet, takes off a plug, takes down the blinds, unscrews the ceiling light, and takes the phone apart…all in a heated montage.  Then, the piano motif comes in as Harry stands by the window.  But, ah, what does the piano signify but a false idea as the camera pans over to the Virgin Mary.  This is not the underlying accent of Harry’s internal mind as Ondaatje described above, but yet the signal of another misinterpretation on his part.  He grabs the statue in a medium shot and hesitates for quite some time, gently stroking it with his thumb.   With this pause, its significance is underlined.  Harry turns it upside down to look at the bottom as we once again hear more audio-warble on the soundtrack – again, misleading.  The camera follows the statue in Harry’s hands as he hits it on his dresser, breaking the shelf.  He slams it on a lower shelf before using one of his recording devices to pound it in a violent fashion.  It cracks, and we see Harry strain to pull it open; I’m surprised at how thick the plastic on the statue seems as he breaks it in two.  We pause on Harry’s distraught face as the camera comes back in.

At this grand denouement, Harry destroys that which is a symbol to his character, the link to his morality, and a sign of his attempted acousmatic existence.  And regarding the piano accents described in the beginning of this paper – we now realize that this grace note in no way signals an understanding of Harry, but instead signals Harry’s descent into a void of oblivion.



I cannot claim that Harry Caul is an extra in his own film – for reasons as simple as he is clearly on screen the most.  But I do claim that he never owns his film space, and thus functions as a peripheral (if not side) character on film.  This is – appropriately – revealed through the aural dimension.

In my introduction, I spoke briefly about the social role of mass surveillance: “Coppola’s analysis of irresponsible technical expertise as a source of contemporary despair and declining heroism.”36  With a contemporary society in which personal information about others is being purchased and exchanged in a far-reaching information economy where data is collected in one context (website browsing) and used in another context (product marketing) to such recent laws such as the Patriot Act to a general rise in hacker activity, this assessment seems as true today as ever.

Cowie notes a further connection between The Conversation and Steppenwolf, writing, “the strategy of Hesse and Coppola is identical in its aim of extrapolating a commentary on contemporary society from the case history of one person. ‘Haller’s sickness of the soul…is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but the sickness of the times themselves.’”37 In one way we can claim that in giving more, technology gives less.  In other words, I am not citing a “sea of loneliness” as a sign of the times, but that an influx of information from surveillance can never penetrate to the inner person.  We have more information but less of what counts.

Harry shows us this.  However, I will add one final comment: namely, that not only is Harry a representative of the common man who is pushed to the periphery in “modern” society, but by the very nature of being an everyman (and therefore, by being himself), he is being no one in particular.  And, thus, is anxiously and hopelessly stuck in a peripheral position.

John S. Turner. “Collapsing the Interior/Exterior Distinction: Surveillance, Spectacle and Suspense in Popular Cinema.” Wide Angle 20 (1998): 93.


Michael Ondaatje. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. (New York, NY: Knopf, 2002), 164.


Ibid., 164.


Ibid., 157.


Ibid., 169.


Turner, “Collapsing,” 98-99.


Peter Cowie.  Coppola. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990), 86.


Ibid., 169.


Jeremy Bentham. “Panopticon (Preface),” in The Pantopticon Writings, ed. by Miran Bozovic (London: Verso, 1995), 29.


10 Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish, trans by Alan Sheridan (New York, NY: Random House, 1977), 197.


11 Ibid., 200


12 Ibid., 201


13 Turner, “Collapsing,” 100.


14 Turner, “Collapsing,” 108, 94.


15 Michel Chion. The Voice in Cinema, trans by Claudia Gorbman (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999), 17.


16 Walter Murch, interview at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune campus, April 2004.


17 Stephen Paul Miller. The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance (Durham: Duke UP, 1999), 90.


18 Cowie, Coppola, 86.


19 Chion, The Voice in Cinema, 17-18.


20 Ibid.,18


21 Cowie, Coppola, 83.


22 Russel W. Gray “Tuning in to The Conversation: Twenty-Five Years Later.” Journal of Popular Culture 33 (1999): 127


23 Vincent Canby.  “A Haunting Conversation.” Review. New York Times (21 Apr. 1974: II), 1.


24 Cowie, Coppola, 91.


25 Martin Heidegger. Parmenides, trans. Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), 26.


26 Gray, “Tuning,” 124.


27 Sigmund Freud.  Three Case Histories. (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 241.


28 Ibid.,  241.


29 Walter Murch, interview at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune campus, April 2004.


30 Chion, The Voice in Cinema, 61.


31 Ibid., 61.


32 Ibid., 61.


33 Ibid., 62.


34 Turner, “Collapsing,” 109.


35 Chion, The Voice in Cinema, 23.


36 Gray, “Tuning,” 123.


37 Cowie, Coppola, 85.


Michael T. Smith

Contributing Writer

Michael T. Smith is currently a PhD candidate at Purdue University where he teaches Film and Business Writing classes. His work has been published in the Journal of Documentary Film, SONUS, Kinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, and the Midwest Literary Review.

Bentham, Jeremy. “Panopticon (Preface).” In The Pantopticon Writings, edited by Miran Bozovic, 29-95. London: Verso, 1995.

Canby, Vincent.  “A Haunting Conversation.” Review. New York Times 21 Apr. 1974: II: 1.

Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema.  Translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Cowie, Peter.  Coppola. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York, NY: Random House, 1977.

Freud, Sigmund.  Three Case Histories.  New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Gray, Russel W. “Tuning in to The Conversation: Twenty-Five Years Later.” Journal of Popular Culture 33 (1999): 123-130.

Miller, Stephen Paul. The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.

Murch, Walter. Interview at The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune Campus, April 2004.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. New York,NY: Knopf, 2002.

Palmer, James and Michael M. Riley. “America’s Conspiracy Syndrome: From Capra to Pakula.” Studies in the Humanities 8 (1981): 21-27.

Turner, John S. “Collapsing the Interior/Exterior Distinction: Surveillance, Spectacle and Suspense in Popular Cinema.” Wide Angle 20 (1998): 93-123.

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