The fourth amendment to the United States constitution guarantees “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”. As I type these words on a specially encrypted channel, a growing number of countries are refusing former National Security Agency operative Edward Snowden’s asylum requests and the President of the United States has gone as far as forcing half of Europe to close their airspace to a Bolivian diplomatic plane, believing it to have an extra passenger on board. This week it emerged that the FISA court, a secret organisation set up in 1978 to monitor NSA federal phone taps, now exists mainly to provide legal justification for the amassing of millions of individuals’ personal data inside the US and out. Yesterday, UK foreign secretary William Hague insisted that “law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear”, sending chills down the spines of half the population in the midst of a British heatwave.
Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION premiered on 7th April 1974, four days before the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed forty-two tapes from the Oval Office, where Richard Nixon had been secretly recording conversations throughout his administration. It takes its place amongst the other great “paranoia thrillers” of seventies cinema, including THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976). Where Coppola’s film deviates from that framework is in its translation of the same themes from the realm of the explicitly political to the intensely personal.
As the film opens we’re following a young couple around in San Francisco’s Union Square on a busy weekday lunchtime. Bands and street noise drift in and out over their conversation. The camera moves as if it’s a closed-circuit surveillance camera and we feel like we’re spying on them, then we cut to man perched high on a rooftop wielding a directional microphone that looks like a rifle and we realise that they really are being spied on. Very quickly repetition becomes a theme of the film. A street mime follows various characters around the square, aping their movements. We will hear this conversation repeated many times over the course of the film, subtly different each time, stretched and compressed in different places like a piece of elastic. Later in the film a miniature model of this square appears at a convention. Just when we’re becoming intrigued by this couple and wondering why anyone would want to snoop on this meeting, the camera breaks away from them and follows a middle-aged man in a cheap plastic raincoat as he makes his way out of the square. This turns out to be our protagonist Harry Caul (note the double-meaning: as in telephone call but also babies born with cauls were said to have preternatural abilities), played by Gene Hackman in what for my money is a career-best performance. Caul is the surveillance expert hired by the director of an unnamed, faceless corporation to record the conversation between his wife and her companion. Here is a man who knows better than anyone what a total illusion your privacy is, but he claims not to be interested in the content of the recordings he makes, only the quality. His assistant Stan (John Cazale) shares the audience’s curiosity but is given short shrift by his employer:
Stan: It’s curiosity. Did you ever hear of that? It’s just god-damned human nature.
Harry: Listen, if there’s one sure-fire rule that I have learned in this business is that I don’t know anything about human nature. I don’t know anything about curiosity. That’s not part of what I do. This is my business.
Caul is an intensely secretive man. His apartment is secured with a barrage of different locks, he refuses to share anything of himself or his work with anyone around him, and he flies into a sudden rage when a rival bugger successfully plants a listening device on his clothing by way of a practical joke. We’re dropped occasional hints that there’s an event in his past for which he harbours a deep sense of guilt, and as he spends hours obsessively refining his recordings of the Union Square conversation he begins to fear that history might repeat itself if he hands in the finished work to his employer. The only time we see Caul share anything of himself is during a haunting dream sequence, where Caul finds himself calling out through a thick fog to the young woman of the conversation in an attempt to warn her. His sense of guilt and fear manifests itself in this rare offering of something personal about himself:
Listen, my name is Harry Caul. Can you hear me? Don’t be afraid. I know you don’t know who I am, but I know you. There isn’t much to say about myself. I – was very sick when I was a boy. I was paralyzed in my left arm and my left leg. I couldn’t walk for six months. One doctor said that I’d probably never walk again. My mother used to lower me into a hot bath – it was therapy. One time the doorbell rang and she went down to answer it. I started sliding down. I could feel the water starting to come up to my chin, up to my nose, and when I woke up, my body was all greasy from the holy oil she put on my body. I remember being disappointed I survived. When I was five, my father introduced me to a friend of his, and for no reason at all, I hit him right in the stomach with all my strength. He died a year later. He’ll kill you if he gets the chance. I’m not afraid of death but I am afraid of murder.
Note the way the camera continues to move passively like a security camera throughout the film even after the Union Square sequence. Sometimes Hackman steps out of the frame completely then the camera pans linearly to catch up with him. It’s as if we’re eavesdropping on Caul’s entire life, that voyeuristic thrill that is central to the cinema presented as an existential dilemma. There are sets and locations in THE CONVERSATION that I find very striking: the director’s offices are reminiscent of the retro-futurist architecture in Godard’s ALPHAVILLE (1965), and I always wonder why the empty warehouse space surrounding Caul’s caged-off workstation is lit like a jazz club. The look and theme of the film also owe a heavy debt to Antonioni’s BLOW-UP (1966), as Coppola acknowledges. But you can’t talk about THE CONVERSATION without mentioning the brilliant sound editing of Walter Murch. The way diegetic and non-diegetic sounds wash in and out with various levels of electronic manipulation over the repeated conversation sequence creates a hypnotic, other-worldly experience, and the twist has to go down as one of the most ingenious in cinema history. Coppola made four of the greatest films of the seventies (“…and then he made JACK with Robin Williams”, as that scamp Barry Norman would have it) and it’s obviously a difficult task to choose between them. THE CONVERSATION may only have been green-lit as a sweetener for Coppola to sign on the line for THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), but in my eyes it remains the most affecting and relevant of his work. It’s a film that hangs around long after each viewing like it’s watching you.