THE CONVERSATION: From Watergate to Homeland Security and Beyond

By Melvin Cartagena

The Conversation – 1974 – dir. Francis Ford Coppola

From conception to execution, it came together almost as an afterthought. From the lean, modestly budgeted screenplay that he wrote in the sixties, and then set aside as he worked in other projects, through its production and release in between the first and second Godfather movies, The Conversation came and went with the same sad resignation that Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul displayed in the film’s final shot. Poor box office returns conspired with the media’s frenzied interest in The Godfather phenomenon to further send the little movie into film oblivion.

Yet The Conversation has quietly gathered a following made up of historians, film academics and pop culture enthusiast that have deconstructed the movie’s obvious, possible and implied meanings to shreds. It won the Golden Palm Award at the 1974 Cannes Film festival, and it’s been selected for preservation by The United States National Film Registry as being “culturally/aesthetically, or historically significant.” Its initial timeliness—coinciding with the Watergate scandal, the wiretapping of the Democratic Party’s headquarters carried out on behalf of Richard Nixon—has only become more prescient in our global times, with routine unauthorized eavesdropping on citizens in the name of Homeland Security.

In the movie’s 113 minutes of running time, Francis Ford Coppola dissects modern society as he explores invasion of privacy, paranoia and suspicion, loneliness, corporate intrigue against the individual and corporate intrigue among executives, moral and ethical conflict among individuals and within the individual, and religious guilt, all in an outstanding movie that is simple in premise, yet densely layered.  On a technical level, Coppola’s approach in capturing the life of the emotionally empty and paranoid Harry Caul is deceptively simple. When he is with others (his mistress, his assistants, his current employer) the camera captures Harry’s awkward social interaction with the flat detachment of a documentary photographer. The moments when Harry’s alone, what he wants most (how many of us wish to get through a day without hassle from Jehovah’s Witness, or the telemarketer, or a friend looking for a pair of ears to dump his misery on?), the camera is more intrusive, lingering for a moment on the space Harry was occupying to then pan over to where Harry moved. This is Coppola’s serene way of cueing us in on Harry’s subconscious feelings of being watched. What begins as a suspense/mystery thriller drifts over into the metaphysical/spiritual as Harry Caul tries to reach some emotional middle ground between the sordid nature of his work and the consequences it has on those whose privacy he invades (on a previous wiretapping job three people died because of what he recorded and turned over to his employer.)  This ambivalence lingers through Harry’s mind as he feverishly works on putting together a clear recording from three different sources, playing the tapes back and forth as he looks for the cleanest sound bites (it’s a sequence inspired by the multiple photo blow ups that may or may not show a murder in Antonioni’s Blow Up.) Like the photographer in Blow Up, it’s in these moments when Harry is free of doubts and conflicting thoughts and anxiety, when he loses himself in his work.

In a post-modern context, The Conversation parallels the existential angst of the exhausted civilizations of novelist J.G. Ballard’s best books. Just as the protagonists in Ballard’s novels, unable to reach some compromise between the demands of the world around them and their inner world of personal fulfillment, either give themselves in to the madness around them, or rebel by means of an antisocial act (either some form of terrorism or regression to a primitive state.) In a moment of weakness, Harry confides his private fears to a woman who turns out to be a decoy sent by The Company to recover the recording Harry has spliced together but has delayed in turning over to the Director (Robert Duvall), afraid of what’s going to happen to the owners of the voices he’s captured on tape.  Like Ballard’s characters, who work their bodies in a parody of normality as they move through a decaying metropolis, Harry Caul moves through a bleak, sunless San Francisco, deadly afraid to develop a connection to anyone, yet longing for some kind of contact, the clear plastic coat he wears acting as a metaphorical shield from the masses around him.

In the end, Harry’s internal conflict becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as his need for companionship causes him to lose the tape, and his rigorously developed privacy is shattered. Tragedy strikes, but not in the way Harry foresaw. In the movie’s diabolical and brilliant final sequence, a sentence’s meaning is completely altered through emphasis on one word, “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” The Executive (Frederic Forrest) tells Ann (Cindy Williams), his supposed mistress, at the beginning of the film. “He’d kill us if he got the chance,” Mark tells her at the end, revealing themselves to be plotters against the Director instead of an adulterous couple afraid of being discovered by the Director.)

The Director of The Company is killed in an ‘accident’ that clears the way for the Assistant, Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to move into the Director’s seat. Harry Caul is approached through his unlisted telephone, and told his house is bugged and that they are watching him. Harry strips his spartan apartment down to the stanchions and floor beams, but can’t find a single hidden microphone. In the final shot Coppola wordlessly shows us how Harry gives himself in to his latent paranoia as he forlornly plays his saxophone while the camera pans back and forth over the gutted living room like a surveillance camera. Harry feels he’ll always be watched, and he accepts it.

From its less then spectacular beginnings, The Conversation has blossomed into a film with a mystique and legend of its own, one to rival The Godfather I and II (am I the only one who feels The Godfather is overrated?)


Andrea O Written by: