Classic Movie History Project Blogathon June 26-28 2015
In The Conversation (1974), written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a San Francisco surveillance expert. Rumpled and world-weary, bespectacled Harry has seen it all and has probably heard it all, as well, through his ever-present earphones. He’s an eavesdropping mercenary, a private ear, hiring himself out to the highest bidder. It turns out that Harry’s conscience, a liability in his profession, is starting to get the better of him. A case in his past led to innocent people getting killed and he’s afraid it may happen again.
The story begins with Harry tailing a young couple, Mark and Ann (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) in San Francisco’s Union Square. They stroll around, listen to street musicians and watch an annoying mime (Robert Shields) imitate passersby. Mark and Ann could be office workers on their lunch break or tourists. When Harry picks up bits of their conversation, the underlying tension in their voices begins to seep through. Ann sees a derelict asleep on a park bench and comments how terrible that is. “He is isn’t hurting anybody,” replies Mark, misunderstanding her pity for annoyance.
“Neither are we” is her odd response. Back in his lab, Harry takes what he and his assistants have recorded and tries to ascribe a narrative to it as he listens. He fears the young couple is in danger and that he’s inadvertently become part of a conspiracy against them. Is it paranoia when someone really is out to get you?
As a spy, Harry is able to listen in on private moments, yet in his own life there’s emotional need. He’s in a relationship, of sorts. Amy (Teri Garr in a sweet performance) is a young woman “kept” by Harry. He pays her rent, but she’s tired of his secrets, wants something more than his random visits and calls it quits.
Stan (John Cazale) is Harry’s main assistant. He wants Harry to attend the snooper’s trade show where he can share in the Harry Caul prestige. Like Amy, he’s tired of being kept at a distance and resolves to do something about it. Best remembered as Fredo in the Godfather movies, Cazale plays Stan with the humor and pathos he gave all of his characters. Fredo’s insistence that “I’m smart” would also apply to Stan.
Six Degrees of Francis Coppola
The cast brought together other Coppola regulars including Robert Duvall in a cameo as the head of the company Harry contracts with. Frederic Forest was in the director’s Apocalypse Now (1979), One from the Heart (1981) and Hammett (1982), a thriller directed by Wim Wenders that Coppola executive produced through his Zoetrope Studios. Teri Garr was Forest’s co-star in One from the Heart. Allen Garfield who plays Harry’s competitor Bernie “I bugged the bugger” Moran was also in One from the Heart. Garr was in Carol Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979), produced by Coppola, that also featured Michael Higgins who plays Paul, a cop who moonlights with Harry. Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford had supporting roles in American Graffiti, produced by Coppola.
We meet Harry on his birthday, He’s forty-two with a personal style and tastes left over from an earlier era though Robert Mitchum wouldn’t be caught dead in a translucent plastic raincoat. A frustrated musician, Harry relaxes by playing along on a tenor sax to old jazz recordings. The San Francisco “Summer of Love” doesn’t seem to have affected him.
Elements of Noir
David Shire’s jazz based score evokes Harry’s complex inner life and is overlaid with electronic noises created by Walter Murch. Cinematography is by Bill Butler and an uncredited Haskell Wexler with editing by Richard Chew [Star Wars (1977). For this psychological thriller, the filmmaker’s cinematic formalism and use of dream-like fantasy sequences works far better than documentary realism would have.
The Analyst Turns Operative
Harry gets into a dispute with the company he contracted with to follow the young couple. Stan suspected the job was for the feds, possibly the IRS, but they’re a private firm. When Harry refuses to return the tapes to the director’s assistant (Harrison Ford), the unintended consequences of his well-meaning act start to multiply.
For all of his technical know-how, Harry’s emotional fragility surfaces again when Meredith (Elizabeth MacRae), an attractive woman he meets at an industry event, appears to take an interest in him. Although he’s inhibited by Catholic guilt, Harry has a romantic side that comes through in his music and a yearning that makes him vulnerable.
Sound editor Walter Murch told Film Sound:
‘For me it had all the uncertainty of a first film because it was the first one where I both edited and designed the sound. Perhaps because of this there is an emotional edge to it that I can recall to this day. A difficulty was that it is both a character study and a murder mystery and it required a knife edge balance between the two, which are almost contradictory. If you have a murder mystery, the characters are normally subservient to the plot, something that Hitchcock was a master of. Ultimately The Conversation had to be both and there was struggle in the sound and the editing to find the edge and perch on it.’
In his review of the 2001 DVD release, Rogert Ebert writes:
Coppola, who wrote and directed, considers this film his most personal project. He was working two years after the Watergate break-in, amid the ruins of the Vietnam effort, telling the story of a man who places too much reliance on high technology and has nightmares about his personal responsibility. Harry Caul is a microcosm of America at that time: not a bad man, trying to do his job, haunted by a guilty conscience, feeling tarnished by his work.
The movie works on that moral level, and also as a taut, intelligent thriller. It opens with a virtuoso telephoto shot, showing a San Francisco plaza filled with people. Faraway music mixes with electronic sounds. There is a slow zoom in to the back of Caul’s head, and then the camera follows him. Other shots show a man with a shotgun microphone, on top of a nearby building, holding in his cross hairs a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) who are the subject of the investigation. Eventually we go inside a van packed with electronic gear, where Stan (John Cazale), Harry’s assistant, is waiting.
As Ebert notes, the release of The Conversation was just two years after the Watergate break-in of June, 1972 that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974. The film doesn’t touch on politics directly. However, the unease and paranoia of the early 1970s is clear. At the conclusion, Harry’s descent takes on Nixon-ion proportions.
Besides Watergate, President Kennedy’s assassination echoes throughout the movie, from the opening scene where Harry’s crew operates like a hit team (Ebert points out the “shotgun” microphone seen above) to the murder conspiracy that Harry thinks he’s uncovered. Ebert also points out Coppola’s comment that Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) inspired Harry’s obsessive playback of his tapes. In Blow-Up, a photographer named Thomas (David Hemmings) believes he was a unknowing witness to a murder while photographing in a park. Thomas “blows up” the photos and creates a storyboard of the crime as Harry does aurally with his tapes. Clothing manufacturer Abraham captured President Kennedy’s murder on his home movie camera. Like Thomas’s photos and Harry’s tapes, that film produced as many questions as answers.
Not only is The Conversation a wonderful time capsule of 1970’s San Francisco, it too is a prescient reminder of the intrusiveness of contemporary society where government agencies as well as private corporations routinely spy on citizens through data collection and other means. In Tony Scott’s thriller Enemy of the State (1998), Hackman reprised ace wiretapper Harry under a different name. Edward Lyle is a rogue C.I.A. spook who’s the only thing standing between Robert Dean, Will Smith’s “patsy” character, and death.