Director Francis Ford Coppola on the set with Gene Hackman
THE CONVERSATION A
USA (113 mi) 1974 d: Francis Ford Coppola
USA (113 mi) 1974 d: Francis Ford Coppola
Nestled in-between the first two THE GODFATHER (1972, 1974) movies, both of which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, among others, with Coppola winning Best Director for the second one, is this mysteriously quiet and introspective film that may as well come from a different universe altogether, as it’s nothing at all like an operatic gangster picture, but is instead a stylishly tense and suspenseful character study of a surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), more along the lines of Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), both dominated by powerful performances, arguably the best in each of their respective careers. While Hackman is more showy and entertaining in other pictures, winning the Best Actor award for THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and Best Supporting Actor award for UNFORGIVEN (1992), this film is calibrated down considerably, where the viewer is intrigued by every nuance and inflection of Hackman’s understated performance, a loner, keeping to himself, barely uttering a word to anyone, feeling uncomfortable in social situations, literally locking himself into his supposedly impenetrable room most of the time, which remains locked up tight like a bank vault. While there are elements of the script (written by Coppola himself) that leave Harry inexplicably exposed, something you’d never dream he’d allow, the gist of it is the man is coming completely unraveled by the internalized pressure of the case he is working on, suspecting something horrible is about to happen, where as a devout Catholic he feels guilty just from the toxic atmosphere surrounding his work, recalling how it led to several deaths in the past, leaving inner scars that have never healed. The entire film takes place within the enveloping trauma slowly building inside, like a pressure cooker, where he remains closed, hermetically sealed, yet continually feeds off his own anxieties and fears, always suspecting the worst. In this way, the viewer remains on high alert, suspicious of any and all activities, and while Antonioni’s BLOW-UP (1966) was a key influence on the film, trying to make sense of random collected material, it feels more similar to the work of Michael Haneke in CACHÉ (2005), where the two films feel interrelated, both drawing on moral themes of collective guilt and memory.
Winner of the 1974 Palme d’Or (1st Place) at Cannes, then called the Grand Prix (from 1964 to 1974), also a special mention Ecumenical prize, the film finds Coppola at the height of his powers, dialed down considerably, where this is a more ambiguous puzzle piece, brilliantly edited with ominous ramifications. Listed among the best 70’s paranoia films, which would have to include Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy” of Klute (1971), THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), these are films that rose from the ashes of the 1960’s assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, where television images flooded the nation reinforcing a government that had lost control, released just days before the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed 42 tapes from the Oval Office where President Richard Nixon had secretly been recording conversations with his immediate staff, leading to jail sentences for some and the President’s subsequent resignation a few months later. These films exemplified a growing sense of despair from extreme governmental mistrust, which they viewed as a threat to their democracy, often feeling powerless to do anything about it. Running throughout the film is an underlying cover-up of unseen criminal actions, suggesting events beyond our control, where the film is imbued with an alarming sense of fatalism, including a surreal dream sequence in the fog worthy of a psychoanalytic Bergman film, where Harry is heard to mutter under his breath, “I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of murder,” suggesting that throughout the film a murderer is in the midst. Given an almost Kafka-like sense of absurd authoritarianism, Harry is hired by a wealthy business executive known anonymously as the Director (Robert Duvall), shielded by heavy security at the front door, a wall of telephone screenings, and underlings apparently willing to risk their lives on his behalf, making it extremely difficult to contact him, where they are like mirror images of one another, each intensely private individuals leading solitary lives hidden behind heavily protected fortifications. Harry us supposedly the best in the business, owner of a small electronic surveillance company in San Francisco, where he designs his own exclusive products, which are for his use only and not for public usage.
At the outset, the only sequence shot by heralded cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the camera uses an aerial shot zooming down onto Union Square in downtown San Francisco, with a crowd mulling around, including the omnipresent figure of a mime who is constantly interacting with the crowd. Mimicking the walking mannerisms of others, he slides up next to Harry before we even realize who he is, a ubiquitous man in a trench coat blending in anonymously with the crowd, while there are other menacing signs reminiscent of some of the more disturbing 70’s conspiracy films. This sets the mood for finding a needle in a haystack, as within this mass congestion of humanity lies an important piece of evidence that has yet to be ascertained, as Harry is on the case collecting streams of evidence using hidden recording devices, following a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they continually encircle the square. We hear bits and pieces of their conversation, often cut off by the loud sounds of music playing nearby and elevated street noises. It all sounds relatively banal, where nothing stands out, but they are obviously very much in love, yet attempting to remain discreet, where it’s easy to develop a special affection for them, as they’re going to great lengths to remain secretive. A man with a bag (Michael Higgins) is following them around, arousing suspicion when he’s been identified, so he deftly moves away, meeting Harry and his partner Stan (John Cazale) in a van parked nearby which is filled to the brim with eavesdropping equipment. We don’t really get a sense of what we’re dealing with until Harry gets home, requiring several keys to unlock his door, yet a birthday gift has been left inside, apparently by the landlord, which peeves Harry to no end, incensed that someone had access inside, making an immediate call, where he can be heard voicing his displeasure, “I would be perfectly happy to have all my personal things burn up in a fire because I don’t have anything personal. Nothing of value. Nothing personal except my keys!” Immediately we sense Harry is inordinately protective of his privacy, bordering on a manic obsession with the details of his perfectionism, as the man is an expert at remaining anonymous and not being detected or found.
The film is a master class of interior character development, as Harry Caul undergoes a personal transformation of epic proportions. Used to spying on others with the latest, state-of-the-art equipment, offering a detached, passionless, and non-judgmental view of the people affected by his work, in this film the tables are turned on Harry, where he is subject to extraordinary scrutiny, where the spier becomes the spied upon, yet what gets Harry is the completely invisible network surrounding him, literally closing in on him, all without his knowledge, where if truth be told, it all may be completely imagined on his part, enveloping him with a paranoiac sense of fear, but real or not, he finally starts feeling the effects of being the target of one of his own surveillance operations. Once he realizes there may be hidden motives behind his assignment, where he is tested by one of the Director’s assistants (Harrison Ford) to hand in the work to him, though he was specifically instructed to give his work to no one other than the Director, which sends him into a panic, as if he was being used and set up, further exacerbated when he recognizes the subjects of his assignment are working in the same building. Examining the contents of his recordings more closely afterwards, he’s able to detect words that were muffled before, where he is clearly able to distinguish the words, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Bending his mind over that phrase haunts him, sending him to church where he offers a confession, “I’ve been involved in some work that I think will be used to hurt these two young people. This happened to me before. People were hurt because of my work. I’m afraid it could happen again.” This sends him spiraling through a moral crisis, as he wonders if he can in some way prevent it, knowing that he’s only the messenger, that once he delivers his work, it’s out of his hands. In the early part of the film Harry subordinated his own personal thoughts by accentuating the professionalism and expertise of his work. In this way he avoided any troubling existential crisis. But circumstances change, where he becomes the subject of some unknown, secret investigation, which sends him into a fever dream of anguish, exemplified by an elaborate dream sequence where he attempts to reach out to this unsuspecting young couple and offer his help and assistance, but to no avail, as they are lost in the fog, leaving him alone in a purgatory of powerlessness and helplessness.
As the story unravels, it’s told in a moody, atmospheric, completely absorbing style accentuating an interior mindset, beautifully expressed by jazzy piano music written by David Shire that evokes a quiet tenderness in brief interludes, literally providing the pulse of the film. While playing on the audience’s expectations, what’s so unique about the subject is the timing, released when the government was resorting to the exact same methods shown onscreen, then lying about it afterwards, covering up their involvement, where surveillance technology, specifically wiretapping, was a weapon that could just as easily topple a President as protect him. The Watergate scandal was a moral crisis that played out onscreen, where the film raises ethical questions about spying on others without their knowledge and consent, which only elevates to greater heights when it’s the government performing the secret operations. The idea of spying on citizens was shown to great effect in THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), a film that openly describes the brazen methods used by the East German Stasi secret police on its own citizens, threatening immediate arrest, literally extorting them for favors and information on others, where no one was safe, as Stasi operatives themselves were watched. This is the scenario that plays out in this film, as Harry has to come to terms with the consequences of what he’s done, willingly or not, revealing just how inept he is in affecting the final outcome, as he’s a lone citizen, completely powerless against a larger, better organized and well-financed operation whose motives remain unknown. When the hunter becomes the hunted, the film reveals the dire psychological implications, where one’s vulnerability is exposed and laid bare before higher powers that remain safely protected behind invisible walls. Yet Harry becomes obsessed with how they bugged his apartment, as he’s the master of their methods, so if anyone could figure it out, it would be him, stripping the walls and floorboards, checking the electrical wiring, literally tearing apart what was previously a completely ordered and tidy apartment, with everything perfectly in place, now stripped bare, turned into a demolition zone where pure anarchy reigns supreme. Of note, the character of Harry Caul was inspired by surveillance technology expert Martin Kaiser (whose work station certainly resembles Harry’s), FBI Vendetta Against Martin L. Kaiser Martin L. Kaiser, Inc. - Marty Kaiser, who later wrote a book, Odyssey of an Eavesdropper: My Life in Electronic Countermeasures and My Battle Against the FBI, and also served as a technical consultant on the film.