US (1974) Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Back in the 1980s, the four hosts of hidden camera TV show called Game For A Laugh would sign off saying, “Watching us, watching you, watching us, watching you”. It was a cute slogan to get us to tune in to watch others be pranked but it made me envision a vicious circle of secret surveillance.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a very private man. The door to his sparsely decorated apartment has three locks with additional alarm system, and his telephone is for internal use only. His work colleague Stan (John Cazale) knows very little about him, Harry’s mistress Amy (Terri Garr) even less. Nothing wrong with being a private person except the irony is Harry is one of the top surveillance experts in the US.
Running his own company, Harry’s current assignment for a corporate figure known only as The Director (Robert Duvall) is to record the conversation between two people, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest), as they walk around a busy Union Square thinking they can’t be heard. Harry is so good he captures everything they say but when he realises they could be in danger, his conscience gets the better of him.
Made in between the two Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola deftly delivers a clever, twisty, paranoid thriller that serves as the filling in the Corleone Saga sandwich which is just as substantial. Indeed, it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar but lost out – to Godfather II! Talk about a win-win situation for Coppola!
It is worth noting that The Conversation at nearly 50 years old confounds the handicap of its dated technology by still having something of interest to offer in the comparative simplicity of the equipment to modern hi-tech devices. It is said Coppola was shocked to learn from his tech consultant Martin Kaiser, upon whom Harry is based, that the same set up sued in the film was used in the Watergate Scandal.
Therefore, through this art imitating life coincidence, we find a unique double resonance in the nightmare illusions Harry envisions when he imagines the fate of the two targets, prompting him to stop the Director from executing whatever plan he has for them. It seems odd for somebody with such a conscience should be bothered by this, but we learn not only is Harry a devout Catholic but also a previous job led to the death of the people he was bugging.
Despite his reputation among the surveillance world which covers many high profile jobs and press coverage Harry’s methods are very old school with his mobile set-up being a big grey van where he and Stan record their prey. Yet nobody bats an eyelid so it must work; certainly Ann and Mark are unaware they are being recorded by cleverly concealed microphones, and are watched by Harry himself and cohort Paul (Michael Higgins).
Using homemade technology, Harry struggles with one vital piece of the conversation obscured by a street musician but he manages to decrypt the audio of mark saying “He’d kill us if he gets the chance”. Without knowing what they are plotting or what the Director wants from them, Harry is nervous about handing the tapes over, deciding to do it personally, so he can discuss the matter with the Director.
However, the Director is always “out”, leaving Harry to deal with his assistant Martin Stett (Harrison Ford), who warns Harry not to get involved. The secrecy surrounding the Director and Stett’s cryptic threats fail to assuage Harry’s fears and keeps the tapes until the Director can see him in person. All this does is leave Harry thinking the worst, and in the irony of ironies, finds himself followed by Stett at a surveillance convention – rather he thinks he is being followed by him.
Coppola tactfully turns this into a “hunter becomes the hunted” scenario but without the supposed second hunter actually doing anything. Harry’s spiral into febrile paranoia is his own doing, a product of his own success if you will. For someone who is relied upon to decode things he is not supposed to hear, Harry needs to have an inquisitive mind, and coupled with his religious leanings, he is ripe for the picking.
Yet, the pivotal moment in the film came long before this began, and could almost be considered a McGuffin, except Coppola has one final twist in mind to turn everything on its head. Adopting his best poker face, this is one revelation that I can guarantee nobody will see coming and works beautifully as this not only includes Harry, but is also woven beautifully into the psychological deconstruction of his profession.
Another crucial element of the film’s immersive quality is the editing of the scenes of the recording of the titular conversation. As Harry plays each segment back and works on the audio quality, we see the action from different angles, relevant to the sounds on the tape – i.e. the musician obscuring the fateful line is seen blocking the view as Mark speaks, his voice deliberately muted as it is on the audio. A framing device is genius in its simplicity.
Gene Hackman has quite a varied CV as an actor, and even at this point he was known for tough guy roles like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, and the heroic priest in The Poseidon Adventure. Harry was something of a cross between these two – a hard nut to crack with a pious soul – and Hackman brings out the frail humanity of this otherwise cold persona.
The bloated middle section of the party at Harry’s HQ isn’t enough to puncture the subtle majesty of The Conversation’s unrelenting toying with our perceptions. The closing scene is the only time we are one up on Harry and even then, we wish we weren’t. If there is a debate as to who was The director of the 70s, this is further evidence Coppola’s must be a top contender.