Francis Coppola’s film, The Conversation, addresses themes of paranoia through the choice of frame angle, image, and sound. A particular scene where these three aspects are used quite effectively is when the protagonist, Henry Caul, witnesses murder then inspects the crime scene afterwards. The camera lens is angled so that the audience views the murder through Henry’s perspective, which stands on the balcony of the hotel room next door. We see the victim pinned against the glass, presumably being stabbed ferociously as blood splatters appear and drip down alongside the body. A woman screams when the blood emerges and the audience is led to presume alongside Henry that the couple has been murdered and Henry’s clients are the perpetrators. Copola’s choice to film the murder scene from behind unclear glass creates a visual distortion of reality that is akin to the audience’s false or distorted assumptions of the scene at hand through the eyes of Henry. This scene is key to establishing paranoia to a schizophrenic level when Henry visits the room of the crime scene. The room is meticulously shot at various angles, focusing on specific images such as the folded bed spread, the clean balcony window, and the drain within the bathtub. This emphasizes the cleanliness and unanimated nature of the room, forcing Henry and the viewer to question whether the murder actually took place or if it was all in Henry’s head as a symptom of his paranoia.
Although Henry does eventually find evidence of the murder in the most shocking and illogical place, the toilet, it is intriguing how Cupola chose to prolong the scene where Henry searches for evidence. The importance of the scene is not so much the murder itself, but the doubt it places in our minds between what is fact and fiction. The discovery of the evidence seems unrealistic and the fact that the murder scene is cleaned up so well leaves viewers confused. In Peter Biskind’s novel, The Man Who Would Be King, he recounts the climate of American cinema in the 1970s through a series of dazzling anecdotes. When describing Coppola’s films, Biskind describes them to have a “dark under lit look…that is daring and unconventional, a tableau form of movie making.” The dark lighting of the film and vivid use of imagery convey a higher sense of ambiguity that cannot be solely achieved through strong dialogue. This further highlights the doubt between fact and fiction that continues throughout the film, giving way to an illogical plot line that suggests it is not who committed the crime that matters but rather the process of questioning the authenticity of our surroundings. The people, places, and technology that appear to be trustworthy or harmless around us can actually be conspiring against us or withholding vital information. Similar to spies or spy technology, the room is aesthetically hiding the atrocious event that took place hours earlier through its cleanliness. It is this doubt of what and whom we should trust that is planted within the viewer by the end of the film and which drives Henry to his psychological demise. Given that the film was released after the infamous Watergate Scandal, the film is clearly addressing issues of American societies’ growing distrust in the political system which could perhaps under extreme circumstances cause paranoia amongst citizens. Ironically, it is Nixon’s paranoia that compels him to engage in spy activity against the Democratic Party that results in his resignation as president.