Released in 1974, The Conversation is a true classic about a surveillance expert starring Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall and of course John Cazale – who appeared in 5 of the best films ever made, had a relationship with Meryl Streep and then died.
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation isn’t as famous as some of his other movies such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now but it deserves to be. It doesn’t have that epic quality but feels like a much more personal film; according to IMDb it’s Coppola’s favourite of his movies. And it really is a masterpiece, from the hauntingly sad atmosphere to Hackman’s heartfelt performance.
Perhaps best of all is the unique use of sound. The Conversation is after all a film about sound, and Hackman’s character isn’t named Harry Caul by accident. Well actually he is; again according to IMDb, it was meant to be Harry Call but there was a typo which stuck. The point is, the theme of listening is made explicit in this film, which brings us to the idea of surveillance.
Thanks in part to the visual nature of cinema, most films about surveillance focus on being watched. But if films such as A Scanner Darkly warn that “they’re watching you”, The Conversation argues “they’re listening to you.” It’s Caul’s job to secretly record the private conversations of private citizens – he’s a bugger (stop laughing Alex). In fact, he’s the best bugger in the business (seriously Alex, grow up). But when he starts to actually listen to what it is he’s recording, he realises that his work has dangerous consequences.
With the recent news about the NSA bugging telephones without warrants, The Conversation has particular resonance today. Although it’s not about government surveillance it still warns of the problems with any type of snooping, and the ways in which it can tear lives apart or finish them altogether. Interestingly, Caul is aided by a cop, which deliberately raises the involvement of the state in such questionable methods.
Caul is an excellent character, who starts out damaged and breaks even further as the film progresses. His profession makes him completely paranoid, locking himself away in his empty apartment and refusing to have a telephone in his home. He can’t even have proper relationships, neither friendships nor romances, such is his fear of even slightly opening up. This, the film argues, is the life of a man who thinks – or possibly knows – that he’s constantly being listened to; it’s hardly a life at all. When he threatens to become an Edward Snowden character, a man who knows too much, he crumbles apparently due to reasons both internal and external.
Like Will Smith’s character in the unofficial sort-of sequel Enemy of the State, Caul begins the film sympathetic to the necessity of surveillance, but comes to realise the danger inherent in the system. Particularly well realised is the problem of interpretation, as Caul clearly understands the words that he records but not their meaning. This is achieved by the filmmakers’ technique of using a number of different recordings of “the conversation”, each with the words spoken slightly differently. So watch – or listen – out for that, along with the brilliant toilet scene, a very young Harrison Ford and Caul’s transparent raincoat. Which is significant. Probably.