With the assassinations of important political figures during the 1960s like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and John and Robert Kennedy, Americans had become very cynical about their government in the 1970s. This distrust manifested itself in many forms with the Watergate scandal only reinforcing these beliefs. Filmmakers reacted accordingly and the ‘70s saw a boom of paranoid conspiracy thrillers that included The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President’s Men (1976). One of the very best from this decade was The Conversation (1974), written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974). Using Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) as inspiration, Coppola used a surveillance man’s obsessive attention to detail to comment on the government’s gradually invasion of people’s privacy and the moral implications of it.
A couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) are walking through the busy Union Square in San Francisco talking amongst themselves and unaware that their conversation is being recorded by Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), one of the best sound surveillance men in the business, and his team. He doesn’t care about the people he spies on or what happens to them – he does his job, does it well and gets paid.
Outside of his profession, Harry is anonymous as Coppola shows visually when he finishes a job and disappears in a crowded city street just like anyone else. Not surprisingly, he values his privacy and is irked when an upstairs neighbor leaves a birthday present in his apartment without permission. In his spare time he plays along to jazz records with his saxophone and Coppola frames Harry in a way that establishes him as something of a lonely person. These scenes give us valuable insight into Harry – he likes to be left alone. He’s great at his job because he has few extracurricular distractions like friends. He doesn’t like people asking him questions and, as a result, doesn’t let anybody get close to him, like the woman (Teri Garr) he sees for sex occasionally, pushing her away when she asks a few innocent questions, which triggers his built-in suspicions.
We see Harry at work, going through the recordings of the couple in the city square, trying to piece it together from his various sources, expertly filtering out ambient and environmental sounds. It’s not just that he has customized gear that only he knows how to use, but he also has the skills to pull off seemingly impossible jobs.
Harry completes the job of the couple talking in Union Square but refuses to hand over the tapes when his client’s assistant (an ominous Harrison Ford) alters their arrangement causing Harry to hold onto the tapes. “Now look, don’t get involved in this, Mr. Caul. Those tapes are dangerous…Someone may get hurt,” he warns/threatens Harry. As the sound expert leaves the building he spots both the man and woman he recorded at the beginning of the film on separate floors. From this point on, Harry’s paranoia kicks into overdrive as he begins to question everything he sees and hears.
Harry returns back to his workshop and pours over the couple’s conversation obsessively, looking for any word or phrase that might hint at why it is considered dangerous by his mysterious client. The interesting thing about the conversation he recorded is that every time he revisits it and discovers something new its meaning changes and so what started as a seemingly meaningless conversation between two people begins to take on more sinister implications. Harry’s paranoia begins to affect his work and he snaps at Stan (John Cazale), his assistant, over trivial things like using the Lord’s name in vain.
Gene Hackman delivers a career-defining performance as a man clearly wound too tight and when his work begins to take its toll he shows how Harry gradually unravels. Early on, the actor does a great job providing all kinds of insight into his character through behavior, like how he acts around others and, more importantly, how he acts when he’s alone. The actor does it so naturally that he disappears into the role. All of this set-up provides a foundation for when his world starts to come apart and he questions the notion of reality as he perceives it.
Hackman portrays a man afraid of intimacy with others because he refuses to be vulnerable. His work is a constant reminder of the dangers of letting others know too much and this has made him extremely cautious. His inability to make personal connections with people is good for his job but bad for his personal life. There’s a quietly heartbreaking scene halfway through where Harry tries to be intimate with a woman he meets at a surveillance convention that is beautifully done by Hackman who shows how close Harry gets to connecting with someone only for it to be exposed as a lie thereby confirming his worst fears. In his own way, it is his last cry for help and it all goes downhill after that.
John Cazale turns in another affable performance as Harry’s assistant. He’s the easygoing yin to Harry’s uptight yang. Harrison Ford is effectively creepy and emits a low-key menacing vibe throughout. Allen Garfield gives a memorable performance as one of Harry’s rivals who is gregarious and clearly envious of Harry’s skills and accomplishments. Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams are quite effective as the enigmatic couple that vexes Harry throughout the film and whose true intentions only become apparent late in the story.
There’s a nice shot of Harry standing alone in a part of his workshop that is devoid of furniture, which sums up his character visually. In addition, David Shire’s piano-based score has a melancholic tone that reinforces Harry’s solitary existence. Coppola uses it sparingly, brilliantly integrating it into the film’s complex sound design carefully constructed by Walter Murch.
In 1966, Francis Ford Coppola was talking to fellow director Irvin Kershner about espionage and the latter told him that “most people thought the safest way not to be bugged was to walk in a crowd, but he had heard that there were microphones which were capable of picking out specific voices in a crowd.” He sent Coppola an article about a sound expert by the name of Hal Lipset who lived in San Francisco. Inspired by Lipset, he started working on The Conversation in 1967 and drew inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and the novels of Hermann Hesse, in particular Steppenwolf. He continued to work on it on and off until 1969 when he got more serious, writing the first draft of a screenplay.
He started with a premise: “I want to do a film about eavesdropping and privacy, and I want to make it about the guy who does it rather than about the people it’s being done to.” At some point, Coppola came up with the idea of using repetition, “of exposing new levels of information not through exposition but by repetition.” This approach came as a “source of great difficulty for me. And one that I found unpleasant in that I could never feel anything for the character…I could not relate to Harry. I could not be him. So I kept trying to enrich him.”
Coppola intended to make The Conversation right after completing The Rain People (1969). Gene Hackman agreed to star in it but the director needed a commercial hit in order to get it made. The success of The Godfather gave him that freedom. Originally, Coppola was going to use long lenses to convey a sense of surveillance but felt that it had been overdone and was cliché. He thought of using a static camera, which would give the impression it wasn’t being operated, “so that the actor would walk out of frame, just as if it were an electronic camera.” He did this to convey a sense of invasion of privacy.
The Conversation was filmed over 56 days on a budget of $1.9 million. Principal photography began in December 1972 but after a week cinematographer Haskell Wexler got into a significant difference of opinion with production designer Dean Tavoularis. Coppola sided with the latter and replaced the former with Bill Butler who had worked on The Rain People. For the opening scene, Coppola had six camera positions with some employing very long lenses. He told the cameramen to find the two actors and keep them in focus. He also kept the actors walking around and filmed it many times over three or four days. Finally, to cover himself, Coppola also shot the sequence more conventionally. Editing took a year to complete and Coppola gave Walter Murch a lot of responsibility while he began pre-production on The Godfather Part II.
The Conversation won the Palme d’Or but underperformed at the North American box office. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It’s a movie not so much about bugging as about the man who does it, and Gene Hackman’s performance is a great one.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “I’m not much taken by the sort of Blow-Up ambiguity that Mr. Coppola eventually has recourse to, the movie leaves you wanting more, which is a nice change from all the other movies that send you groggily from the theater feeling as if you’d been force-fed on jelly beans.” Newsweek called it, “brilliantly original,” and Time magazine said it was an “enormous enterprise.” However, the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris wasn’t so taken with the film: “But his blown-up sounds (on the good-old Watergate-vintage Uher 500) and his cyclical images never pack the emotional wallop they should because Coppola has too little faith in the profundity of his mystery to allow it to mesmerize his snooper-protagonist out of his own excessive self-absorption.”
The Conversation is a fascinating film about surveillance in that it isn’t about the people being spied on but the person doing the spying. What kind of person does it take to spy on others and how does it affect them? Coppola eschews the usual thriller tropes – car chases, shoot-outs, etc. – in favor of a more intimate, psychological study of a man. The actual conspiracy isn’t all that important but rather how it affects Harry. The end result is a complex portrait of a man who begins to question what he does and the very nature of his life because one has bled into the other. By the end of the film, Harry realizes that no one has true privacy in their lives, not even him, a surveillance expert and this epiphany shatters his world. How does he pick up the pieces? Coppola leaves this tantalizing question unanswered, leaving it up to the audience to figure it out.
Cowie, Peter. Coppola. Da Capo Press. 1994.
De Palma, Brian. “The Making of The Conversation: An Interview with Francis Ford Coppola.” Filmmakers Newsletter. May 1974.