It must have been something to see The Conversation, a film about the ethics of surveillance, when it first premiered in 1974 at the height of the Watergate scandal. If the resemblance between Francis Ford Coppola’s murky masterpiece and the unfolding national drama is purely coincidental—the script was finished in the sixties, and filming wrapped months before the story broke—it is also remarkably precise: Harry Caul, the film’s guilt-ridden protagonist, uses the same equipment Nixon’s cronies used to spy on political opponents, and his moral panic makes him an easy stand-in for the faltering American conscience.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Producers: Francis Ford Coppola, Fred Roos, Mona Skager
Writer: Francis Ford Coppola
Cinematographers: Bill Butler, Haskell Wexler
Editor: Richard Chew
Music: David Shire
Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford
US Theatrical Release: April 7, 1974
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
But perhaps even more astounding than the film’s timeliness is its continued relevance. Forty years after its release, The Conversation still raises important questions about the nature of privacy. In a world of increasing technological observation, how much anonymity can we truly have? How much is even desirable? Why would we want privacy in the first place? What should remain hidden, and what deserves to be exposed?
Many of these questions are introduced in the film’s first scene, one of its strangest and most remarkable. The Conversation begins with a busy downtown square shot from far away and high above. As the camera slowly zooms in, the crowd’s sounds become more distinct, and more individuals come into focus: businessmen, musicians, a mime. A familiar face appears: Gene Hackman, wearing a raincoat, a frumpy suit, and bookish glasses. But the camera continues searching, past him, the star, until it finds an anonymous couple walking in circles around the fountain. They’re the camera’s true targets, because, as it turns out, we’re participating in a surveillance detail. Harry Caul, played by Hackman, is being paid to record the couple, and we’re voyeurs alongside the rest of his team. We’ll return to their wandering conversation many times throughout the film, and each time it will gain some new edge of significance, but here, at first, it’s eerie simply because it’s so mundane. What could anyone possibly want with them? They could be anyone, and, indeed, that’s the point: surveillance technology is now so ubiquitous that all that’s required is focus. The anonymity of the crowd is illusory. Even as part of the mass, we can be picked out, documented, fetishized, as will or whim dictates. “There is no moment between human beings I can’t record,” one of Caul’s colleagues brags.
This is even truer now than it was then: in the era of Edward Snowden and corporate data mining, our online lives, at least, are exposed to even the widest dragnets. But in the historical world of the film, the surveillance-industrial complex already exists. Caul is one of the top men in the field, a veritable celebrity when he attends the industry convention.
At the drunken after-party, Harry’s brash, bumptious rival (played by Bernie Moran) needles him for trade secrets. But Harry is the tightest of the tight-lipped, and not just about work: even in his personal life, he’s private to the point of paranoia. His girlfriend, whom he visits late at night, barely knows anything about him. When his landlady tucks a bottle of wine inside his apartment for his birthday, he melts down—how did she know it was his birthday, and how did she get past his array of deadbolts? The film sometimes oversells his shyness: early on, the dialogue occasionally bludgeons. But other times the film’s appealing underplayed. His only real means of expression, for example, seems to be playing his saxophone, but even then he only plays the solo parts, and just for himself.
It’s hard to say if his profession led to his paranoia, or if his paranoia led to his profession, but it is abundantly clear that Harry does not want to be known, and doesn’t want to know his clients’ business either. When Stanley, his partner, claims it’s only human to be curious about his subjects, or his employers, Harry replies gruffly, “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.”
As an astute thriller viewer might guess, the film will test both this professional disinterest, and his personal reticence. I won’t spoil anything, but let me just say that the first scene’s surveillance detail, though it goes off without a hitch, has higher stakes than it appeared at first. Analyzing his recordings in his cage of an office, he faces a dilemma: should he hand over the audio even though it might lead to murder? In one deliciously uncomfortable scene, the tug of war going in Harry’s head is literalized: when his client’s suspiciously overeager assistant—a young, brilliantly creepy Harrison Ford—tries to yank the tapes away from him, Harry yanks them back, and storms off. He claims he’s simply respecting an agreement—his mysterious client, the Director, wanted the tapes delivered directly to him—but it’s clear the dustup is as much about his own integrity.
As indeed the film is; for a film so evocative of public sentiment in the Watergate era, The Conversation is remarkably small-bore. It’s an exquisitely crafted study of a character whose need for anonymity is almost pathological. Isolated and indecisive, Harry is an unlikely but fascinating protagonist. Like Mad Men, The Conversation derives tension from the mystery of its lead’s inner life; Harry Caul doesn’t often say what he’s thinking, so we are sometimes left to our own devices to determine his motivations. It also makes the film itself sometimes feel like surveillance: our need to understand Harry, against his intense need for privacy, lends the film a voyeuristic quality that is as thrilling as it is uncomfortable.
All this puts pressure, of course, on the acting. Fortunately, Hackman, playing against type, gives a career-best performance, building a morally fraught but empathetic character from gruff silence and pained gesture. As the adage goes, he shows, rather than tells, and his embarrassment and growing desperation is all the more poignant for its understatement.
It’s worth noting that Harry’s remoteness lessens as we go along and the film descends further into his subjective world. We visit him in the confessional, and travel into his dreams. But this descent creates its own questions: can we believe what we’re seeing? Is the paranoia that suffuses the film real or imagined? This, in the end, is the problem the film depicts most acutely: when you’re always watching others, you begin to suspect you’re always being watched, and if you’re like Harry, you’ll wall yourself off—from mistakes, from friendship, from any real involvement—until you can’t take it anymore.