THE CONVERSATION, 1974
Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Teri Garr, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest,Allen Garfield, Harrison Ford
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.
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With the eruption of the Watergate scandal in 1972, America suddenly found itself in a state of shock leading to communal distrust and disconnection. Even more, in conjunction with this event evolving, people began to extrapolate the eye-opening methods involved within the scandal, such as wiretapping, recording, surveillance activity, culminating in an outrageous fear. The imminent threat of losing privacy dominated the people leaving no safe havens. As a result, filmmakers began to experiment with these recently developed technologies in the face of the government as it floundered against the ridicule of the people. In The Conversation, we see how director Francis Ford Coppola takes advantage of the current time to capture the mood of the people.
Utilizing a marvelous opening shot, Coppola sets the stage for his film both visually and thematically. As Coppola begins the film with an extreme wide shot overlooking a park, we not only see a reference to the collective detachment taking place, but come to recognize the idea of privacy invasion as the camera slowly zooms in – at first what looks like several bodies casually walking around – to hauntingly capture and follow a couple having an intimate conversation. Through this tensely long opening take, we find out that the couple are in fact having a conversation through its uniquely constructed sound design. As we see the couple discreetly walk along their tangled path through the park, we begin to hear the voices of the couple through some type of unknown sound mechanism. We see the couple speak softly among themselves, even at one point silencing to avoid a mime. After the conversation begins to sound more detectable, we suddenly jump cut to inside a van where the main character, Harry Caul, is listening to the conversation which sounds remarkably clear and unbroken.
As Harry is assigned to follow this couple and record their conversations, we see the role technology plays in disturbing privacy. During a time when objects, devices, and electronics were proliferating, Harry’s skillful craft at invading privacy, constantly setting up meticulous audio surveillances, represents the technical aspects of these new advancements emphasized in a negative fashion. In the beginning, we see how Harry is only concerned with performing and following through with his job. At one point, while his partner at work, Stanley, asks what the couple are talking about, Harry, responds, “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.” Later, and throughout the film, Harry continues to listen to this conversation more in-depth, becoming more interested in the couple as he fears a potential murder. The film displays many components portraying Harry as a very private person: sitting alone on buses, playing a saxophone by himself, lack of social interactions (even with his girlfriend). All the while, it is his interest in this couple which ultimately remains on his mind. We constantly hear various words or phrases from the conversation or sudden images of the couple reflected in Harry’s mind. In a way, Harry’s private life is eroded by the behavioral reverberations of his own job.
Despite Harry demonstrating top-notch stealth, as he becomes more involved in the conversation, even he becomes vulnerable. Men who work for other companies know all about the work Harry has done. They know where he started his career, the specific projects which he has been assigned, various methods that he used, etc. All of this surprises Harry. Alongside the tremendous camera work, Harry is presented in a number of delusional circumstances. For instance, when we are in Harry’s apartment we see through the stationary and suspenseful camera Harry’s shock when his phone rings (he tells everyone that he does not own a telephone), resulting in a man stating that he should be careful because he is being watched. Is he really being watched? Did the phone call even happen? Or is this just the result of a developing psychosis? We see Harry’s emergence of dysfunctional thought process also through a dream sequence in which he speaks to the woman from the conversation. It is in this fashion that the film suggests no matter how hard one attempts to conceal information, nothing can be kept a secret.
In the end, even though Harry provides his clients with the recordings, we still witness his interest in the couple. We can see this when after collecting his money for performing his job, he asks, “What will you do to them?” Furthermore, when Harry goes to the hotel to prevent the murder from taking place, a dramatic yet ambiguous sequence emerges ultimately involving blood splurging out of a toilet. At this point, because of Harry’s obsessions, it is unclear if this scene actually happens. When he runs through the empty, abandoned streets it signifies not only Harry’s dismal state of mind, but offers an enigmatic look at a distorted reality.
On the whole, the film serves to represent the fact that society has drifted towards the idea that we cannot stay out of other people’s business or personal affairs, no matter how hard we try. Moreover, it is the negative influences and forces which prompt us to act in this fashion. Ironically, Harry succeeds in carrying out his private profession, while in the process, succumbs his own personal/private life. In a startling final scene, after Harry receives another disturbing phone call, we see Harry shred his apartment to pieces. As such, the destruction is not so much of the materials, but rather of the human physical and mental deterioration. The camera bleakly surveys the shredded apartment panning back and forth across the room. Through full-scale paranoia, Harry has nothing left but to senselessly play his saxophone. Finally, as the camera continues to loiter, the idea that you cannot ignore technology is presented; if a person is not watching, you can be sure a device is.