In his 1995 book In the Blink Of An Eye, film editor Walter Murch recalls a conversation with a friend of his wife. He asks what Murch does for a living, and when Murch tells him that he edits movies, the friend replies, “Oh, editing. That’s where you cut out the bad bits.” That’s a succinct summation of the general public’s understanding of the subtle and oft-misunderstood art of editing and mixing. To an extent, the widespread misconceptions are understandable; by its very nature, the best editing masks its own presence, instantaneously ferrying viewers through space and time and from shot to shot with minimal cognitive disruption. Little wonder that the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences has all but rebranded its award from Best Editing to Most Editing, annually bestowing the honor on the showiest display of technical proficiency. (This year, Whiplash’s Tom Cross won for the rare example of flair within a situationally appropriate context.)
In actuality, the editor wields a tremendous amount of authorial power over the finished product. In In The Blink Of An Eye, Murch describes the million-and-a-quarter feet of footage (shaking out to a whopping 230 hours) that Francis Ford Coppola dumped on him that would be sculpted into Apocalypse Now after a year’s worth of efforts. With a KEM Universal editing machine as his machete, Murch hacked a path through the dense, sprawling thicket and emerged on the other side with an emotionally coherent picture. Put simply, editors knit chaos into order. An editor with Murch’s artistry and expertise exerts as much creative authority over a film as any director or writer. In fact The Conversation is Murch’s film as much as it is leading man Gene Hackman’s, or even Coppola’s. In 1974, Coppola was plenty busy overseeing the sequel to some gangster picture he had shot two years before, and gave Murch all but free rein to cook up his own cut of the picture that’d become The Conversation. And while the cat was away, the mouse did play. With his hand planted firmly on the steering wheel, Murch drove The Conversation toward a covert statement about the power and responsibility of the editor during a film’s production process.
The opening sequence asserts Murch as a decisive authorial force in The Conversation’s larger workings. It’s a subtle yet complex tango of cuts, playing it stingy with information here, deploying a bit of misdirection there, setting the stage for the nerve-fraying game of paranoid peekaboo that’ll soon unfold. The opening shot might as well be a POV from the perspective of Hackman’s audio-snoop Harry Caul in its chilly disconnect from its subjects, but it’s not—strictly speaking, anyway. Coppola’s camera sits above San Francisco’s bustling Union Square, the lens trained on unsuspecting civilians like a sniper’s scope. Murch allows this voyeuristic wide shot of the crowd to slowly tighten until it settles on Harry, clad in his signature membranous grey poncho. Murch’s first cut appears to confirm the worst fears that the opening shot instilled in the audience by revealing the owner of the previous shot’s POV, a rooftop sniper crouching beneath a “CITY PARIS” neon sign. It’s only upon a rewatch that the quiet brilliance of this bait-and-switch becomes clear; Coppola and Murch frame Harry as the unknowing victim when he’s the one holding all the cards. But for the moment, Murch continues with the charade, using his next two cuts to get closer to the sniper before revealing that he’s armed with surveillance gear, not bullets. Murch, however, knows that they’re equally deadly.
As if the scene wasn’t intricate enough, Murch simultaneously pulls an auditory fast one on the audience, hinting at The Conversation’s core theme. The opening shot begins with Murch mumbling in a background with no foreground. Muffled, distant jazz music increases in volume and clarity as the bird’s-eye shot tightens, interrupted by the occasional burst of indecipherable, mechanized burbling. Here, Murch attends to the “Sound Montage” component of the credit “Walter Murch: Supervising Editor, Sound Montage & Re-Recording” that flashes onscreen moments before. He carefully tweaks the mix of sound to uncover the smokin’ jazz riffs laying dormant beneath the feedback. He’s demonstrating the small miracle at the heart of The Conversation in microcosm: the creation of a whole and coherent something from a scattershot nothing.
On a level wedged between metatext and text, The Conversation is Murch’s love letter to the noble act of editing. Though Harry puts his talents to use for eavesdropping purposes, at its core, his is the work of a film production’s editor. He gathers decontextualized scraps of sound on the instruction of a supervising authority—in one of The Conversation’s few unsubtle moves, Robert Duvall’s shadowy overseer is referred to as “The Director.” He’s the man with the vision, paying off Harry to capture a conversation without providing any further information. The significance of the couple’s words get muddled due to all manner of auditory intrusions, from a street drummer to extraneous chatter from couples out for a constitutional. It’s left to Harry to actively forge a clear and accurate recording. Coppola includes numerous scenes that watch Harry as he goes about his delicate tasks, tinkering with levels and twiddling knobs until discernible words uncover themselves. Coppola and Murch go to great lengths to convey the intricacies of this fastidious art form. He’s the one doing the real work. The Director simply tells Harry what he wants.
The Conversation recognizes that, as an editor, Harry’s implicated in his own actions. With a no-nonsense professionalism, Hackman illustrates Harry’s slippery moral hypocrisy. A devout Catholic, Harry’s only capable of getting to sleep at night by assuring himself that he’s an objective middle-man, that whatever his recordings are used for after he receives his paycheck doesn’t reflect on him. But The Conversation pushes its protagonist until he can’t ignore the self-delusion of that rationale, and must recognize that he’s contributing to a matter of life and death in a critical way. He might tell himself that wicked intentions turn his recordings into accessories to murder, and that his recordings have no ethical content unto themselves.
A lifelong editor, Murch knows better. After Harry’s witnessed a bloody hand on the motel-room window—who it belongs to remains a mystery to him—he has no choice but to leave The Flintstones on TV to muffle the sound of his horror. The faint cartoon hijinks almost jeer at Harry. From the post-production suite, sound mixer Murch mocks the character’s self-imposed moral isolationism. “You think this isn’t your fault, little man?” laughs Fred Flintstone. “The toilet’s full of blood. Yabba-dabba-doo.”
Nobody’s more responsible for the final outcome of the recording than Harry, just as nobody was more responsible for the final shape that The Conversation took than Murch. As an editor, he magicks emotional tone out of thin air. In one chapter of In The Blink Of An Eye, Murch lays out the six criteria that dictate how he makes his cuts, enumerated from most-important to least. He prioritizes two-dimensional and three-dimensional spatial consistency all the way down at the bottom, curiously. He explains that if the emotional truth of the moment justifies it, nothing should stop an editor from disposing with convention. That “emotional truth” just so happens to sit at the top of that list of criteria, superseding all other concerns.
It’s the editor who ultimately creates the mood of a picture, Murch explains. The Conversation abounds with support for his claim, too. After a troubling conversation with The Director’s aide, Harry takes the elevator to exit the building. Here, Murch spins a moment of tension and paranoia using only sounds. As people pile in to the elevator, Harry’s pushed toward the back. The dull roar of white noise echoes through the elevator shaft as Harry’s gradually squeezed out of his personal bubble. As everyone except Harry and one other woman files out, the noise rises to a deafening pitch and melds seamlessly into the hiss of a rewinding audio reel. Harry’s grey poncho cannot protect him anymore. With little more than David Shire’s disquieting piano score and background noise, Murch communicates Harry’s inner turmoil.
He does the same thing later on: During a thrilling long-take shot, Murch fades a nimble, soulful piano line into the sonic fore while Harry’s colleagues frolic around an abandoned studio space with their dates. No dialogue needed, Murch can contrive the scene’s “emotional truth,” that Harry feels deeply alienated from his peers hungrily pawing their companions. The inability to tap into the “emotional truth” of one phrase in particular—“He’d kill us if he got the chance”—drives Harry out of his gourd, at least until The Director’s bugs permeate his last bastion of privacy. Poring over raw footage without being able to work through the ambiguities of its meaning must be an editor’s worst nightmare.
“Paraprosdokian” is one of those fun, long words that actually proves pretty helpful in everyday speech. It refers to a phrase in which a latter part sheds new light on and consequently changes the meaning of a former part. The final minutes of The Conversation provide sudden, terrible clarification as to the ambiguous import of the phrase “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” But reading In The Blink Of An Eye turns The Conversation into a paraprosdokian all its own. At first brush, it’s an exceptionally elegant entry into the mini-trend of paranoia-fueled ’70s thrillers. When considering Murch’s contributions and ideology as an editor, however, the film becomes something else entirely. It’s a testament to the sway held by the unseen men scurrying around outside of the spotlight. Starry-eyed film students don’t ship off to USC with dreams of being the next Walter Murch. He’s far too good at his job for that.
This wraps up our Movie Of The Week discussion of The Conversation. Don’t miss Scott’s Keynote on the film’s prescient outlook on security and privacy, and the Forum discussion of the film’s sound, music, timing, and more. Next week, we get in the mood for Age Of Ultron by revisiting a misbegotten attempt to bring the Avengers’ biggest, greenest members to the big screen: Ang Lee’s Hulk.