Cindy Williams, best known for her role as the latter half of the comedy duo who comprised Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983), died last week at age 75. For those especially attentive to the way sound is employed by filmmakers, she is perhaps more specifically niche-famous as half of a quite different couple, the one at the center of the intrigue that was Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 film The Conversation (the other half is the gentleman wearing a tie in this still — not the mime). To watch The Conversation is to hear their conversation over and over, each time the phrasing gaining new meaning, thanks in large part to the ingenuity of sound designer Walter Murch, who worked right around the same time with Williams on George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973).
It was in American Graffiti that Murch put what he called “worldizing” into effect. This meant that the sound of, say, a car radio was heard as if it were right there in the car seen on-screen, lending new realism to the storytelling, bringing the viewer ever more into the sensorium of the characters. In The Conversation, the potential of sound as a narrative tool emerged fully formed, at the behest of the character Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman. To watch The Conversation is to hear the same sentence over and over — a sentence spoken to Williams (who infused the role, as Ann, with an essential tenderness), and scrutinized to distraction by an obsessed Caul: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”