HARRY CAUL IS AN INVADER OF PRIVACY. THE BEST IN THE BUSINESS. HE CAN RECORD ANY CONVERSATION BETWEEN TWO PEOPLE ANYWHERE. SO FAR. THREE PEOPLE ARE DEAD BECAUSE OF HIM.
If someone asks you to name a movie that is intimately connected to the Watergate scandal, apart from All the President’s Men (1976), you’re likely to name The Conversation. Released a few months before President Richard Nixon’s resignation, the film has Nixon’s name mentioned in a scene and features a story about surveillance; the same equipment that we see here was used by members of the Nixon administration in their efforts to spy on political opponents. This information came as a surprise to Coppola, and in any case he had written the script before Nixon was sworn in as president. Coppola was more inspired by Antonioni and Blowup (1966).
Listening to a couple in San Francisco
When we first meet Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) he is listening, together with a few associates, to a man and a woman who are walking in Union Square in San Francisco. They’re surrounding the couple with their surveillance equipment and are able to pick up almost every word they’re saying. Harry learns that they’re afraid of being watched and that there will be a meeting in a hotel room in a few days. He’s the top surveillance expert on the West Coast and a very discreet and careful man. Harry makes most of his calls from pay phones; his modest apartment has special locks and a burglar alarm. Harry has no friends, but a mistress who rarely gets any kind of personal information out of him.
As he listens to the tapes from Union Square over and over he becomes increasingly concerned with something one of the targets said: ”He’d kill us if he got the chance”. What if handing over the tapes to the man who hired Harry results in something similar to a previous case where three people were killed?
Playing tricks on us
Blowup made us wonder what in the film we could believe we had seen or heard; Antonioni was playing tricks on us. Coppola was aiming for something similar, even if he wanted to ground the film in a realistic setting. The world of surveillance, illustrated not just by Harry and his work, but several other shady characters whom Harry hangs with during a surveillance convention, comes across as credible and intimidating, with remarkable technological progress. No one’s secrets are safe and Harry is far from comfortable with his line of work. A devout Catholic, he’s tormented by the incident that left people dead and visibly disgusted by some of his colleagues.
Just like Blowup made us doubt our own eyes and ears, so does The Conversation to some extent, even if the story is more linear. When we learn more about the relationship between the man who ordered the surveillance and the two people Harry was watching we realize that first impressions aren’t always what matters; a shocking experience in a hotel becomes an additional challenge for Harry. The final scene is unforgettable, a perfect symbol of a man lost in his own bubble. Hackman delivers a quiet, sad performance as the introverted listener who finds peace playing the saxophone.
One of the film’s key aspects is the use of sound and music. The opening scene, in Union Square, is accompanied by the words, background noise and scrambled sounds that both Harry and we in the audience are listening to. Future celebrated sound editor Walter Murch worked closely with film editor Richard Chew to bring us into Harry’s paranoid world; their efforts are invaluable, since Coppola was already busy working on The Godfather, Part II at the time.
David Shire’s melancholy piano tune runs throughout the film, emphasizing the sadness of Harry’s existence and how he falls victim to his own business.
The Conversation 1974-U.S. 113 min. Color. Produced, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Cinematography: Bill Butler. Music: David Shire. Editing: Richard Chew. Cast: Gene Hackman (Harry Caul), John Cazale (Stan), Allen Garfield (Bernie Moran), Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Michael Higgins… Teri Garr, Harrison Ford. Cameo: Robert Duvall.
BAFTA: Best Film Editing (shared by Murch and Chew), Sound Track. Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “I said, ‘I think I want to do a film about eavesdropping and privacy, and I want to make it about the guy who does it rather than about the people it’s being done to.’ Then somewhere along the line I got the idea of using repetition, of exposing new levels of information not through exposition but by repetition. And not like ‘Rashomon’ where you present it in different ways each time – let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context. In other words, as the film goes along, the audience goes with it because you are constantly giving them the same lines they’ve already heard, yet as they learn a little bit more about the situation they will interpret things differently.” (Coppola, Scraps from the Loft)