The Conversation

Sometimes the quieter characters are the more interesting ones. Franics Ford Coppola’s The Conversation lets us into the tightly-controlled, paranoid world of Harry Caul (played by one of my favourite actors, Gene Hackman), a lone-wolf surveillance expert renowned for his ability to tape the untapeable. As the film starts we see him working on just such an operation, using a variety of microphones to capture a conversation between a young couple as they wander round a busy city square at lunchtime; then, back in his office (the wire-caged end of an otherwise empty floor), he gets down to what you just know is his favourite part: hidden away from the world, fine-tuning the mix of his audio sources into a single, listenable record of this mysterious, fragmented conversation. Harry Caul is a craftsman.

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He’s also a deeply vulnerable man. All the control, all the paranoia — a consequence, perhaps, of knowing how much can be listened to, recorded, gleaned — makes the vulnerability that much more plain. Caul wears a finicky but oh-so-practical transparent mac over his work clothes, which could be the symbol of the namesake birth-caul he seems to be keeping himself wrapped in, a barrier against the world. He claims to have no phone in his apartment, but we know he has, we see him using it. He regularly visits a woman (Terri Garr) who doesn’t know what he does for a living, or where he lives, but still knows more about him than Harry would like. The way he enters her apartment, for instance: “You have a certain way of opening the door. You know, first the key goes in all quiet, and then the door comes open real fast, like you think you’ll catch me at something.” Whatever secrets Harry thinks he has, the truth about his vulnerability and fear of opening up is obvious to everyone.

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As much as the first half of The Conversation is a plunge for us into Harry’s strange world, in the second half, he plunges deeper still into vulnerability and paranoia. When he goes to deliver the minutely polished tape of that lunchtime conversation, he’s told he can’t hand it over in person. So, he gives back the money and leaves with the tape. This, oddly, makes the character in my eyes — he may be strange, he may be reserved and secretive, but he has an ethic, not just to his craft, but to his word.

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The key scene where everything goes wrong comes soon after. There’s a surveillance industry conference and he and a few fellow professionals go back to Caul’s office with some drinks and a couple of good-time girls. Harry does a quick scan to make sure all the sensitive materials are hidden, locked away in a cage-within-the-cage of his already cage-like office. His fellow experts try to get him to open up about his past triumphs, to no avail. We learn that Harry once taped an impossible-to-tape conversation that got some people killed. They joke, but Harry doesn’t like it. He takes one of the women off into the empty space of his office and finally opens up to someone — only to find his colleagues listening in, playing a trick. But this is nothing compared to the trick the woman’s playing on him.

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The thing with this sort of story is first to make, then break, a character. A difficult-to-like person like Harry has first to be made in our eyes — we have to find him interesting (he’s certainly that, with his highly controlled ways) but also worth liking (and I think this is where his work ethic, and his keeping to his word despite having to turn down money, wins us over to this otherwise cold fish — that’s if his secret saxophone playing hasn’t already). But then, just when we’re starting to get comfortable in his distinctly uncomfortable world, the breaking starts. That precious, worked-over-a-hundred-times tape is taken off him, and he’s desperate to know it’s not going to be used to harm the young couple, not like last time, not again. He uses his surveillance skills to try to find out, but he’s close to breaking point. The need to know won’t help a jot if the deed’s already done. But, it turns out, Harry’s being tricked again. All that carefulness, control and paranoia only makes him that much more vulnerable. He’s not just been tricked, he’s being played.

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At the end, a single phone call — to that phone he claims he doesn’t have — is enough to tip him over the edge. They’ve bugged the world-proof enclosure of his apartment. And Harry, being the surveillance expert he is, can think of a thousand places they might have planted a bug, and a thousand types of bug they might have planted. He proceeds to tear his little sanctum apart, till he’s left with nothing, a ruin — the end result of all his attempts to control the uncontrollable. Even though, we know, from watching him, that the few secrets he has aren’t worth anyone’s while trying to discover. They’re the simple human secrets and vulnerabilities we all have, only Harry has them all the more because he pretends he doesn’t.

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Count Dracula (1977)

I thought I’d round off what has been a vaguely vampire-flavoured month at Mewsings with a look at my favourite adaptation of Dracula. I first saw it at school, bizarrely enough, shown over a couple of English lessons, though I don’t know what work we did in association with it. (This puts it in the same category as The Man Who Would Be King, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and a play-for-today adaptation of Z for Zachariah — which, along with a frankly gratuitous school viewing of Threads, served to convince me that the next winter was most likely to be a nuclear one).

So what makes it the best, for me?

Firstly, it’s understated. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was visually interesting in hallucinogenic moments, but so overblown (not to mention unintentionally comic in the awful stiffness of some of its British accents), it’s better treated as an overlong pop video than an attempt to tell a story. This 1977 adaptation, though, is horror done as a BBC costume drama. The fantastic elements are secondary to the characters, and the actors aren’t doing melodrama, they’re doing serious drama. Mina (Judi Bowker) is a perfect English rose; Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) a wildflower of a brasher, brighter, ultimately less hardy variety; the Count (Louis Jordan) is darkly foreign, charming, mysterious and coldly commanding — very believable as the supremely suave sociopath that Dracula is. The English reticence so vital to the novel is here entirely believable (as it isn’t in Coppola’s superheated lay-it-all-bare version). So, Jonathan Harker notices the Count’s hairy palms, but is too polite to comment on them; and Lucy’s fangs, when they start to emerge, are obvious for all to see, but no-one mentions them, either, because why would they? No-one expects her to be turning into a vampire, and besides, it would simply be impolite. The result is so much more convincing as a human drama, and therefore as a horror story.

Secondly, I like its visual style. I have a Doctor Who-grown fondness for the look of 70s BBC drama anyway, with its muted colours, murky videoed interiors and grainily-filmed exteriors (in actual English settings — Whitby, here, is the real Whitby, where of course Stoker went on holiday prior to writing the novel). The few visual effects are mostly used to create a mood than convince you you’re seeing something fantastic — so we have a blood-red and silver shot of the Count when the hunger’s on him, and Lucy dancing in her nightgown in one corner of the screen while the rest shows her being quietly vamped (perhaps representing how one sane corner of her mind has cut itself off from what’s happening to her body). There are some “convince them it’s real” visual effects, and it’s true these have not only dated, but probably never worked in the first place (I’m thinking of one particularly pathetic bat-on-a-string), but they are minor & brief, and can be forgotten (in the way you train yourself to do if you love watching old Doctor Whos — even Genesis of the Daleks has its giant clam scene).

Perhaps all this is possible because it’s a TV mini-series, and so has a chance to linger on character moments in a way that a film, being shorter, can’t. All the same, I can’t imagine a similar mini-series being made today, when usually the slightest hint of fantasy or horror is enough to unleash every make-you-jump cliché and make explicit every possible level of erotic interpretation, however much its power in the original relies on restraint. In the novel, the Count is only as successful as he is in England because people keep all their dreams and fears to themselves; in a sense, it’s only when Mina initiates a free-for-all bout of reading each others private diaries and journals — sharing everyone’s secrets like a touchy-feely vampire hunter’s support group — that the Count loses so much of his power, and is ultimately defeated.

Count Dracula is available on DVD, where it’s divided into two parts. I usually can’t help myself but watch both in one sitting.

Michael Powell’s Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books have been adapted for the screen twice, once as a TV mini-series in 2004 (which Le Guin didn’t like), and once as an animated film from Studio Ghibli in 2006 (which fared a smidgen better with Le Guin, though she originally sold the rights on the understanding it would be Hayao Miyakazi making the film; in the end it was his son), but there was another, earlier, attempt at adapting the first two Earthsea books, a live action feature film written and directed by Michael Powell, he of Powell & Pressburger (The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffmann), and, on his own, the notorious Peeping Tom (1960). Apparently, Powell wrote to Le Guin to tell her how much he’d enjoyed the books, a correspondence ensued, and that led to their collaborating on the script by mail. (There’s a good account of how the two got started in a comment over at Tor.com.)

Powell had grand plans for the film, including bringing in David Hockney as designer (because of some illustrations he’d done for an edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales — you can see some of them here, and, if you’re like me, wonder what he saw in them); Francis Ford Coppola was to have provided financial backing. The whole project never got further than the script, though — one account says it was due to Coppola going bankrupt, another that it was down to the ageing Powell not being able to get insurance — but the script is available to read over at Scribd.com. As the first two Earthsea books are perhaps the earliest-read books I still own, and occasionally re-read, I was curious to see what such a reputable filmmaker, with a definite artistic talent of his own, would have made of them.

Although it’s titled A Wizard of Earthsea, the script actually adapts the first two Earthsea books, A Wizard of Earthsea (which makes up the bulk of the film) and The Tombs of Atuan (which is mostly a subplot till the two come together at the end). And, apart from some jiggery-pokery needed to squeeze that pair into a two-hour film and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion, it generally remains very faithful to the books. The ending of Wizard (where Ged sails beyond the Archipelago in order to face the shadow he’s brought into the world alone) is lost, that final confrontation being merged with his and Tenar’s escape from the subterranean labyrinth of Atuan. For a long time, I preferred The Tombs of Atuan to its predecessor, and I couldn’t help being disappointed at how abbreviated Tenar’s story ends up in the script — her rejection of the gods she was brought up to serve is pretty much over in a line (“Oh Nameless Ones! My name is Tenar — Tenar — TENAR! I am not your servant any more!”), whereas, of course, she had a whole book to build up to that point in Atuan. But, allowing for the necessary abridgement, the feel of the stories is still very much intact in the script.

One question, though, is would it have remained that way? It’s notable that one of the scenes from A Wizard of Earthsea that didn’t make it into Powell and Le Guin’s script is probably the very one that would have sold it to a modern-day producer: the bit where Ged goes head-to-head with a dragon. Dragons appear in the script’s prologue, which ranges over the lands of Earthsea, introducing the Archipelago to the viewer, but aren’t seen again. Perhaps that was due to FX concerns, but it seems more to be because they were deemed extraneous to the story Powell and Le Guin were telling. Still, a dragon at the beginning (rather like a gun on the wall in the first act of a play) implies a promise of further dragonry to come, and in this case, the audience would have been disappointed.

There are some FX sequences left in. There’s a lot of illusion-weaving in the School for Wizards, for instance, and one intriguing scene where we first see the Archmage:

173. THE TALL WHITE FIGURE OF ARCHMAGE NEMMERLE materialises out of the shape and the spray of the falling water. A great black BIRD, a RAVEN of OSKILL, walks across the COURT to the Archmage and pecks at his STAFF.

Most of Le Guin’s magic, though, is understated and probably not as cinematic as a modern audience would expect — no flinging of fireballs or bolts of magical energy, for instance. If the film were to be made today, in this post-Peter Jackson age, that would almost surely be changed, or certainly cause the filmmakers to come under pressure from their more commercially-minded backers.

Another interesting point was that Powell obviously wasn’t thinking of this as a children’s film. His reaction to the books was, apparently, surprise that they were being published by Puffin, a children’s publisher, because he thought they were for everyone, adults included. I agree, but they certainly start off as being accessible by children. Powell, though, seems to have put his foot firmly down on the “for adults” camp, with a section of the script that details Ged’s stay with the people of the Terranon. Having just made it into their stronghold after being chased by the shadow-creature he loosed upon the world as a student mage, Ged collapses; there follows a slightly feverish sequence as he recovers, which starts with this scene:

486. HOT SPRINGS. Colors — weird rocks — old dwarf trees — NAKED WOMEN IN THE STEAM — THEIR VOICES. MUSIC AND SINGING. MUSCULAR MEN. EROTICA.

…and that mood continues with the appearance of Serret, a woman who “is elaborately dressed, she gleams with jewels, rings, earrings, toerings: her body, which can be glimpsed through the diaphanous gown she wears, shines with jewels. The nipples of her breasts are ornamented with rubies, her navel is set with diamonds. She is definitely a Princess.”

Definitely a Princess; definitely not for children, either.

Having read the script, I’d love to have seen the resulting film. If it had managed to stay true to what they’d put down on the page, and not be changed by producers wanting something more commercial, I think it would have been one of the better fantasy films of the eighties — or even the current decade.

Pity it wasn’t to be.