After the massive success of his The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola followed it up with a relatively smaller film called The Conversation, an edgy thriller about a man who is so obsessed with safeguarding his privacy but then later ends up imagining that his life may possibly be less secure than the least private person on this planet. The man in question is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert currently busy with a special assignment which involves listening to the conversation of a young couple taking a stroll in a plaza. Harry doesn’t care about why somebody would be interested in these two; he just wants a “nice fat recording”, as he tells his assistant Stan (John Cazale). We see that he is unfailingly dedicated to his job and won’t tolerate any distractions – a major chunk of which are contributed by Stan and also the restlessness of his own mind.
Being an extremely introverted man, Harry lives alone in a well-organized and spotlessly neat apartment which has a front door with three locks and a burglar alarm system. He nearly throws a paranoid fit when he learns that his landlady has somehow managed to get into his apartment and place a birthday present inside. Even though he has a telephone, he tells everyone that he doesn’t have one and makes business calls from a pay phone instead. He unwinds after a hard day’s work by playing his saxophone. He has no social life and the only human interactions he has are with his colleagues and a not-so-bright girlfriend he has secretly set up inside an apartment somewhere in the city. We are not sure if this relationship is anything serious as there is no real communication happening between them. It seems he hasn’t told her anything about him yet, judging from her questions.
When she asks too many, he leaves. And she tells him that she is not sure if she wants to see him anymore, and that’s how he ruins his birthday. Coppola immediately follows this scene with Harry inside a bus. A momentary blackout occurs and at this moment, a fleeting image of the young couple at the plaza comes to him. Then the power comes back on. This scene nicely reflects Harry’s current state of mind. Was he wondering whether their relationship is the same way as his? Or better? Or was this sudden vision invoked by the slight feeling of danger he experienced during the blackout? Should he start getting concerned about their conversation? Later, he makes an appointment to deliver the tapes to the man who had asked him to do this job for him. But instead, he is met by his assistant Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) who informs him that the man (referred to here as The Director ) is not in and will be accepting the package in his stead.
But Harry becomes uneasy. He returns his payment and then takes back the package. Martin warns him not to get involved and that some people may get hurt. As he tries to make his way out of the building, he notices the same couple from before, this time separately. He realizes that they actually work there. This confrontation begins to trouble Harry and just like before, Coppola puts him in a similarly claustrophobia-inducing place: an elevator. Bothered by the nagging doubts at the back of his mind, he finally decides to get to the bottom of this. The scene where Harry is seated in front of his recording machines trying relentlessly to make sense of the young couple’s conversation bears a striking resemblance to the filmmaking process itself. Just as the viewer is trying to put the pieces together, Harry is trying to figure out the mystery of the conversation. Harry displays instances of puzzling and contradictory behavior on more than one occasion.
First, he tells his colleague Stanley (John Cazale) that he is not interested in what they were talking about and yet he is compelled to get involved. The second is when he goes to church to confess some of his sins. It’s the confessional scene which reveals the reasons for his strange behavior. The list of his sins includes – taking newspapers without paying for them, taking pleasure in impure thoughts and an earlier job which resulted in the deaths of two people, for which he apologizes even though he knows he is not responsible. A convention after-party reveals more about his earlier case that made him such a guilt-ridden wreck. Coppola frames a certain moment in this scene like the confessional scene from before, only here the revelations are made by a pompous rival of Harry’s, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield).
We learn that Harry is “the best bugger on the West Coast” and that Moran is “the best bugger on the East Coast”. The latter is continuously bragging about his achievements and subjects Harry to an embarrassing situation which causes him to snap. Harry later sleeps with Moran’s assistant only to wake up and find out that she has stolen the tapes. I won’t reveal any more details about the plot but I’ll just say that the film reveals a nice, noir-esque twist before ending on an unsettlingly ambiguous note. The final shot perfectly illustrates the disintegration of Harry’s mind. One of the finest conspiracy thrillers made this side of Alan Pakula’s “Paranoia” trilogy, the film was made just two years after the Watergate Scandal, and did an excellent job of capturing the resulting zeitgeist. It’s at once a riveting and disquieting study of paranoia, loneliness, privacy and guilt.
One important question the film asks is, “Where do indifference end and responsibility begin?” The woman he sleeps with tells him, “It’s only a job. You’re not supposed to feel anything …You’re just supposed to do it. That’s all.” This is something that’s been bothering him for a long time. As Harry, Hackman embodies his character effortlessly and infuses it with enough edginess and idiosyncrasies that many of us might relate to. Initially, there doesn’t seem to be anything even remotely endearing about him but there is this particular scene in which he begs Stan to come back and start working for him once again. Stan had gone to work for Moran after getting fed up with Harry’s elusiveness and this doesn’t please Harry very much. He finally agrees to let Stan in on the details of the tapes but only once he has figured out what is really happening (or being done) to him. It’s quite a moving scene.
Coppola has managed to make each of his films distinct from each other and this one is no exception. At times, it feels like an Alan Pakula film by way of a Michelangelo Antonioni film. The film’s plot is slightly reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow Up. While The Conversation deals with sound, Blow Up deals with images. Even though it would be unfair to compare the two, I would still say that The Conversation is a much better film. The film holds some relevance in the post-Snowden, post-Wikileaks era. The seemingly dark and hidden forces depicted here are not governments, but private corporations. The film is aptly titled as it demands the utmost patience and requires the viewer to pay close attention to each and everything that is being said.