Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and shot in 1974 between the production of the first two Godfather films, The Conversation was first released just a few months before the climax of the Watergate, the wiretapping scandal that brought down the Nixon administration. The surprisingly accurate parallel between the protagonist and the former president of the United States immediately guaranteed the picture a cult status. In addition to winning a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, The Conversation was nominated for three Oscars and four Golden Globes.
Accompanied by haunting piano compositions by David Shire, the movie presents a small-scale character study that masterly encapsulates and explores the phenomena of disaffection, alienation, conspiracy theories and paranoia. Being released in the era of the Cold War, the Kennedy assassination, the Caribbean crisis and the Vietnam War, it can be considered as Coppola’s most claustrophobic and harrowing film, conveying the repulsiveness of surveillance and the existential exploration of the limits of private and public responsibility. Throughout the movie the director is reflecting on the subjectivity of interpretation with the focus on the danger of perception, especially under the pressure of a corporation that inspires sharp, acute anxiety and distrust.
The plot revolves around Harry Caul, “the best bugger on the West Coast”, a morally haunted surveillance expert portrayed by brilliant Gene Hackman, who has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a young couple he is eavesdropping – Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest) – is going to be killed. Having recorded their conversation in Union Square by order of the unnamed director of a large corporation (Robert Duvall) and his smug assistant (young Harrison Ford), he continues to play the surveillance tapes back and forth, convinced that he hears intimations of murder.
Gene Hackman’s character is very similar to the silent killer of Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Samurai: brilliant, but emotionally cut off from the world, gloomy, reserved, always dressed in a raincoat. Both are professionals in their field, regardless that one is a spy, and the other is a murderer. However, even though Harry doesn’t kill anyone, people around him still suffer.
Being an intensely lonely and a secretive man, isolated from society and even from himself, Harry does not trust absolutely anyone, including the woman he loves (Teri Garr) and the assistant he has been working with for years (John Cazale). All his reliance, instead, is placed on the technology and self-protection. His San Francisco apartment is guarded by three locks and an alarm system, and he is enormously protective of his private life, not letting anyone to know his telephone number or address.
The story is full of mysterious twists and sequences, which keep the audience intrigued until the end of the movie. It is based on the principles of a taut detective thriller, and owes an acknowledged debt not only to Michelangelo Antonioni, but also to the famous works of Alfred Hitchcock, in particular, to the Rear Window (1954). The Conversation can rightfully be considered as the most famous movie about electronic eavesdropping, but it is also much more than this, capturing popular anxieties, the recurring sense of guilt and loss of faith, with the exceptional highlight on isolation, estrangement from others and desolation of an individual in the era of emerging modern technologies.
Cover image: A frame from the film The Conversation: Harry Caul at his office.