One of my favorite things to do as a cinema enthusiast is to watch how a director grows over time. I love seeing a director take situations they had mentioned or tentatively explored in earlier films and expand upon them in their later work. If you look closely, you can see them learning and taking another step closer on the path to becoming who they’re destined to be. That’s why I love watching the scene in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) where Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) tells Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) all the reasons he won’t marry her before changing his mind, because it’s clearly a dry run for the famous scene where George Bailey (James Stewart) angrily tells Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) why he won’t marry her before tearfully embracing her in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). It’s also why I love the scene in The American Soldier (1970), an early film by polymath Rainer Werner Fassbinder, where a maid (Margarethe von Trotta) delivers a monologue that tells what would become the story of his later famous film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). This is also why I love comparing two films directed by Francis Ford Coppola from the early stage of his career: Dementia 13 (1963) and The Conversation (1974).
Comparing these two films might seem, at first glance, like a fool’s errand. Dementia 13 is a low-budget gothic potboiler full of grisly murders which Coppola tailored to fit the financial and thematic demands of his producer and mentor Roger Corman. In contrast, The Conversation is an existential film capable of being read in different ways (thriller, parable of artistic obsession, etc.) that cost about 35 times what it took to make Dementia 13 and was a passion project for Coppola, who had complete creative control over it thanks to The Directors Company. The films differ aside from genre and budget as well. For example, Dementia 13 is about a family — you could argue it’s the first family saga Coppola made since he was years away from directing The Godfather — and carefully considers the different points-of-view of several characters, which is prompted in part by the Psycho-esque murder of its protagonist. In contrast, The Conversation is a character study which is told entirely from the perspective of protagonist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). That latter film is more interested in exploring what makes Caul tick than in depicting thrills unique to a genre, which is the entire reason for Dementia 13 to exist. Both films also had different receptions as well. Dementia 13 premiered as the second half of a double bill with X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes (1963) and received mixed critical reviews. The Conversation premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the very prestigious Palme d’Or.
But Dementia 13 and The Conversation share a powerful connection, and that is the mind of Coppola. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but he used Dementia 13 as a type of laboratory for situations and themes that he would later use in The Conversation. This is apparent when you compare the two films’ opening sequences. For example, Dementia 13 begins with a couple debating how to deal with an unseen, wealthy person. The Conversation is built around the titular event between a couple who are discussing how they will best deal with an unseen, wealthy person. Both conversations take place in the presence of gadgets, for which Coppola has a lifelong love going back to childhood, whether it’s the radio that the couple takes with them in Dementia 13 or the audio surveillance equipment — which was unintentionally the same devices used by former President Nixon’s cronies to spy on his enemies — Caul and his assistant Stan (John Cazale) use to record the couple in The Conversation. Both opening sequences even feature diegetic music, whether it’s the rockabilly song coming from the radio in Dementia 13 or the band playing live music in The Conversation. The similarities are so striking that you cannot help but read the earlier scene as a rough draft for the later one with which Coppola would begin his more celebrated film.
Putting these films in conversation (as IU professor John Schilb likes to put it) also yields a fascinating glimpse into how Coppola grew as a filmmaker who excels at depicting the interiority of his characters. Coppola tells most of Dementia 13 from what literary scholars would call a “third-person limited” perspective, which is not dominated by any single point-of-view. But shortly after the opening boat scene, Coppola presents a scene from the first-person perspective of his character Louise (Luana Anders). He does so by including a voiceover of her thoughts as she plots to swindle the wealthy family of her husband, John Haloran (Peter Read). These thoughts capture the stream-of-consciousness flow common to the vast majority of people — such as when she suddenly ponders if someone will “rot under water” — but they also have a blunt force which fits well with the generic demands and brief running time of this film.
Coppola wasn’t above using similar techniques in The Conversation — most notably a dream sequence in which Caul imagines talking to someone he has been surveilling — but, more often than not, he takes a more subtle approach to depicting Caul’s consciousness. Coppola finds visual equivalents for Caul’s loneliness through his extensive use of wide shots, which dwarf Caul and make him seem isolated even in scenes where he’s with other people. This subtlety extends to the film’s meticulously detailed sound design (crafted by the incomparable Walter Murch), and part of what makes it great is its highly subjective quality. We hear everything that Caul hears and, perhaps more importantly, we mishear everything he hears. This subjectivity places you in his mind and ears as he hurtles towards being complicit in a tragedy. Murch, who was also the supervising editor of The Conversation, once noted that he would often cut scenes when Caul would blink. He cites this as proof that film cuts are analogous to the act of blinking, but it is just as apt a description of how thoroughly Caul’s mind influences this film’s pace and rhythm that it seems to move at the speed of his smallest mental actions.
Comparing these movies might feel like an indulgent exercise. But you can clearly see Coppola exploring situations and themes which fascinated him in Dementia 13 — a couple plotting something, gadgets, and depicting how human consciousness tries to make sense of ghoulish things such as murder — and refining them in The Conversation. Watching these two films in succession is a reminder that artists have certain situations and themes which are personal to their creative selves which they can explore over their entire careers. It’s also inspiring to see how Coppola, one of the greatest and most successful of 20th-century directors, began his mainstream career with an entertaining yet under-appreciated film. We — cinema enthusiasts, directors, and anyone who is interested in a fascinating American life — are all the better for being able to see how he became the artist he is through comparing his early work to his later masterpieces.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.