Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gene Hackman
The Conversation has been on my list of movies to see for a long time so I was really happy that it was selected as the LAMB's Movie of the Month so that I would have some extra incentive to finally getting around to seeing it. In many ways this is a quiet and simple movie – not a lot happens – but it’s deeply layered and leaves a lasting impression. It’s a movie I’ve found myself thinking about a lot since seeing it.
Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, one of the preeminent surveillance experts in the States. He’s been hired to record a conversation between a young couple in a park and toils to get the cleanest recording possible. Harry sees himself simply as a means of conveying information – he has nothing to do with the situation or what may arise out of his recording; he sees himself as existing outside the context of what he is observing. However, despite his protests and assertions about his place in the story, Harry begins to worry about what will happen to the couple once he hands the tapes over. He’s particularly haunted by the young man’s declaration that “he’d kill us if he had the chance.” There’s an event in Harry’s past, alluded to by a colleague, which resulted in the death of a family. Harry feels responsible and attempts to atone for it by preventing something from happening to the young couple.
The Conversation owes a lot to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, which is about a photographer who thinks he might have captured a murder in the background of a photo. His obsession with the photo is similar to Harry’s obsession with the recording, which he listens to over and over again. The context, though, is very different, with Antonioni’s film taking place against the backdrop of the Swinging London scene of the 60s, and Coppola’s film taking place amid Watergate-era American paranoia. Harry, certainly, is paranoid but, as it turns out, not nearly paranoid enough. He attends a conference for members of the surveillance industry and accepts a pen from a colleague which is later used to record a private conversation which causes him some embarrassment (of all people, shouldn’t he have known better than to accept a pen from a surveillance expert?) and later lets his guard down with the wrong person which results in the tapes he wants so desperately to protect being stolen.
As effective as this film is as a thriller, it’s most effective as a character study. Harry is someone who spends his days invading other people’s privacy and developing newer and better ways to do it. As a result, he’s fiercely protective of his own privacy but unsuccessful in his efforts. His apartment is equipped with several locks and an alarm, and yet his landlady is able to get in to leave him a present for his birthday; his attempts to be sneaky with his girlfriend (Teri Garr) are met with her cheerful declaration that she’s on to him; and there’s the aforementioned bug in the pen. Harry is hopeless in a lot of ways and there’s a kind of desperate acquiescence to the way that the film ends with him completely dismantling his life, destroying his apartment, his privacy and, symbolically, his faith.
The Conversation works because it depends on internal rather than external terror. The creepiest thing about it is not the minimal amount of violence that we glimpse through Harry’s imagination, but the psychological effect of realizing how fragile privacy can be. Given the way that the idea of privacy is eroded a little more every day by governmental policies designed to “protect” us, this is a film that seems only to grow in relevance.