By Marc S. Sanders
To watch Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation from 1974 is to feel the paranoia of what Harry Caul, the protagonist played by Gene Hackman, endlessly feels as a surveillance expert. Harry is so skillful at his job and yet so modest, that he only believes someone may actually be better. Even he doesn’t believe he’s that good. Still, his own expertise can drive him to insanity.
Coppola opens the picture on a wide lens that gradually zooms in, looking down on a sunny afternoon in a crowded park. There are musicians and mimes. Bums that sleep on a park bench and food vendors, and then there is a couple (Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest) who we are drawn to to get some sound bites of their random conversation. Their voices are muffled at times. Feedback and background noise interferes as well. Harry is spotted trying to keep within a perimeter to allow his hardware to function and get every tidbit of the conversation.
Following this sequence, Harry is back at his fenced in warehouse operation that he shares with a loudmouth partner named Stan (John Cazale) attempting to clean up the recording for his client, only known as The Director. It’s a skill that only Harry has the means to do. Hackman plays the part as a quiet and reserved man, unlike his competitors who proudly boast of their next, great invention to eavesdrop and capture the actions and discussions of any subject. With an awareness of what he’s capable of, I’d argue he trusts no one, even when he’s being praised. Does he even trust Stan, who he works with?
To be good at this kind of work requires the ability to separate yourself from the content of what you’re listening to. Just get an audible recording and move on. The content should be for someone else to stew over. For Harry, this becomes a challenge. He uncovers a hint in the couple’s exchange that suggests perhaps their lives are in danger. When he goes to drop off the recordings and collect his fee, he is not met by The Director. Instead, he comes across a lackey (Harrison Ford) who insists that he was instructed by the client to make the exchange. His paranoia sets in, when the lackey keeps on appearing at random, unexpected moments with Harry. None of it feels right for Harry. So he violates what should be his own rules and investigates further. The risk is whether his own capabilities will undo his sense of humanity and decency, including his connection with God.
Coppola, who also wrote the script for his film, puts Harry to the test in nearly every scene. He writes Harry to be the best at what he does, and yet that doesn’t prevent failure from occurring. He even fails to recognize when he’s being victimized and listened to. A midway point features a party among the men who specialize in surveillance. Harry quietly flirts with a girl only to feel embarrassed when his East Coast competitor reveals that he recorded their conversation from across the room. Seems like a harmless prank, as sophomoric as playground or locker room teasing, but it’s enough to maybe drive Harry into madness.
Harry Caul is one of Gene Hackman’s best roles. It stands apart from other films he’s been in. Harry is very much a three dimensional character who values his religious connection and his sense of morality. The problem is that Harry is a specialist in something that’s really not very moral or ethical. His Catholic beliefs might suggest what he does is sinful. Sure, he goes to confession, but he still pursues actions that are deemed inappropriate in the eyes of God.
Francis Ford Coppola depicts a very telling moment as Harry tries to find a listening device in his apartment. He takes apart everything in the place by either breaking it or unscrewing it. What do you think he’ll do when he comes upon his figurine of the Virgin Mary? Is there anything left to trust? Anything of value or purity in Harry’s world? He doesn’t trust others. He doesn’t trust himself? Does he trust a higher power that he’s leaned on his entire life?
Because The Conversation does not delve too much into the now dated-very dated– technology from the early 1970s, it is a film that is especially relevant in today’s age of cell phone recordings and devices that are relied upon for everyday use. While Harry is possibly thinking he’s on a noble pursuit with his means to eavesdrop, either by servicing a client or even rescuing someone from what appears to be imminent danger, is this the right way to go about it? What will it cost Harry? As well, what does it cost our society to embark on the convenience of what we are now capable of? Does the ability to record someone’s actions contain absolute merit, or are we violating a civil mentality within ourselves and among our fellow human beings?
There’s a lot of hard questions to answer in The Conversation. I think that’s why especially now it’s an important picture to see.