The Conversation (1974) is a slick film about surveillance, privacy, and paranoia. I promise that I chose to post on this film before news about the NSA surveillance, but I definitely have enjoyed thinking about it while watching the news.
The Conversation won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, though it eventually lost out to another Francis Ford Coppola movie, The Godfather Part II, who had, of course, just won a couple of years earlier for The Godfather Part I. Obviously, it was a great time for American filmmaking and for Francis Ford Coppola. My suspicion, though, is that in the midst of Coppola’s massively acclaimed films of the 1970s, during which he also made Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, though admired, is largely neglected. This is just too bad.
The Conversation begins with a fantastic, virtuosic display of cinematography by Haskell Wexler (in fact, this is the only shot by Wexler that remains in the film since he was fired and Bill Butler took over — it was wise to keep this shot). We start overlooking Union Square in San Francisco.
As we overlook the square, park music plays, the musical sound at times becoming rigidly distorted. Slowly — very slowly — we zoom in, and eventually the camera, which is a long ways away, begins to follow a middle-aged, balding man wearing a strange, plastic, transparent trench coat. This is Harry Caul, played wonderfully by Gene Hackman.
We don’t know why the camera is following Caul, who himself looks evasive and uncomfortable as he wanders seemingly aimlessly about the park.
When the opening shot ends, we go back to what may be the camera’s origin, a rooftop under the City Paris sign.
Where a man sits with this gun-like contraption.
I remember the first time watching this film, having no idea what it was even about, wondering how it was possible they could kill off Gene Hackman so soon into the picture. After all, the opening shot follows Harry Caul around the park, as if Caul himself were the subject of our scrutiny. And why does the sound keep going out?
Soon, though, we understand just what’s going on.
This couple, Mark and Ann (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams), is the true subject of the threatening scope. That’s not a gun at all but rather a high-tech sound recorder. When you focus the microphone on a subject’s mouth, even over a distance you can record what they’re saying, though at times the sound is distorted.
As it turns out, Harry Caul is the chief surveillant. He’s walking around with a microphone himself, as are a few others. When they’ve finished recording this couple’s conversation — yes, the conversation — he takes all of the tapes and tries to put them together in the best possible way. The end goal is to have a conversation that is 100% complete and 100% clear.
But first, we go to Caul’s lonely home.
Caul is an intriguing character, so secretive he at one time tells his mistress that he has no secrets to share. “I’m a secret,” she says. When he gets home, his landlady wishes him a happy birthday. He feels the need to call her to find out how she knew, demands that she stop checking his mail — in fact, he’s to have the only keys to anything he owns and the mail is to be locked up by combination lock. His apartment is relatively sparse, save for a few religious icons towards which he holds obvious devotion.
Harry Caul is one of the best surveillants in the country. Somehow, he once managed to find out what two people had said on a boat in the middle of a lake, though by all accounts there was no way of knowing that these two people would be out on the lake. Though he doesn’t seem to have any secrets worth knowing, Caul himself is a paranoid man who takes extreme precautions to protect his privacy.
In one of those wonderful extended scenes we can barely imagine being filmed today, we watch as Caul pieces together the final recording of the conversation we saw him collecting as the film opened. Besides protecting his own privacy, Caul also respects the privacy of his clients. He doesn’t know why this conversation was recorded and he doesn’t even care what’s in the conversation. His partner Stan (played by the great John Cazale) remarks that the conversation is so boring, but Caul simply says he doesn’t care. It’s not his job to care.
The conversation appears to be innocuous anyway. It’s probable that the couple is having an affair and is meeting up to chat for a few moments in the park. In the end, maybe they plan their next rendezvous. Mark does say one thing interesting: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.”
When Caul goes to deliver the final tape to the Director (an unbilled role for Robert Duvall), the Director is not there. Instead, his assistant (Harrison Ford) says he’ll handle it, there’s the money.
This appears to be the moment Caul’s paranoia comes to the fore. He can’t give the recording to anyone but the Director, he says, though he’s also now starting to think maybe he should not even do that. Perhaps the Director will kill this young couple. Caul takes the recording and leaves while Ford follows him, getting a final look around the corner just before the elevator door closes.
The second act of the film involves itself in Caul’s moral dilemma and his basic pride. He just does the job his clients tell him to do. He’s not responsible for the consequences. And he’s the best at it.
Nevertheless, becoming more and more certain “he’d kill us if he had the chance” means the Director is planning a murder, Caul does what he can to find out.
Interestingly, it’s almost as if he doesn’t feel powerful enough to prevent a murder. He just wants to find out if it happens. What else can simple surveillance do?
The Conversation is an excellent character study and, for me, is endlessly rewatchable. Hackman’s subtle performance pays off greatly when Caul becomes even more paranoid:
But besides the basics of the story and character study, I wanted to touch briefly on the filming itself. As I mentioned above, in the opening scene, the camera directs us viewers to Harry Caul first. We follow him around the plaza, not the couple. We zoom in on him, the paranoid man who will be our subject for the next couple of hours. Interestingly, we become the surveillants, the ones who are invading the privacy of this terribly lonely man.
There are several times the camera almost mimics our attempts to surveil. At one time, the camera is set stationary in Caul’s home. He walks out of the frame and, for a time, the camera remains inert, staring at an empty space while Caul wanders around another part of the room. Eventually, as if it finally realizes Caul will not be going back to that part of the room, the camera turns its head to watch Caul go through his mail. At another time, Caul himself is captured on a surveillance camera that he is holding by the television screen reproducing the image, giving us an infinity of Harry Cauls.
And, in one of my favorite shots, that lasts for less than a second, Cindy Williams smiles at us, the viewers:
Perhaps this was just an accident. I like to think it was deliberate. After all, she knows we’re there, and she knows a lot more that Caul.