Still, a decade and a half later, I’d forgotten how visually stunning the film was, too. Cinematographer Bill Butler really delivered the goods in telling this story, and provides no shortage of breathtaking shots. Here are just two.
To me, they’re wonderfully composed if conventionally beautiful images. They play expertly if unsurprisingly with perspective, light and reflectivity. While they made me sit up and take notice, the kind of shots that really had me swooning were of the sort shown here, one of the first looks inside the home of protagonist Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman.
Not only is this subtle, restrained framing absolutely in line with Caul’s character as an emotionally withdrawn and unassuming bystander in life, it also happens to neatly and conveniently fit into my own preferences for very square, almost abstractly perpendicular composition; I could frame this image, hang it on my wall and stare at it for hours.
Here’s a similar shot, with Hackman meeting his client’s surrogate, a small but important role played by a young Harrison Ford, for the first time. The two figures are willfully ignoring one another as conflicted people so often do before an inevitable altercation, and Butler has framed them ingeniously in a stark but unspoken opposition that communicates loads about how their relationship will evolve.
Perhaps its unfair to give too much credit for the aesthetic home run that is “The Conversation” to Butler. After all, he was working not only with Coppola, but also with legendary production designer Dean Tavoularis. The latter no doubt was responsible for the gorgeous, intricate and yet still barren cave that is Caul’s workplace, hidden away in a half-abandoned warehouse loft in San Francisco.
Harry Caul chose a lonely and isolated life for himself, to be sure, but the movie makes no bones about the sense of odd comfort that he finds in his den. These scenes are gorgeous with the sensibility of work, of single-minded concentration, a real sense of purpose, and the sort of indescribable ease that craftsmen assume in proximity to their tools and workspace.
One of the most impressive feats that Butler pulls off is an evolution in how he captures these characters over the course of the movie that matches its dispiriting narrative arc. Early on, he offers this portrait of Caul alone in his apartment, unhappy but untroubled in a neatly composed profile of middle-aged ennui. Again, the framing is geometric, objective, dispassionate.
By the end of the film, Caul is more than just detached, he’s broken, and the camera is now skewed, disorderly, and at a more subjective, disoriented angle. Caul’s portrait is now no longer detached; it’s tragic, somewhat insane, even harrowing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as alone in the world as I do when watching this movie to its ending.
Re-reading this selective visual tour of the movie, I’m afraid I’m doing it a disservice: it’s not actually the emotional buzzkill that I make it out to be. Well, actually, it kind of is. Still, if you haven’t seen it, it’s not to be missed.