The Conversation (1974)
Written & Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Privacy has become an essential topic of discussion in recent years. This is partly due to the profoundly invasive Patriot Act, passed under “fighting terrorism,” and how social media has convinced users to give up information and involuntarily spy on them as they use the internet. Some people have leaned into the seeming dissolution of privacy in modern life, becoming incredibly open about all aspects of their lives or creating a manufactured public face to create a particular narrative. Others have worked obsessively to “get off the grid” by refraining from using any internet connections they believe aren’t secure and certainly never joining social media. In the 1970s, privacy was not as big a concern among the majority of the population as it is now, but through his research, Francis Ford Coppola could see that it would be one day and was curious about how one of the voyeurs would handle the gaze of others on him.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is one of the best surveillance people in the United States. He runs a company in San Francisco where he can be hired to spy on whomever you’d like, yet he lives in constant paranoia over his privacy being breached. One point of his work that Caul is obsessed with stating he has no responsibility for what is on his recordings of private conversations. His current client had him record a chat in the park between a man and woman (Frederic Forrest & Cindy Williams). Because he’s forced to listen to it repeatedly while cleaning up the audio, Caul begins to suspect something sinister is going on. He can’t get clear answers from the client and memories of surveillance from his past that led to a murder. Are his fears rooted in a moral weight in people’s lives, or that Caul does not want his own existence to come under the scrutiny he exacts on others?
Often overshadowed by the behemoth of The Godfather Part II released the same year, The Conversation is a movie that, while smaller in scale, contains the same thematic exploration and emotional punch that all of Coppola’s 1970s work does. He’s working at the top of his game with collaborators both in front and behind the camera who are doing the same. Watching Coppola’s productions from this period is such a treat and a reminder that we have almost no prominent modern director making films at the pace & quality of this. While about privacy on the surface, The Conversation also delves into the “Me Generation” coming to the fore in the 1970s. In the same way, San Francisco-based Invasion of the Body Snatchers explores these ideas; we see them in the way Caul is in a relationship where his partner has never been to his house and knows almost nothing about him. Caul wants something from other people but rarely is willing to give anything in return, resulting in a person incapable of relaxing. Even in scenes with colleagues of many years, Caul is perpetually stiff and on edge.
The great irony of Caul’s story is that he is ultimately revealed to be a terrible listener. When I was going through my Master’s program, there was a class where the instructor had us do listening exercises. The idea was that as educators, so much of what we do hinges on listening to our students. Hearing was differentiated from listening as being the act of acknowledging sound, while listening is the more profound understanding of what is said. Caul is very good at hearing people talking, but his great folly is failing to listen to what they say. In conversations with his colleagues and even his supposed lover, Caul always feels distracted. He’s never in the moment, anticipating something else which he likely couldn’t fully articulate if pressed. Sound makes up his life, but he’s incapable of understanding what it all means.
Because the entire story is from Caul’s perspective, we don’t really know at the end which things are real and what are paranoid hallucinations. It’s important to understand that in the film’s third act, there are moments that are explicitly not real (dreams) which opens the door to question if the things our protagonist learns are real or not. They can be read either way without harming the underlying narrative, but I think the paranoia reading is more interesting. Caul spends his life wracked with guilt and desperately wanting to be unseen. In the end, he’s threatened with both coming true. The latter, his paranoia, is centered around being observed, but what do we see Caul do in the privacy of his home? Sitting alone playing the saxophone to no one. Even the possible blackmailers can only playback a recording of his musical meditations; there’s nothing else happening in his life. Caul has severed himself from all human connection and, in one last desperate act, destroys his own home to find how they are listening to him, ultimately finding nothing and leaving us wondering if his worst enemy wasn’t simply himself.