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There's a direct line from the climax of Touch of Evil--the bugging of Welles' crooked police captain--to Coppola's The Conversation. Murch's labor of love on this quirky masterwork, both as sound designer and first-time film editor, marked him as a filmmaker's filmmaker.
The Conversation tells the story of an audio surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who allows his emotions to cloud his judgment on a perilous case. While taping a young couple played by Cyndi Williams and Frederick Forrest, he hears Forrest say, "He'd kill us if he got the chance." Caul assumes they're potential targets in a murder. But it turns out they may have engineered a murder themselves--a point Murch clinched in the sound editing, when he inserted, at the psychological climax, an alternate take of Forrest reading the line differently: "He'd kill us if he got the chance."
Thanks to Murch, Coppola fulfilled his dream of making a first-class American art movie--a "combination of character study and suspense film, of Hermann Hesse and Alfred Hitchcock," as Murch puts it. And Murch did it by introducing a note of subjectivity where you least expect it: Right between Caul's ears. Watching the film again while thinking about Murch provides a pointed study in contrasts, because Caul is in some ways a matched opposite to Murch. Both are driven to get a job done right. But Caul struggles to extract a clean, rational line of sound from the mire of everyday noise, and is disarmed when his heart misleads him; Murch tries to find the metaphor and mystery beneath the obvious, and views his intellectual work as preparation for embracing the spontaneous feeling or epiphany.
And if Caul keeps a brittle distance from his coworkers, Murch fosters a spirited collegiality. Pat Jackson, Murch's most frequent collaborator, had worked on documentaries when she got her first feature job synching dailies on The Conversation. She chalks up Murch's openness to his "supreme self-confidence and artistic generosity. He's not micromanaging. His antennae are so out for what will work for the movie, he makes people rise to do their best. He was making the transition from mixing American Graffiti to cutting The Conversation, and he was perfectly willing to let me cut a scene. I was tied into knots, because I wanted it to be perfect, and he was still busy mixing. I'd anguish over every cut, and he'd say, 'Get out of here! It will be fine, and if it's not, we'll fix it.' That was totally liberating to a novice."
The respect and loyalty Murch commands buttressed him during the arduous mid-'80s production of Return to Oz. This dark, nonmusical sequel to The Wizard of Oz situates Dorothy in a stark, ravaged Kansas straight out of Wisconsin Death Trip. A frightful, 19th-century-looking electro-shock gadget dominates the opening sequence, and even Oz has succumbed to depression under the rule of the Nome King. Yet the movie is oddly haunting. The effects have a handmade (not hand-me-down) quality. Marvelous characters like the mechanical man named Tik Tok, or the makeshift creature called the Gump, reflect, in a funhouse mirror, Murch's fascination for the intersection between the mechanical (or the inanimate) and the natural (or animated). As Dorothy, the fetching young Fairuza Balk (best known now as the teenage vamp in the 1996 horror comedy The Craft) maintains an almost-mystical poise in grotesque circumstances.
Piper Laurie, who plays Auntie Em, remembers Murch being "a dear, patient, extremely intelligent gentleman, who seemed to know exactly what he wanted, and was definitely his father's son." Indeed, Murch's father, also named Walter Murch, is one of the key influences on Return to Oz; he was a modernist painter celebrated for bringing an intense atmosphere to objects and for suggesting the hidden life of machines. Of course growing up with any artist can be a catalytic experience. But beyond teaching him that it's worthwhile and honorable to spend your day in front of an easel, Murch the elder's art seems to have imbued Murch the younger with the quest to find the human edges--and the magic--in technology.
Late in June, I visited the Murch family manse, Blackberry Farm, in the rural Marin County shoreline town of Bolinas; its clean, Shaker-like beauty once inspired Kaufman to dub it "the First Church of Walter Murch." Chickens were racing and gobbling through the backyard (Oz features Billina, the talking hen), and the horse barn next door contained not just Murch's office suite but a piece of the Nome King and the door of the electro-shock specialist Dr. Worley.
But if Return to Oz is always close to Murch, making it for Disney was not an experience he'd like to repeat. To Laurie, "He knew the rhythm of things, the pace, how fast things should move, how fast the buggie I was driving should get around the corner. That's not to say there wasn't 'heart' there, it's just that, unlike most directors, he had a really magnificent, detailed understanding of the mechanics." But when she returned to the set after a two-week break in Scotland, "the limo driver who picked me up and drove me to the set said, 'You don't know what's been going on.' When I arrived on the set he was still working, but sitting in directors' chairs were Lucas, Coppola and some other director for whom he had done such brilliant work. They weren't even watching what he was doing, they were just chatting amongst themselves. When I found out that they flew over just to support him, I was so moved."