The Conversation (1974)

conversation

— discovered on netflix, this very 70’s Francis Ford Coppola film.

At its root is Harry Caul, a bugger, a ‘surveillance man’ freelancing his time and expertise selling tapped conversations to interested buyers, typically the US government. In our modern NSA-monitored culture, it seems a bit outmoded that the government would need any help from the common man, but anyway. The movie opens with an overlay of a couple wandering around Union Square (the film takes place in San Francisco, which looks mostly the same as now except 40 years newer). Harry has deployed some fancy-ass super mics to monitor the man and the woman’s conversation from several stories up. A cameraman peers outside a window, armed with a contraption that has no small resemblance to a gun — his first person perspective puts the couple in sniper sights and we’re meant to think they will be shot.

The point of this whole exercise? Like I said, sell the proceeding tapes + pictures to the client with the bills. But wait, it turns out that in Harry’s past, he a made similar sale that led to the twisted retaliatory murder of the people he mic’d up. He’s got a sneaking suspicion that this could happen once again, with these lovers right here in Union Square. But he’s just doing his job, right? Not his responsibility. He didn’t kill anybody.

OK, sounds like a pretty cut-and-dry moral responsibility tale. Culpability. Money. Greed/guilt. And is it? Well, sort of; it starts that way. It becomes something different by virtue of several qualities The Conversation possesses.

The movie is shot in cold, empty stretches. Muted colors, haunting orchestral music, open yet constraining spaces (Harry’s office is a cavernous warehouse that feels dim and prison-like). In other words: a visual snapshot of December in SF. Cold enough to cut to the bone, feel constantly damp and difficult to ever get warm. But it’s not like arctic NYC cold, right?

Alternatively the cold palette and atmosphere is mirror to the isolation of the film’s loner protagonist. Gene Hackman’s Harry, (who looks a lot like my grandfather and the more distance that passes between me and this movie, the more in my recollection Harry resembles Roger and not Gene) is the best damn surveillance man in the business, but incapable of opening up to other human beings or forming real attachments. He is single and middle aged, his relationships a shambles. His obsession is with his true love, his work, which he guards with a pouty childlike aggression.

And indeed his work — surveillance — is the weird hook of this film. Its peak moment occurs partway through at a ‘bugger convention’. 70’s bad haircuts clustered around the newest tech for people to spy on one another. Or to con people into believing they could spy on one another. Machinery buzzes and reels spin. It’s sinister. The film asks you to believe there’s gobs of people out there just totally entranced in the latest surveillance tech. And in each room, the most celebrated and well known bugger of them all: Harry Caul. Fans gush over him and competitors with inferiority complexes beg him to enter business with them. Harry builds his own tech, and disdains all on the floor at the show, which begs the question of why he’s there in the first place. Of course the answer is a few lines back in my most celebrated man sentence, something that Harry’s false modesty would never let him acknowledge.

The Conversation is a textbook example of why the notion that technology should not play a prominent role in film or novels, because it might date them, is so wrong. It doesn’t matter that the tech is dated — the constant shots of film reels while Harry floats through space examing his moral axis are eerie regardless of the fact we haven’t used cassette tapes in 25 years. They become ghostly and ethereal, artifacts out of time, not behind it. Moreover, the privacy concerns and wanton exploitation that lurk both below and above the movie’s surface are cogent and still relevant.

Lastly, but probably not most importantly, a twist at the end reveals Harry was totally wrong — the lovers were not truly in danger. Something entirely different was afoot. The film discards its original moral center and becomes the degeneration of an isolated loner. There’s horror movie beats, a toilet overflowing with blood; final shots nothing but a portrayal of over-observed paranoia as Harry literally rips up his apartment’s floorboards in search of a bug.

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